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A diplomatic drink

Such a fuss is made about wine, while beer is rarely given the respect it deserves. When I have a beer, I like to be joined by the ambassador of the country where it was brewed. Call it an eccentricity on my part if you like, but his presence dignifies the occasion. No one does this as well as the Ambassadors of the Kingdom of Belgium.

In Tokyo, the Belgian Ambassador was wearing a "Beer Paradise" T-shirt and the trousers of a formal morning suit when he joined me for beers in the embassy garden.

In Washington, D.C., His Excellency was an extrovert, cheering and clapping as I introduced each of Belgium's classic beers to an audience at the National Geographic Society.

In New York, at the Belgian Consulate, our elegant hostess provided an equally elegant apartment near Central Park for a book launch. No suitable monks were available, but our event was blessed by New York's most beer-hip clergyman, Father Larry McCormick. You see what I mean about respect?

Belgian ambassador
The Belgian Ambassador to the United Kingdom is briefed on the local brews by his fearless friend the Beer Hunter. "I already sampled it for you, and I haven't fallen over yet."

In London, His Excellency Lode Willems has upheld the cause of Belgian beer with energy and erudition Ambassaddor Willems was never parochial. He has also contributed to international harmony in the matter of malt and hops. I especially appreciated his presence, and his enthusiasm, when I launched a book on the beers of the world.

The Ambassador was recently asked to represent Belgium in Berlin. As a farewell gesture, his colleagues in London asked me to prepare these notes for His Excellency. "He has enjoyed British beer," they said. "In two or three sentences. Could you sum up what he might find in the other great brewing nations of Europe?" I was honored to be asked, though what can one say in two or three sentences per country?:

Your Excellency,
When it comes to wine, everyone knows that the grapiest nations are the warm, southern, lands of Europe: the Iberian peninsula, France and Italy. Immediately to the north are the cooler, grain-growing, beer countries: the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany and the Czech Republic. Those are the nations that shaped the beers of today.

Ireland perfected and popularised Dry Stout, black and smoky as a peat bog. Wonderfully sensuous with seaweedy oysters on the half-shell. The most famous Irish brewery is Guinness. That extra smoothness is surprisingly high-tech. It is created by a dispense system employing nitrogen, as well as the usual carbon dioxide. They do the same for Ireland's malty "red" ales such as Caffrey's. Look out for micro-brews like Porterhouse and Biddy Early.

The United Kingdom is the home of Ale. The most famous manifestation is Pale Ale, though the colour is translucent bronze or copper. Visitors often find the popular draught version thin, but these are beers designed to be consumed by the pint all night. The malty sweetness defers to the appetising hop bitterness as the beer completes its secondary fermentation in the cellar of the pub, at 10-13 C. (50-55ľF). Any warmer, and the fermentation would stop. At a natural cellar temperature, with a gentle carbonation, a pint of Bitter is not bloating, and its dryness is positively more-ish. The most sociable of beers, but you know that already, after a few years in the city of London Pride. Or, for Belgians who find British beer too polite: Young's Special London Ale.

Other countries have more breweries, but none has beers so distinctive, diverse, idiosyncratic as Belgium,

Belgium, the most central of the beer nations, has the oldest style of beer to be readily available: the Lambic family of brews, with the winey, "fino sherry" character. These beers are made in and around the town of Lembeek, near Brussels.. Sometimes cherries or raspberries are added. The Lambics, or the reddish, oaky, brews of West Flanders, such as Rodenbach, can be shockingly tart, Head from Brussels, beyond Leuven, to Hoegaarden for a "white" wheat beer, spiced with coriander and Curaćao. Belgium is also the land of strong beers re-fermented in the bottle. Innocent-looking beers like the golden Duvel and Trappist Westmalle Tripel pack eight or nine percent alcohol. The Trappists' delights range from the intensely bitter Orval to the sweetish, chocolately, Rochefort 10. Other countries have more breweries, but none has beers so distinctive, diverse, idiosyncratic as Belgium,

Germany has about 1,200 breweries, more than any other country in Europe, but each style of beer conforms to a somewhat strict definition. Munich is by far the best-known brewing city, once famous for malty lagers. The original Munich Lager was dark-brown, though the pale Helles is more popular today. In winter and early spring, extra-strong, rich beers like Salvator warm the soul. Within Bavaria, but farther north, the small city of Bamberg has a smoked beer. A Lager is a beer that has been "stored"; this refers to maturation at cold temperatures. The young don't necessarily drink lager. They like cloudy wheat beers, with a big, yeasty, fruitiness. In Berlin, the local style of wheat beer has a lactic tartness that is usually softened with raspberry juice or essence of woodruff. This Berliner Weisse is intended as a summer refresher, and has only 2-3 per cent alcohol. It could seem rather thin to Belgian like Ambassador Willems. On the way home to Belgium, he could try the ales of Düsseldorf and Cologne.

The Czech Republic gave us the most widely-known style of beer, from the city of Pilsen. The Czechs deem that a beer thus described must be brewed in the city of Pilsen. There is another brewery in the city, and it is called Gambrinus: after the legendary King of Beer: Duke Jan Primus of Flanders

Bon Voyage! - Michael Jackson

Published: JULY 9, 2002
In: Beer Hunter Online

Historical - Beer Styles -

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