Tastings School - Belgium - Drink in styles

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Belgium - Drink in styles

More and more people are taking the Eurostar train to Belgium to sample its beers at first hand. So how do you make sense of its many styles? Lewis Eckett reports

How did it happen? When did it all go right for Belgium’s beer makers? When did the beer world Cinderella get to go to the ball, dressed to the nines, leaving the sneers of ugly sister France in its wake? And no longer care about the jibes about being boring and the fact that they serve frites with everything?

No point in asking the French – they’re still smarting about the fact that their little and divided neighbour could excel over them at anything even vaguely to do with food and drink.

But of all nations the French should understand how trends can be turned on their head. After all, they have their own sporting equivalent. Hard to believe now, but 25 years ago, the French didn’t have a football team. Now they’re world beaters.

The simple answer to the Belgian question is of course that they’ve had the beer for generations. They just didn’t have a Max Clifford style public relations guru to tell the world about it.

While Interbrew and its flagship export brand Stella Artois was making waves across the world, the smaller brewers, the countless bars and cafes, and Belgium’s dedicated beer drinkers quite simply either didn’t know they were enjoying world class products or didn’t care.

Too busy quaffing fine fruity and feisty brews to worry about what anyone else thought.

Belgium’s meteoric rise to the very top of the beer league was on slow-burn for many years, with enthusiasts discovering them years ago. But it took first Michael Jackson and then Tim Webb, both authors of definitive books on the subject and both used liberally as information sources for this feature, to tell the beer-drinking world what the country had to offer.

The Belgian response has been one of benign bemusement accompanied by the sort of indifferent shoulder shrug that their Gallic cousins would most certainly recognise.

Better distribution of Belgian brands, coupled with the downside of a certain amount of ‘consolidation’ and ‘globalisation’ has meant that where once Stella stood alone, now Hoegaarten and increasingly Leffe are making strides. In their wake Trappist beers and fruit-flavoured offerings are starting to appear on retail shelves. Duvel and Chimay are no longer Belgian secrets. Following them the concepts of stylish and dedicated beer glasses and drinking beer with food are not too far behind.

But to have the Belgian experience properly – at the risk of stating the blinking obvious – you need to go to Belgium.

The good news is it’s dead easy to do so. Cheap flights, good train services across Europe to Belgium, an impressively frequent and reliable train service inside the country itself, and a large number of ferries from Britain make Belgium easy to get to.

Channel tunnel train company Eurostar reports that from Britain thousands are making the journey from London specifically for beer.

So what should you be looking for?

Finding good beer in Belgium is easy, and The Good Beer Guide to Belgium is the only accompaniment you need. This feature does not set out to guide you to individual bars and pubs because The Guide proves that you need a book to do that. But below we look at the principle styles of beer you might encounter.

Even here such an undertaking is not an easy one, because serious beer anoraks can divide and subdivide Belgian beer categories in to a spaghetti junction of a subject and frankly, we consider life too short for that much theory when you could be carving your own drinking furrow by getting on with the practice.

Our advice is simple. Broadly identify the styles you want to try and try them. Then once you’ve found something to your taste, branch out. You might discover a style and just drink different versions of it. You might hit on a particularly interesting brewery and want to explore its other products. You might just be a beer butterfly, and go where the menu takes you.

And if you’re about to embark on this journey for the first time, well….lucky, lucky, you.

BEER STYLES

There are three fundamental styles of beer, defined by the way they are fermented: lagers, which are bottom-fermented, ales, which are top-fermented, and lambics, which are fermented through natural airborne yeasts.

Most of Belgium’s beer is brewed in the lager style, and a good proportion of it emulates the styles of other European traditions.

Belgian Pilsner, for instance, is a light or blonde lager based on the Czech Pilsner style. Such styles give a good indication of what you’re going to taste.

LAMBIC BEERS

Lambic beers are unique to Belgium and they are like nothing you have ever tasted before.

Throw all preconceptions out the window – lambics are like nothing else on earth. They are the runny blue cheese of the beer world, the marmite sandwich, only it’s much more likely that you’ll hate them before you ever love them.

But rewrite the tasting rule book and give them a chance and should you find yourself interested, you’ll have your best friend for life. Imagine the rock band Radiohead in a glass.

Lambic beers are made up of mainly barley but with some wheat, and they are fermented by coming in to contact with natural yeasts. Maturation can be a lengthy process and some lambics are left in cask for years, where they are undergoing a complicated evolution before they are made available for sale.

Some lambic beer is served on draught and directly from the cask and will vary in strength and flavour from cask to cask. A proportion of lambic beer is also bottled.

Lambic beer is flat, sour and distinctive. But it’s most likely you’ll try lambic beer in Belgium’s most complicated beer: Oude Gueuze.

OUDE GUEUZE

Lambic beer aged for more than three years is mostly used as a key component of Oude Gueuze. Nothing can prepare you for this experience but The Guide captures the essence of it when it states that your first instinct will be to send it back to the bar.

“Having soldiered through the bottle and awarded yourself a gold rosette for adding painfully to your knowledge of brewing history, it should make you vow to never try it again,” it says. “Then order another one just in case you got it wrong.”

Webb continues by saying that after the third one you’ll never view beer the same way again.

Vintage gueuze was described in an earlier issue of this magazine as the Champagne of the people, and it is worth searching out the vintage version from breweries such as Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Girardin, and deCam.

But just as there are Champagne imitators, so too are there commercial gueuzes. Drinking them really depends on what sort of person you are. If you are the sort to dive in the pool head first cut the commercial ones out. If you’re a toe in the water sort, then the likes of Timmermans Gueuze Lambic, Lindemann and Belle Vue may well do the job.

FRUIT LAMBICS

Although the commercial and unsatisfying way to make a fruit lambic is to mix in syrup or sugar, a number of traditional fruit lambic still exist and this is where Belgium is at best. Fruit is added to the cask, offsetting the lambic’s natural bitterness but without becoming cloying or over-sweet. Framboise and Kriek are the most famous expressions in this category. You should accept no imitators.

TRAPPIST ALES

The other famous category of Belgian beer is that made by monks. And although there are plenty of imitators around, a core group of monasteries known as Trappist monasteries, home to monks of the Cistercian Order, have been protected under Belgian law.

These are the ones to seek out for the best beer. They are: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren.

These monasteries have been brewing beer for many centuries and they’re pretty darned good at it. Styles within this sector include Dubbel and Tripel, and these are full-bodied, rich coloured and intensely flavoured ales of the highest order.

ABBEY BEERS

This is a bit of a catch-all category where commercial brewers have signed deals with churches, monasteries and abbeys to use their names on products.

Be very aware of this – our advice is to consult an expert or The Guide to make sure you’re getting something worth drinking.

WHEAT BEERS

Once described by a colleague as ‘the granary bread and fresh salad sandwich of the beer world’ wheat beers are the mainly (but not necessarily) cloudy beers most famously represented by Hoegaarten.

The style enjoys a mixed reputation among beer fans. Wheat makes for a sweeter product and it is cheaper to produce. Some dismiss it as a gimmicky category, and splutter in to their St Feuillien Triple at the mere suggestion that you should add a slice of lemon and lime to the glass. But you could do a lot worse than a long, cool wheat beer on a hot summer’s day.

OTHER ALES

Belgium has a number of small ale categories, most notably oak-aged ales, which are attracting some maverick and entrepreneurial brewers at the moment, and blonde ales, which may well appeal to drinkers of golden beers.