Beer III – Belgians (or the Champagnes of Beers)

Tony Sig

I: What Is Beer? II.1: British Pale Ales II.2: British Dark Ales III: Belgians
IV: Coming Soon

Per my glorious return to whimsy and mirth I decided it was time once again to take up the mantle of divulging the secrets of the worlds beers.  Reading through the comments of my previous posts have shown that for many these posts were all they needed to break the demonic oppression of beer traditionalism.  I can only thank God that he has priviledged me with this calling.  The calling to preach the good news of craft beers to the Glory of God almighty.

*          *          *

“Let us bless the Lord     –     Thanks be to God

May the Lord of life bless you and keep you and make his face to shine upon you.  He is the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, malted and hopped. The heads of barley are his and the heather of the hills are his also.  Having created man he saw that it was not good that he should lack mirth.  So in the fullness of time he brought forth brewing. amen

– We have heretofore examined the Christian basis for beer (post I), locating it in Scripture, Tradition and Reason; we described the components of beer and described the brewing process.  Having done that we examined in two posts(posts II.I and II.II), the wonderful tradition of beer in the British Isles, both light and dark.  Turning now to Belgian beers we might well be apprehensive.

This is because despite the wonderful diversity of “British” beers, this diversity “pales” in comparison to the plethora of Belgian beers and styles.

The brewers of Belgium have traditionally been quite untraditional.  They break all the rules that their good neighbors the German’s imposed on the brewing of beer (cf. “Reinheitsgebot“).  They added fruit, fermented with wild yeast, mixed old and young beers together blended “styles” and more.  This has made for many of the worlds best beers and certainly (until the recent growth of micro-brewing in the States) for the most creative beer culture in the world.

To attempt to describe Belgians in a linear fashion as I did for the Brit’s would be quite ridiculous. Rather, I will introduce particular styles and traditions, of which it should be assumed there are many local varieties and fusions.  Hard and fast rules are not the way of the Belgians.

Perhaps we should start with the most spiritual beers in the world: “Trappist Ales”  The Trappists are a particular order of monks in the Roman Catholic church and they took up brewing as a way to pay the bills and give money to the poor.  I can think of no more worthy reason to begin brewing beer.  Also, given their distaste for indulgence (though perhaps not indulgences) these monks do not eat vast amounts of food and so the nutrients and calories in beer provide much necessary energy for their various work.

The descriptor “Trappist” is copyrighted and to qualify for such a term three strict rules need to be fulfilled:

  • The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, by or under control of Trappist monks.
  • The brewery, the choices of brewing, and the commercial orientations must obviously depend on the monastic community.
  • The economic purpose of the brewery must be directed toward assistance and not toward financial profit.

You should be able to find several of the Abbey’s ales in the States, but the most common and paradigmatic are the three beers of the Chimay Abbey.

  • Chimay Rouge (Red), 7% abv. In the 75 cl bottle, it is known as Première. It is a dark brown colour and has a sweet, fruity aroma. The malt in this beer has a nutty character that goes well with the hints of pepper from the house yeast.
  • Chimay Bleue (Blue), 9% abv darker ale. In the 75 cl bottle, it is known as Grande Réserve. This copper-brown beer has a creamy head and a slightly bitter taste. Considered to be the “classic” Chimay ale, it exhibits a considerable depth of fruity, peppery character. The taste continues to evolve and develop with a few years of age, and is extremely popular with the Belgian population.
  • Chimay Blanche (White), or Chimay Triple, 8% abv golden tripel. In the 75 cl bottle, it is known as Cinq Cents. This crisp beer bears a light orange colour, and is the most hopped and dryest of the three.

*I pretty much ‘borrowed’ these descriptions word-for-word from the Chimay Brewery Wikipedia entry.  Credit must go to them for describing the beers pretty much exactly as I would have.*

All three are of exceptional quality and are all worthy of tasting.  Some of the other breweries include Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel and Westvleteren.  These beers pair especially well with roasted duck and anything ever written by a monk

–  Saison – A pale yellow to orange beer, alternatively called a “Farmhouse Ale” – It can resemble a “pale ale” but is usually lighter in the malt, dryer (yet not as dry as an IPA), slightly sour and supremely refreshing.  A grand alternative to any American lager for hot summer days yet need not be confined to hot temperatures (we may attempt a post on beer food pairings if I can manage the hutzpa)

