Tastings School - Belgium - Beer country

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Belgium - Beer country

Charles D cook explores Belgium, the ultimate destination for any beer fan.

Belgium is often known as The Beer Country, and not without good reason.

This small country produces what might seem a bewildering array of different beers and beer styles to the casual visitor. However, exploring Belgium’s great beers and beer culture is a worthy endeavour, one which you’d likely find very rewarding.

There are historic old breweries using 19th century vessels built of copper and wood, and brand new ones with state-of-the-art stainless steel equipment. The common bond is rich, flavourful beers, and Belgium has a plethora of such brews. Here is a look at a few of the more interesting beers and breweries in each of Belgium’s provinces.

In Antwerp Province, Brouwerij Achilles, which is located in the brewer’s former garage, produces a number of fine brews, with Serafijn Grand Cru (9%) being a standout. Another very new brewery is ‘t Hofbrouwerijke, where brewer/owner Jef Goetelen crafts delicious beers such as Hofelf, a strong blonde wheat beer with a pleasing light sour character and fine bitterness, and Hofblues, a rich dark stout.

Browerij Den Hopperd, located not far away, offers several respected brews, such as Kameleon Ginseng, an ale of 6.5% using that spice in its recipe, and a fine Tripel ale.

Brouwerij Het Anker in Mechelen is located at a historic UNESCO World Heritage site dating to the 14th century, and offers a number of worldclassic ales, such as Gouden Carolus Easter and Tripel. Of course, the benchmark Belgian Tripel is brewed at the Westmalle Trappist brewery – and Westmalle Dubbel is no slouch either. The Moortgat brewery in Breendonk has the strong golden ale Duvel, and the Maredsous beers.

The Province of East Flanders has quite a few great breweries, including De Glazen Toren in Erpe-Mere, a thousand year-old village near Aalst. With beers like the refreshing Saison d’ Erpe-Mere, Ondineke Tripel, and the malty, complex Canaster Winter Scotch Ale, De Glazen Toren has established itself as a top brewery in just three years.

Another superb brewery is De Landtsheer in Buggenhout, which has a lineup of standout beers called Malheur. The 6 and 10 are blond beers with a fine hoppiness and pleasing malt background, and the 12 is a dark, strong, contemplative brew. Malheur also produces several Champagne-style beers it calls Brut, Dark Brut and Cuvee Royale.

The Dark Brut, which is aged in American oak barrels, is one of the best dark beers in Belgium, with a very complex flavour profile and 12% alcohol by volume (ABV) to boot. The Brut is a delicious blond ale of 11%.

These beers are great to celebrating special occasions with, as they are offered in beautiful corked 75cl bottles.

Brouwerij Slaghmuylder in Ninove, with brewmaster Karel Goddeau at the helm, produces the tasty Witkap Dubbel and Tripel ales, as well as some of the best lagers in Belgium-unusual in a country known for its ales. Karel is also the blender of the excellent De Cam Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek, at Gooik in Flemish Brabant.

Also in Flemish Brabant, brewer/blender Armand Debelder crafts several world-class brews in Beersel, including Drie Fonteinen Oude Geuze and Oude Kriek. These Lambics are the real deal, though they can be a bit sour for the uninitiated. But for the real lambic and geuze lover, it doesn’t get much better.

Hainaut Province, in Frenchspeaking Wallonia and on the border with France, is perhaps the beeriest in Belgium, with more than 20 breweries.

This is saison country, and no brewery does this style quite like Brasserie Dupont in Tourpes. Saison Dupont is the benchmark by which others are judged. Dupont uses copper brewkettles dating to 1844, and a wooden mash tun of the same age. The blonde, rich Moinette (8.5%) is another great brew, as is the Cervesia, which uses a number of herbs and spices in its recipe.

Brasserie Blaugies in Blaugies also crafts several superb saison ales, such as La Moneuse. Brasserie a Vapeur, the last solely steam-powered brewery in Belgium, offers the fine, refreshing Saison de Pipaix and Vapeur en Folie.

