Monday, October 25, 2010

After the race: Belgian beer

After the race, a good brew
Like most Belgians I grew up with beer. When I was a kid our family, like so many other Belgian families, drank "table beer" with meals. Table beer for us was a low alcohol version of the local pilsner and it was the drink we had with lunch and dinner (see Belgian cuisine). There were no sodas in our house, although I am sure that as kids my sister and I would have preferred the sugary taste.
Simply the best...

The village I grew up in had two local breweries, and on foggy days the smell of yeast hung in the air. You could ride your bike by the breweries, and apart from the distinctive smell I can remember looking at a dripping pipe that stuck out of the side of the building and hung over where the side-walk ought to have been. It seemed to be oozing beer (or was it pre-beer?) constantly.

The local breweries went out of business before I reached puberty but as a teen I remember that local pilsner on tap was the brew of choice in nearly all cafes. Stella wasn't a big name yet and near Bruges, Maes was a worthy competitor. At my grandparents house they drank Vieux Temps, which I will always remember as vile liquid with a strange aftertaste. But my grandfather seemed to like it. Especially when fortified with genever, the local gin.

At the time, you drank een pintje (a beer) when you were thirsty or when you went out partying. Some older folks preferred a Geuze, and they often poured in grenadine syrup to make it sweet. If you were a bit better off you had a Tuborg or a Carlsberg, or in some places a Becks. None of these are Belgian by the way. If you really wanted to be fancy you drank Trappist or a Pale Ale -which ironically enough was almost always a dark British beer -I later found out these brews were specially fortified versions of British ales made for the Belgian market. Some places had Stout or Guinness.  But in general, dark beers were for winter, and in summer you had a fancy fruity Kriek instead.

Oude Gueuze

A lot has changed since then and for one thing, Belgian beers have become a lot more famous. Belgian beer has always been famous in places like France, where it was hard to find a good beer, or the Netherlands, where Heineken or Grolsch were the local stuff, and Stella was fancy.

Here are a few things you should know about Belgian beer. First, Belgian beers are stronger than beers in any other country. I already mentioned that the British breweries make special fortified versions of their regular brews for the Belgian market. Even regular beers in Belgium are quite a bit stronger than American beers. Second, most authentic Belgian beers are ales or top fermented beers, and all the good ones use secondary fermentation in the bottle. That means they don't travel well and they should not be exposed to excessive temperatures. Third, true Belgian beers are an acquired tasted, even for Belgians. Fourth, Belgium is a country where, unlike Germany, people use anything and everything to make beer. Belgians are also very creative when it comes to beer. As a consequence, Belgium is the land of very good and very bad (very sugary) beer.

Unlike most beer connoisseurs I prefer blond beers and my all time favorite Belgian beer is Duvel. I have gone through more favorite-beer periods than I care to remember, but I find that I always come back to Duvel. It is quite simply, the best beer in the world as far as I am concerned.

The other Belgian beer I really like, and one that is ideal for summer is Hoegaarden, locally -where I come from- known as een Witteke or een Blancheke. 

When it comes to fancy stuff, I could mention Trappist from Westvleteren, but that would only be to make you jealous as the beer is next to impossible to get -unless you want to spend a summer in Belgium and are very resourceful on top of it. Westvleteren is very good, but a large part of its charm is that it is so difficult to get a hold of. I am not a real fan of Trappist but Orval is probably the best one you can actually buy.

For a real taste of Belgium though, try a Geuze Lambic. Lambic is a brew fermented with wild yeast and it is only made in the valley Southwest of Brussels, where atmospheric conditions are right. Geuze is a mixture of lambics, some old and some young that undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Although you can buy Geuze everywhere, finding an authentic brew is hard to do, and the best Geuze does not travel well at all. Cantillon Geuze and Cantillon Kriek are excellent. Also great is Lindemans, Cuvee Renee -not the other stuff, only Cuvee Renee, and 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze and Kriek.

It looks like Dom Perignon and costs almost as much too!

Geuze is an acquired taste but one that is well worth acquiring. It is a fabulous drink, on par with a great wine. Another exceptional beer is Deus, Brut des Flandres. It is also one of the most expensive beers you can buy. Deus has a label reminiscent of Dom Perignon and some say it tastes like that famous champagne too.

If you want to try some excellent refreshing local brews, try Rodenbach from Roeselare, or Hommelbier from Poperinge. Rodenbach is crisp and sour and it is often put in a category all by itself as a "red" beer. It was one of my grandmother's favorites (along with Guiness and Stout).  Hommel comes from the hop capital of Belgium and it is best when lightly chilled.

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