–  Dubbel’s, Tripel’s and Quadrupel’s – Trappist’s originally named beers according to their respective strengths in alcohol content.  Single’s being the weakest and Quadrupel’s the strongest.   It can be difficult to strictly describe them, and “Singles” are incredibly rare to find.  But both Dubbel’s (see Chimay’s Rogue) and Quadrupel’s (see Chimay’s Bleue) tend to have dark malty complexions, only a Quadrupel can be expected to have both more malt and hops making it thicker, sweeter, fruitier and bolder (therefore needing bigger foods to accompany it.  To drink it by itself try it closer to ‘celler temperature’ and in a brandy snifter).  Tripel’s (see Chimay’s White) have become known as dry, crisp and yeasty.  Quite similar to an IPA, though there are significant differences for those who pay attention.

–  The Undiscovered, Local and UnExported – There are a slew of all of these types.  I could go one by one through some of the brews I know personally but we can be satisfied to say that many popular and traditional styles are done in Belgium with local varieties and creative manipulations.

With my last two styles mentioned we get into what are, in my opinion, the very best and most original of Belgian styles.  It’s not that those mentioned already are not great and original, but in these we begin to reach levels of such elegance and ingenuity that if I was to send you to two Belgian styles these would be it.

–  Lambics –  There is no such thing as A lambic, there are in fact many lambics.  But there are definite similarities which unite the various manifestations.

  • Wild Fermentation – These beers, like “San Fransisco Sourdough”, utilize wild yeast to ferment the beer.  Whereas it is the normal practice in brewing to use carefully kept and purified yeast strains for fermentation, for these, late fall months are used to expose the cooled wort to the natural ocurring yeast and bacteria which give Lambics their characteristic flavor
  • Mixed age – Many Lambics will age a beer for up to three years(!) and just before serving mix the mature ale with a freshly brewed, or ‘young’ ale, to create a mixture of character and zest.
  • Fruitiness – ‘Fruity’ flavors can be a result of the natural brewing process on the wort or there is a particular branch of Lambics which add fresh pureed fruit.  These Fruit Lambics are among my favorites.  Any fruit can be added – cherries, rasberries and peaches are among my favorite.

*Try to find wood-cask aged Lambics (or anything for that matter)

–  Flanders Red and Brown Ales – These are, in my humble opinion, among the greatest beers in the world.  They vary in roast as far as malt color and they can vary in many details (though only to certain degrees).  The color can go from a flaming crimson red to a clayish brown.  They will taste sweet, fruity (though no fruit is normally added), rich but not smooth, sour and spectacular.  Some will quite literally taste like a Port Wine.  The ‘standard’ is Rodenbach, but this is no longer so as they not importing to the USA.  But any good liquor store will have some others.

Some things the Belgians do especially well.

  • Yeast – the Belgians utilize yeast, both wild and cultured, better than any other ‘region.’   As the majority of the beers come in 750ml bottles one will usually want to leave the last 1/2 inch of beer in the bottle so as not to pour used yeast into your glass.
  • Sour – Whether it’s the subtle sour of a crisp Saison or the overwhelming flavor of an Old’ Bruin, the purposeful and brilliant use of sour in Belgian beers is something taste for.

A couple US Honorable Mentions

As it has become the habit of American micro-breweries to create fresh and creative takes on classical beers I wanted to mention two breweries that I have found make stellar beers in the “Belgian” style.

  • New Glarus brewery in Wisconsin (a hotbed of craft breweries) created a Cherry Lambic beer that won the coveted “Best Beer in the World” award at an international beer championship.  So candy sweet, when tasted it is a wonder there is no sugar added.
  • Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales is a brewery in Michigan who not only creates a large variety of Belgian style beers, but they age them in their own oak casks.  Anything they touch is gold.
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2 Comments

  1. I saw your comment over on Dust & Light. I am an American but living in the Brussels area of Belgium right now. The beer is absolutely wonderful. The Chimay Blauw (Dutch word for blue, as I live in the Dutch speaking area) is wonderful. My favourite beer that I drink regularly is Leffe Bruin (brown). The interesting thing is that most beers start at 6% alcohol and some go up to about 12-13%!

    Anyways, I am blessed to be in ‘the land of beer’, as I truly love beer. If you are interested, here is a website that lists the full index of Belgian beers. There are 1,498 total beers! And the interesting things is that each brewery has their own specific glass. So there are lots of glasses to collect over here as well. And you cannot pour the wrong beer in the wrong glass, well, at least in restaurants.

    Reply

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