Remember learning about German beers? About the strict laws of the Reinheitsgebot and the general refusal to deviate from classic styles? Belgian beer is pretty much the exact opposite. Think of it as Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – imagination is paramount and nothing’s off the table.
Because of the creativity of Belgian brewers, it’s hard to pin down distinct elements about the beer. But for the most part, here’s a quick and dirty fact list:
Belgians at a Glance
- The particular yeasts used are very important and impart distinct Belgian flavors – often spicy and fruity.
- In addition to the classic ingredients (malt, hops, water, and yeast) plenty more is thrown into the mash. Fruit, herbs, spices, other grains, and “the unknown” are all fair game.
- In general, Belgian beers aren’t that bitter. Hops are used to support flavor profiles, not to create them.
- Sourness is showcased in many styles, unlike beer from most other countries.
- They’re really made to be enjoyed as and with good food.
A classic example of the carefree imagination of Belgians is the Lambic. To make true lambics, brewers leave the lid of the mash pot open (normally it’s sealed tight to protect the beer) and literally give any bacteria floating in the air an open invitation to jump in. The result is funky, sour, and a little different every time. The complete opposite of German lagers, and a very refreshing spin on things.
This week, I had a few fantastic Belgians that really showcased the style. Check them out after the jump.
The first was Noel de Calabaza from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales. Despite hailing from Dexter, Michigan, Jolly Pumpkin is a legit Belgian brewery and this beer proved it. From the very first sip, it was clear that it was unlike any beer I’ve had before. For one, it was sour. The flavors behind the initial tartness were spicy, fruity, and strong – I felt like I was drinking of sparkling red wine instead of a beer. Technically, the Noel de Calabaza (Pumpkin Christmas) is a “Belgian Strong Dark Ale”, but I’ve had a beer of the same style before (Defiant’s Christmas Ale) and the two couldn’t be more different. While this one was tart and bright, the Christmas ale was syrupy and rich. It really shows you how hard it is to pin these things down.
Next came another Belgian Strong Dark Ale, this time the Cuvée De Noël from the true Belgian brewery, St. Feuillien. Once again, it had a profile all its own. This one was creamy smooth with flavors of warm caramel. It was medium bodied, really drinkable, and delicious. The tartness from before was for the most part gone, replaced by the taste of soft baked apples. Terrific fireside beer.
The last Belgian of the week was a classic: Duvel. Duvel is a Belgian Strong Light Ale. It had some of the characteristics of the others – tart, bold, spicy – with a shimmery mouthfeel closer to the Jolly Pumpkin. One thing was for sure, the Duvel was made to be enjoyed with food. By chance, I had it with the Indian take-out Laura and I got to replace my toxic partridges, and it was an absolute perfect match. The beer was refreshing and bright, with a presence big enough to compete with the intensely flavorful food. The tart-sweetness of the beer also helped to put out the fire of the curry – other, more bitter beers would have intensified it. When I get Indian food again, you can bet I’m going to be drinking a Duvel with it.