Photo by Christer Edvartsen

Beer School: Happy Brew Year

By now, you’ve already popped corks in celebration of the New Year, but that doesn’t mean you should wait another 11 months before you do it again. This month, we’re going on a field trip to a part of the world where beers are corked: Belgium.

Now, a lot of people like to say that they don’t like Belgian beers—trying one dusty sample that was marked down at the supermarket is hardly giving these beers a fair shake. There are more than 1,000 Belgian beers and more than 100 Belgian breweries. That’s Belgian proper, by the way, not Belgian-inspired, and that’s an important distinction.

Belgian-style beers are great, but true Belgian beers come from recipes that have been handed down for centuries. The Dupont Brewery, famous for Saison Dupont, is located on a farm that has been brewing beer since at least 1759. Rochefort Brewery has been in the game officially since 1595.

If you’re willing to discount that kind of history because you had one glass of Belgian Witt that didn’t agree with you, we’re going to have to revoke your scholarship.

The most famous Belgian beers are the Trappist ales, which are brewed by actual monks, in actual monasteries. All these guys do is brew beer, make cheese, and pray. That’s the way it’s been for ages. Buddhist monks master kung fu. Trappist monks master killer brew. This is why beer school won’t be offering a class on the beers of Eastern Asia. Oh, we can skip that elective, my friends.

When your knowledge-base is derived from hundreds of years of experience, you develop certain techniques that escape even the best brewers. Trappist monks are known to vary their brewing techniques to account for environmental variances. Tricks like adjusting the time and temperature of the mash to manipulate the levels of available sugars, or blending older versions of a particular beer with a newer version to maintain continuity, are things these guys have been doing for ages. And let us not forget about yeast, which is a key contributor to the distinctive flavor profiles one associates with Belgian beers. Every Belgian brewery has its own stock of home-grown yeasts. The knowledge some of these brewers have when it comes to yeast and fermentation would embarrass a credentialed microbiologist, because brewing is every bit as much an art as it is a science. You can probably earn a doctorate in kung fu, but you wouldn’t want to tangle with a Shaolin Monk, right?

Westmalle is a Trappist Brewery that started in 1836, and the Westmalle Tripel is readily available, offering a great opportunity to experience the surprising drinkability of a beer that delivers an ABV of 9 percent. It’s complex and aromatic, with a dry finish, which is a trait most Beglian beers share, along with increased carbonation when they’re conditioned in the bottle. They can tolerate aging in a cool dark place for a few years.

Rochefort categorizes its beers with numbers. Six is a reddish-brown ale that registers a modest, but still age-able, 7.5 percent ABV. This beer is bready and malt-forward, imparting subtle hints of raisins—an excellent choice for those who like their beers a little sweeter, but still worth a devout hophead’s time and money. This would qualify as a “dubbel.” If you’ve already strayed down the path of trying to make sense of those descriptions, stop. We’ll circle back to that in a bit.

Chimay is another Trappist brewery that can be found in most respectable beer shops, and they have one of the more interesting beers on the market. That would be Chimay Blue, or the “Grande Reserve.” It was originally a Christmas beer and might very well be the inspiration for most of the craft Christmas offerings. It’s big and dark, but it has a dry finish. Unlike so many Christmas beers you’ve come to know, this one isn’t spiced. Most Belgian beers aren’t, by the way, but they impart spice notes thanks to the yeast.  This beer has a hint of burnt sugar that comes from the roasted malts.

Now, most of your Trappist beers come in three varieties. There’s usually a lighter blonde ale, or a saison of some sort, then you have “dubbels” and “tripels.” These names don’t mean something is doubled or tripled, it’s just a naming convention that was concocted by Westmalle, and it has since been appropriated by other brewers. You can’t get caught up in these names because they aren’t really style guidelines.

One Belgian brewer’s brown ale, or dubbel, will be much different from another’s. It’s also important to note that Trappist breweries tend to keep it simple and only offer three or four styles of beer. They’re not going to experiment with hop varieties or infuse their tripels with chipotles any time soon. When you step outside of the Trappist discipline, however, you might find some experimentation.

Hoegaarden is a town in Belgium that was home to the eponymous brewery, which was founded in 1445. Playing on the spice notes imparted by the yeast in traditional Belgian ales, Hoegaarden took to adding coriander and orange zest to a light wheat ale. The resultant effort became enormously popular, and it was precisely what Coors was trying to clone when they launched the Blue Moon brand. Of course, it must be noted that Hoegaarden was purchased by Inbev in the 1980s, and there have been some questions as to whether or not Inbev tweaked the recipe to make it more appealing to the mass market. 

Sadly, these types of acquisitions are common in Belgium.

Huyghe Brewery in Flanders has absorbed several smaller brewing operations. They are known, however, for brewing a beer called Delirium Tremens. As in the booze shakes. You’ve seen this beer in the store with the pink elephant on the label, and despite the fact that its history only goes back to 1989, the beer is worthwhile because it uses three different yeasts and draws inspiration from several different styles. It’s got a bit of sweetness, a bit of sour, and a little spice.

Of course this lesson is not complete without mentioning the Rodenbach Brewery, where Flemish red ales are aged in barrels to produce wine-like beers that are full-flavored and relatively low in alcohol (6 percent). Rodenbach’s tour de force is the Grand Cru, which blends old and new ales to balance the flavor.

Flemish, or Flanders ales, are sour beers and these are a more acquired taste. The sour flavors come mostly from lactic acid left behind by wild yeast strains. Rodenbach’s beers, as is the case with most of this area’s red ales, are a bit less sour than some of their counterparts, which we’ll get into next month as the Lambics make for an intriguing February foray.