Monday, March 17, 2008

Rhapsody on Belgian Beer

I admit from the outset, I am no lover of beer. And I finally realize why. By the time one has consumed enough to get even the most mild of buzzes, the inevitable bloat sinks in. I honestly can't get past two beers comfortably, even of those I like a lot, such as Sierra Nevada.

So I decided to do some in depth research on this question, and went to Belgium. This is a country that seriously knows beer. In Bruges, there is a Gruuthuse, a gorgeous gothic palace built with the proceeds from taxes on gruit - the predecessor to hops in medieval beer. Unfortunately, I am told there is no beer produced today with it, partly because no one knows exactly what it was. Probably mugwort and some other herbs. I dare an intrepid brewer to give it a shot.

The place to taste beer in Bruges is Cambrinus, named for the pagan beer god/king. Here you are handed a wooden board with pages and pages of beers nicely organized and color coded. Some several hundreds, all made in Belgium. I passed by the krieks and lambics, though they can be charming, it was very cold and wet and windy, so I decided to focus on Trappist ales. All legally must still be made in an abbey by monks. It took me a pint of the house Gambrivinus just to read the book. It was wickedly hoppy, a nice light fizz and long aftertaste.

But what I finally settled on was Westvlieteren Trappist triple, coming in at 12%. In an unlabeled bottle. Belgians do distinguish between Bieren van 't vat, and Op fles (i.e. bottled) but apparently without prejudice to the latter. Now, arguably, we would categorize this as a barley wine. It came in an 8 ounce stemmed glass; in fact every beer here has its own glass shape. It was dark, spicy, densely carameled. Nothing like the porter it resembles, but quaffable, with a richness and full mouthfeel. It's oaked too, and aged. And one seriously hit me. That's when it dawned on me. Why is our beer so weak? At this strength a beer or two is perfectly satisfying. And went perfectly with some smoked salmon on toast they brought gratis.

I tried more in the next few days. Westmalle, another Trappist was beautiful, honey colored and also spicy. I wish I had tried Duvel there, but it can be bought here. There might be a difference. Even the regular daily brews like Jupiler and now everywhere available Stella Artois are nothing to shirk from. I don't think I tasted a single beer there even mildly uninteresting.

What really drove home this difference were the few brews I had in England the few days following. Even some of my favorite Green King ales, and once favorite Old Peculiar on tap, were dull flat and filling. The strongest among them was 4.8% I think. So yes, it encourages guzzling.

Here's to quaffable Belgian Beer, and a call to our brewers to try triple brewing, cask aging, and making beer stronger, so you don't need to (or want to) drink so much of it.


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Chimay: The real champagne of beers...

Ken Albala said...

Chimay is great, and they have it at Bevmo. In fact that's what I meant to write when I said Duvel. Chimay is the Trappist Ale. But these were better I think. Though it may have just been the gothic fru fru of Bruges and all.

Luis Simón Albalá Álvarez said...

Mr. Albala, ¿Are you fron spain?

Said: Luis Simón Albalá Álvarez (Oviedo, Spain).

Ken Albala said...

Luis, My family sure is from Spain, but it's been a little more than 500 years. We were kicked out in 1492, and headed for northern Greece. From there to NY, and me to California.


Ken Albala said...

I have to post another follow up. I went into Bevmo, and what do you know?? Many Belgian beers right there on the shelf. I knew Chimay was there, so I bought that. And a familiar looking Rochefort 8 which I think I tasted in Belgium, and Westmalle. They were all about $5.50 or a little more, for 11.2 ounces. Ok, not something for a barbecue.

The Chimay was good, but not out of the rain and cold of Brugge. Too heavy actually. And I think the same of the Rochefort. Sweet. Great for dessert, which is actually how I had it. But the Westmalle. OH, gorgeous honey, and hoppy, and drinkable, even in California weather. This is fantastic beer. Go taste this stuff now. A big wine glass full is worthe 5 and a half bucks. Come to think of it, it was 3 Euro in Belgium. No difference. But no windmills and cute Belgian chicks to ogle at.