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High on Low Country beer

Michael Jackson's expert guide to Belgian brews

What is the cream of Britain's youth drinking? As Patron of the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society, I can tell you what we had at our annual dinner the other night. As you might expect, there were a couple of excellent local pints, from the Wychwood and Morrells breweries, but what about the Belgian beers?

There was Orval to start; Duvel in the chicory soup- the Grand Cru of Hoegaarden with monkfish and the regular version in the sauce; Chimay with the cheese, and Roc fort with the chocolates. Around this time, someone's cigar set the tablecloth on fire and I fell in love with the girl wearing the sparkly top.


The cage covering the upper regions was gently unhooked, and the cork released with a sigh rather than a pop. I inhaled the toasty aroma of champagne and tasted the musty flavours of fino sherry. It was neither. It was like no drink I had ever experienced. It seemed nothing like beer, but it was.


It was ever thus. I remember the first time I fell in love like this. I was seduced in a somewhat lavatorial tiled bar in the port of Antwerp. The bottle was half-reclining in basketwork, so as not to disturb the yeasty life forces around the punt. The cage covering the upper regions was gently unhooked, and the cork released with a sigh rather than a pop. I inhaled the toasty aroma of champagne and tasted the musty flavours of fino sherry. It was neither. It was like no drink I had ever experienced. It seemed nothing like beer, but it was.

"What are you giving me?" I enquired hopefully of the barmaid, who looked fresh from the Rubens museum up the road. "It is a Lambic," she told me. I later learned this w a type of beer made in farmhouse breweries around the town of Lembeek, near Brussels. It is the use of wild yeasts that makes these beers so winey.

What I was drinking was actually a Gueuze, which is young and old Lambics blended to cause a secondary fermentation in the bottle The Belgians love beers that reach maturity in the bottle, producing a dense foam - "Brussels lace" - down the sides of the glass, and flavours like rosewater from the secondary fermentation.

The beer made me hungry. I stumbled off to a restaurant that served steamed mussels, followed by steak and chips, then tried to find the bar again for a digestif. Perhaps the barmaid would be off duty and ready for a little Toots Thielemans. I had lost an afternoon in that bar, and never found it again, although I have never stopped looking.

Soon afterwards, more than 20 years ago, I started writing love-letters to Belgian beer They were published but was anyone listening? I knew how they felt in Britain about Italian food when all that could be found or comprehended here seemed to be tinned spaghetti

If people had heard at all about Belgian beer, they knew only Stella Artois, a half-decent lager suitable for Men Behaving Badly. Lager is made from the tamest of yeasts, and that is not the Belgian speciality. Belgium has its own traditions, like each country in Europe's beer-belt.

With a handful of exceptions, the world's best lagers are made in the Czech Republic and Germany. English bitter and the local brews of Wales and Scotland represent the ale tradition. Ireland, famously, has its dry stouts.


What lies between these four countries, at the buckle of the beer-belt? Belgium does, with the most diverse selection of brews.


What lies between these four countries, at the buckle of the beer-belt? Belgium does, with the most diverse selection of brews. When I first tried to describe Belgian beers, I realised that many of its local styles simply did not exist anywhere else (though several are now very well imitated in the United States and Japan). Others defy classification.

All of the great beer regions, with cool weather, harvests of grains and hops, border on warmer, grapier, territories, but cross-fertilisation seems the most obvious in Belgium, its southerly provinces almost blending into France. Some Belgian styles of

beer are very winey in character, and most are served in Burgundy samplers, flutes, snifters or goblets. This seems to capture the imagination of British consumers accustomed only to pints in the pub. People still stop me in the street and marvel about a television programme I made nearly 10 years ago showing Belgian beers being served, each in its own glass. By then, Belgian beers were beginning to penetrate the British consciousness.

The world's most complex-tasting beers co-exist in Belgium with a tradition of importing the finest of wines from France and Iberia. An Orval or Duvel may well be offered as an aperitif to a meal that will be accompanied by a first-growth claret. There is an indivisibility about good drink and food in Belgium, from grape to grain, from hotpot to haute cuisine.


I think Belgian Huguenots introduced chips to London, and Venetian refugees from the Risorgimento brought deep-fried fish to Glasgow, the two delights spreading until they met in Yorkshire.


The Belgians do it, rather than talking about it. One of the few occasions I heard a Belgian become voluble on the subject of food was over chips. A Corsican restaurateur in Washington DC had argued publicly that the French invented fries; I had put the case for Belgium. I received a letter from the chef to the Belgian Ambassador in Washington citing chapter and verse on the first frites. I believe him. I think Belgian Huguenots introduced chips to London, and Venetian refugees from the Risorgimento brought deep-fried fish to Glasgow, the two delights spreading until they met in Yorkshire.


The Belgians can subsume all of that, yet also be so compacted as to have a different tradition in every village.


The influence of German and British beer is evident in Belgium. Half of Europe has marched through "brave little Belgium," and many good things have been left behind. The Belgians can subsume all of that, yet also be so compacted as to have a different tradition in every village.

Ask Herman the German how he makes his Pilsener and he will tell you. Ask his neighbour Fritz, and the "recipe" will be much the same. "Of course! That's how you make a Pilsener. We learned it at brewing school." Put similar questions to two makers of English bitter and each will politely have his own opinions, at slight variance. Then enquire of two Belgians how they make, for example, wheat beer: one will argue passionately that the wheat should be malted, another that it should be raw; the first that oats should be added his neighbour that they shouldn't; Pierre that coriander should be the dominant spice, Pieter that it should be cinnamon. More often, their specialities are so different that they cannot even be compared.

Despite this, travel writers still blithely observe that in Belgium "the beer is very good" without any indication as to which brew, why, or where. Even restaurants such as Belgo could tell you more than they do. Here is a primer:

Lambic - Usually served only on draught, in cafes in the producing area on the western fringes of Brussels. Flat and intensely dry. Often offered with sharp cheeses.

Gueuze - The authentic examples are very dry, the more popular ones sweetened. Terrific with mussels.

Fruit beers - Traditionally cherry (Kriek) and raspberry (Framboise). The driest are based on Lambic beers. Look out for those from Boon Manage Parfait or Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. The drier ones for a romantic toast, the sweeter with dessert.

Sour beers - Rodenbach Grand Cru, aged in wood for more than two years, is very tart. The most refreshing beer in the world. Also very good with prawns or pickled herrings.

Brown beers- Sweet-and-sour brown ales such as Liefmans, from Oudenaarde, are perfect with (and in) the classic beef stew carbonade flamande.

White beers - Hoegaarden, the best known, is now well-known in Britain. This style of beer is made with wheat, most often spiced with orange peels and coriander. Refreshing, but also good with fruity desserts. The Grand Cru is stronger, and based on barley malt.

Ales - The best-known example is the delicious De Koninck, from Antwerp. Like a softer English ale. Expresses its flavours best on draught. For sociable, contemplative, drinking. Duvel The brand name of a deceptively strong (8.5 per cent) golden ale with a flowery hop bouquet. A classic aperitif.

Trappist beers - Orval is an amber apertif, very dry, with "hop sack" aromas and flavours. Chimay Cinq Cents is similar. Chimay Grand Reserve is a port-like beer to serve with cheese. Westmalle Tripel is another strong golden ale, wonderful with asparagus or artichokes. The chocolatey Rochefort 10 and toffeeish Westvleteren 12 are after-dinner beers.

Belgian brews can be bought by mail order from Beer Paradise, Unit 11, Riverside Place, Leeds (0113 23S 9082).


Published Online: DEC 27, 1998
Published in Print: FEB 28, 1998
In: The Independent

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