You can see these beers being brewed the last Saturday of each month, which is the open brew day.

Just a few miles away, Brasserie Dubuisson has been producing strong ales like Bush and Bush de Noel for many years. The superb Bush Prestige is an oak barrel-aged beer of 13%, served in a unique bottle. It is well worth sharing with friends.

Brasserie Cazeu in Templeuve has been around only a few years (though brewing began here in the 18th century) but has already managed to craft two fine brews: Tournay is a tasty blonde ale, with 7%, and there is the rich, dark Tournay de Noel, which is set to go year-round soon.

Brasserie Ellezelloise in Ellezelles has several stellar beers, such as Quintine Blonde and Amber, both with 8%, and the very pleasing Saisis – yes, another saison. At De Ranke in Dottignies, the XX Bitter sets a Belgian standard for hoppy brews, while the Guldenberg is a top notch pale ale with 8% – and plenty of hops too. Brasserie St.

Feuillien in Le Roeulx crafts some stunning beers as well, such as the Brune, Tripel and Cuvee de Noel. The Chimay Trappist brewery produces its well-known White (Triple) and Blue (dark, strong ale) near Baileux.

Province of Liege, in a far eastern corner of Belgium, has a couple of fine breweries. Brasserie Grain d’ Orge in Hombourg, run by young couple Benoit and Viviane Johnen, has several very interesting brews. 3 Schteng is a tasty brown ale with a dry, nutty character, and Brice is a strong golden ale of 7.5%. Nearby, Brasserie de l’Abbaye du Val-Dieu, located in a former Cistercian Abbey, has a blonde, brown and triple worthy of a beer lover’s attention.

In Limburg Province, the Achel Trappist brewery has several great beers, including the dark Extra.

Brouwerij Kerkom in Kerkom has an atmospheric winter tasting cafe, and superb brews like the Bink Blond, a hoppy session beer; Bink Tripel; and the dark, malty Winterkoninkske, one of Belgium’s great winter ales.

In Luxembourg Province, Brasserie Fantome and its brewer, Dany Prignon, are known for eclectic saison-style, earthy brews. Among his best are Black Ghost and Fantome de Noel. The Orval Trappist brewery in Villers-devant- Orval is known for Orval, a dry-hopped pale ale brewed with brettanomyces yeast strains. Another great brewery nearby is La Rulles in Rulles, where Gregory Verhelst crafts seriously satisfying brews like Brune, Estivale, Triple and Cuvee Meilleurs Voeux.

Brewpub/restaurant Les Trois Fourquets in Gouvy has a fine witbier, as well beers brewed by guest brewers.

In Namur Province, the Rochefort Trappist brewery has been turning out its signature dark ales for many years.

The 6, 8, and 10 are among the best Belgium has to offer. Brasserie du Bocq in Purnode also has a number of fine brews, such as La Gauloise Brune and Regal Christmas. In Wallonian Brabant, Brasserie Lefebvre produces the tasty honey ales Barbar and Winterbock.

West Flanders is the beeriest Province in Flanders and is also the one nearest the United Kingdom. Many travellers first experience Belgian beers in beautiful, beery Bruges, in cafes like ‘t Brugs Beertje and Brasserie Erasmus.

Located just outside the walls of the old city, Johan Brandt of Brouwerij Regenboog (‘rainbow’) has created quite a variety of delicious and interesting beers since 1995, such as ‘t Smisje Dubbel, a dark beer which uses fresh dates, honey, and candi sugar (specialist sugar) in its recipe. The 11% ABV Smisje Kerst is a fine ale brewed for the Christmas season to ward off Belgium’s winter chill, and Wostyntje is a beer with mustard seeds in its recipe.

One of the newest breweries in the region is Picobrouwerij Alvinne, whose beers are in such demand that they are all presold at the brewery! The Blonde Extra is quite a fine hoppy ale with 7%, while the Podge Belgian Imperial Stout, whose recipe was developed in collaboration with Chris “Podge” Pollard (who runs beer tours from the UK to Belgium) has become a cult beer in just a couple of years. Podge is a very dark brew with notes of chocolate and coffee, and 10.5% ABV.

