Beer Basics | The Belgian

Remember last week when I said I was going to become some sort of beer sommelier? Well, that fell apart, so I’m going to jabber on about Belgian beer instead. I was inspired by my homemade ale (reviewed here), which was brewed in the Belgian style but didn’t really taste like it. This made me weep. Yes, weep. Like a hungry, angry baby, because Belgian beers are some of the best beers on earth.

My affection for Belgium springs, in part, from their cultural stubbornness. For decades they resisted the light-lager tsunami that was ransacking Europe and America; instead they favored hearty ales. This may be why their brewing industry has been struggling for the last 20 years — of course, it doesn’t help that brewing conglomerates such as AB Inbev are stamping above them like fitful colossi trying to smash an ant(werp)hill.

For centuries, Belgians have approached beer with the same reverence the French reserve for wine: street-side beer cafés are common, even today; servers pay close attention to food pairings, serving temperature, etc.; nearly every Belgian beer has branded glassware to call its own. The real focus, however, is on the beer itself: No other country produces such distinct styles, each with flavors and aromas unique to its region. And no other country (except the Netherlands) makes Trappist beer.

The word Trappist, strictly defined, refers to an order of contemplative Catholic monks. If you ask a beer nerd to define it, however, you’ll probably hear something less religious, something filled with oddly spelled numeric sequences — Dubbels, Tripels, Quadrupels — or simply something about how Trappist ales are among the most flavorful and complex in all the world.

Belgium is home to six of the world’s seven Trappist breweries: Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Achel. (The seventh, De Koningshoeven, resides in the Netherlands and produces the tasty La Trappe ales.) I’m proud to say I’ve sampled beers from every Trappist brewery, and each was outstanding in its own way. Personal favorites include Orval Trappist Ale, Chimay Blue, and Westvleteren 12. You can find the first two in any halfway decent beer store; the fourth, however, was a challenge. The Westvleteren monks don’t ship. No, I didn’t forget the preposition and its object. They simply do not ship. To anywhere.

Westvleteren (pronounced West-vlay-ter-in and nicknamed Westy in beer circles, for obvious reasons) is a brewery located inside the St. Sixtus’ Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium. Its monks began brewing in 1838, and their knowledge — which I presume was passed down, unless drinking such awesome beer every day transformed them into immortal supermonks — anyway their knowledge shows in the the 6, the 8, and the 12 (Trappist-style beers are often named on a numeric scale, which roughly corresponds to the beer’s strength). Westy’s big three consistently rank among the best beers in the world. For instance, when I discovered the website Beer Advocate several years ago, the 12 was ranked number one in the world. Check out where it ranks now.

But, as I said before, these world-class beers are available only in the abbey (and in a nearby café owned by the abbey). You might think that such a narrow sales net makes little sense, but Father Abbot has addressed his monastery’s business practices:

“We are no brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”

Point taken. Fortunately for me, my pal Ryan shelled out a ridiculous amount of money a few years back to have a Westy six-pack shipped stateside, and he shared it with me. It’s true what they say. Those beers were too spectacular for words. The 12 in particular hits the palate like liquid velvet and features flavors of caramel, honey, and rich, brown bread. Snatch some up if you get the chance. I know I will when I get another.

Although Trappist brewing plays a significant role in the Belgium’s beer image, the country has numerous non-monastic breweries that make great beers. A personal favorite is St. Bernardus, whose beers were once considered a Trappist product thanks to a deal with the monks at Westvleteren. When that deal expired, however, the brewers at St. Bernardus continued producing stellar Trappist-style ales — without the Trappist label, of course.

The list goes on. Cantillon Brewery uses wild yeast strains that live in the Senne Valley to create lambics, which can encompass numerous substyles, from sour gueuzes to tart krieks. In a small village to the south, Brasserie d’Achouffe has perfected a wicked Belgian IPA. The country also produces some solid big name session beers like Stella Artois and Hoegaarden. And so on.

If you’re still skeptical about Belgium’s beer legacy, take a look at the list of American breweries that pay homage to the nation by crafting variations on its styles. Allagash, Ommegang, Lost Abbey, Goose Island, and, of course, New Belgium – these breweries (and many others) offer Belgian-style beers at reasonable prices. Reasonable compared to real Belgians, anyway — out of all the beer-producing nations in the world, I picked one of the priciest as my personal favorite. Go me!

4 Responses to “Beer Basics | The Belgian”
  1. Kris says:

    very imformative – good luck on the Belgium trip planning. Oh, and where’s Godzilla?

  2. Deb says:

    I want to go to Belgium!!!

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