Monday, 17 March 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.

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