Using the facilities of Deca services in Woesten, De Struise Brouwers has been hand-crafting some very special beers in just a few short years. The Pannepot dark ale, Tsjeeses Christmas Ale, and Aardmonnik Flemish Old Brown ale are several of the best brews I tasted in 2007, which was a very good year for beer.

The ‘brewers town’ of Watou features great breweries and cafés.

About two miles from the centre is Brouwerij St. Bernardus, which has been crafting several superb Abbey ales since 1946. The Pater 6, Prior 8 and Abbot 12 are all dark brews of varying strengths, with deep malty complexities. The Witbier and Grottenbier were developed with the help of the legendary Pierre Celis, of Hoegaarden fame.

St. Bernardus Tripel and Watou Tripel are top-class beers as well. The dark St. Bernardus Abbey ales were patterned after the Westvleteren beers of the same name. The Westvleteren Trappist brewery still creates some of the most highly sought-after beers in the world, with the 12, a superlative, rich, dark-ruby strong ale, being at the top of the hierarchy. The dark 8 and blonde ale are worthy little brothers.

Last but certainly not least, Brouwerij Verhaeghe in Vichte is another world-classic, where brewing began in 1875.

Nowadays, Karl Verhaeghe crafts such brews as Duchesse de Bourgogne, Echt Kriekenbier, and Vichtenaar.

All the brews are matured in oak barrels for various periods of time (giving them a pleasant acidity) and, except Victhenaar, are blends of young and old beer. Echt Kriekenbier has local sour cherries added and is a blend of one, two and three year old brews. Enjoy your visit to Belgium!

Belgian beer festivals
Zythos Bier festival (Z.B.F.)
Stadfeestzaal
Leopold II Laan 67, Sint-Niklaas
www.zbf.be
March 1-2, 2008
The biggest celebration of Belgian brews on the planet. In 2007 there were 250 beers from 60 breweries in 2007.

Weekend of Spontaneous Fermentation
Tapperij Beukenhof
Broekstraat 18, Opstal-Buggenhout
www.bierpallieters.be
May 24-25, 2008
Showcasing more than 70 different lambic based brews.

Karakterbier weekend H.O.P.
Zaal CC “De Stringe”
Vichte (near Kortrijk)
www.karakterbierweekend.be
June 7-8, 2008
Pleasant fest with more than 100 well-chosen brews, including many from Wallonia.

Bruxellensis Biere Festival
Les Glacières de Saint-Gilles
Rue de la Glacière, 18 St. Gilles (Brussels) Belgium
www.festivalbruxellensis.be
Early to mid-September
A superb fest, featuring only beers with character.

Heikantse Bierfeesten
Zaal Familia, Berlaar-Heikant
www.heikantsebierliefhebbers.be
October 31-November 2, 2008
Friendly festival with a fine range of 75+ brews.

Herentalse Bierfeesten
Zaal ‘t Hof op de Grote Markt, Herentals
www.herentalsebierfeesten.be
Last weekend of October
A fine beer fest, run by the local scouts club. More than 100 beers on offer.

Het Weekend der Belgische Bieren
Zaal De Schakel, Rechterstraat 43, Hasselt
www.limburgse-biervrienden.be
First or second weekend of November
More than 120 beers on offer, with table service.

Brugs Beer Festival
Inner Court of the Belfry, Bruges
www.brugsbierfestival.be
November 15-16, 2008
Held outside the medieval bell tower of historic and beautiful Bruges. More than 100 beers available.

O.B.E.R. Kerstbier (Christmas beer) fest
Heuvelhal, Kapelstraat 7, Essen (near
Dutch border)
www.kerstbierfestival.be
December 13-14, 2008
Quite simply the best winter and Christmas beer fest in Belgium. There were 125 brews, with 19 on tap, in 2007.