It all started with a two and half year old bottle of Matilda. Goose Island’s stab at a Belgium pale ale. As stated on the label: “Flavor will continue to develop for five years”. Bottled on January 10, 2008, this Matilda is coming into the home stretch.
It is my own bias, having sampled many actual Belgian beers, but it seems many small American breweries think Belgium beer means simply the distinctive yeast which imparts the fruity-floral, somewhat musty aroma, that is generally associated with the taste. To be frank, some of the American takes on Belgium style ales are nearly wretched… especially if you take the trouble to discover the originals, which are often being so poorly imitated.
One of my earliest contacts with Belgium brew was Brouwerji Affligem. Brewers of the famous Affligem Noel. So long ago in fact, I remember when they released a second Christmas ale known as PATER’S VAT, a rare dry hopped production in those days (but more on than a little later).
With the very kind assistance of then- importer Jeff Dafoe, I was introduced to some of the finest Belgian beers I have ever tasted. Brasserie d’Achouffe, producers of La Chouffe and Mc Chouffe, along with seasonal offerings: Bok Chouffe and N’ICE Chouffe. They have recently added an India Pale Ale style to their portfolio known as Houblon Chouffe.
Brasserie La Binchoise produces two of the most remarkable ales I have ever tasted. Biere des Ours or beer of the bear, is, in the Beer Doctor’s opinion, the best honey brewed beer in the world. There is nothing I know of, in commercial production, that comes anywhere near its flavorful depth.
Then, to move on to even a greater moment in my personal beer tasting history, I arrive at La Binchoise Speciale Noel, one of the greatest holiday events I have ever experienced. A Belgian redefinition of what wassail is suppose to mean.
The champagne of beer is not Miller High Life, despite having copious foam. No, the real champagne of beer is DUVEL, the golden coloured strong ale from the Moortgat Family Brewery. As a consultant, I have suggested to New Year’s Eve party planners to serve Duvel as the ceremonial midnight libation. I’ve been told that no one suffered a headache the following morning.
Despite its international fame, and the fact that Duvel is available in 60 countries, Moortgat has not rested on its laurels. Instead, the last few years has seen the introduction of Duvel Tripel Hop, a dry hopped version that not only uses the prerequisite Saaz and Styrian Golding hops, but also the distinctive American Amarillo.
There are so many chapters in the Belgium beer story. Trappist Ales, that is beers brewed by actual monks, as opposed to abbey style, are few and far between. One famous, or should I say infamous, is St. Sixtus, a Trappist ale made even rarer when mass media dubbed it ” the best beer in the world”. Despite the notoriety and demand, the monks refused to increase production or price. Said Father Abbot of the monastery: “We have to live ‘from’ and ‘with’ our brewery. But we do not live ‘for’ our brewery. We are no brewers. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
In Belgian culture, beer is food and an essential part of cuisine. So it is not surprising that the Van Steenberge brewery suggests you use their Gulden Draak as substitute for whiskey in Irish coffee. It is also recommended that this barley wine style blends well into stews.
Experimental recipes? With all due respect to Dogfish Head and associates, the Belgians have been on the cutting edge when cutting edge was not considered cool. Take Pink Killer from Brasserie de Silly, a whit style concoction that uses grapefruit juice. Or take the many exotic lambic styles that American brewers imitate but can never duplicate, not even close.
Which reminds me, this bottle of Matilda is Belgian like, but there is a sourness in the finish that seems strange. There are many American takes (or should I say attempts) to bring to this country the tastes of a sophisticated beer-based culture. North Coast Brewing in California, is an old hand at this, producing their Pranqster and later, Brother Thelonious, a deliciously drinkable tribute to the great American composer-performer, Thelonious Monk. Ommegang, in Cooperstown, New York, which is owned by a Belgium brewery consortium, produce a solid line of Belgian styles in their portfolio. The same can be said of the Allagash Brewery located in Portland, Maine.( Also of note at Allagash is their Hugh Malone Ale, a tribute to an Irish immigrant at the turn of the 20th century, who is now remembered as a pioneer of hop flavoring.)
Add to all of this, is Flying Dog Brewery’s Raging Bitch, a Belgian style India Pale Ale, and it is obvious that Belgian yeast is all over the place, not only in the U.S.A., but in Canada too.
But for now I am going to start paying attention to the originals again. There so many aspects I left out, like the sour red ale style of Rodenbach? For a small country, Belgium has a very large, beer universe.
Peace and all the best,
The Beer Doctor