Last Friday night the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club was at it again. Meeting this month at the home of club member Cory, we took a beer tour of Belgium in an event called Basically Belgian. Club members sampled nine different beers in nine different styles and still only scratched the surface of the deep variety that is the Belgian beer world. Belgium is often seen as a beer lover’s Mecca. It is home to brewing traditions that go back centuries, many of which reflect what beer might have been like all over Europe before the rise of light lager beers in the 19th century. One of the greatest things about the Belgium brewing tradition is its lack of adherence to any real tradition. While other European brewers focus on perfecting a relatively narrow range of beer styles, brewers in Belgium produce hundreds of local styles with a large degree of variance even between different beers of the same style. Belgium is truly a beer adventure.
We began our trek with the lightest of the light Hoegaarden Witbier. White beers were once brewed all over Europe. With increasing popularity of light lager beers through the 20th century, the styles have all but died out with only Belgian Witbier and Berliner Weiss remaining. The Belgian Witbier style would have died out as well had it not beer for Pierre Cellis who started the Hoegaarden brewery in his hayloft in 1966, single-handedly reviving the style. And what a good thing that he did. It had been a couple of years since I last enjoyed a Hoegaarden and I had forgotten just how great it is. Light and wheaty with abundant citrus and a typical banana and clove Belgian yeast character that is enhanced by a touch of coriander, this is a beautiful summer beer.
We stayed with summery beers for our next selection, Fantôme Saison. One of the best examples of the style, this beer is light, crisp, and effervescent like champagne. Huge citrus fruitiness sits nicely on a bed of softly sweet bready malt, which gives way to a bone-dry finish emphasizing spice and bitterness. A shot of wild Brettanomyces yeast funk really separates this one from the crowd. This beer is so spritzy and refreshing, you would never guess at its 8% ABV.
The last of the Belgian session beers was Belgian Pale Ale from Flat Earth Brewing in St. Paul. I had wanted to select all beers from Belgium for this event, but no authentic Belgian Pale Ales are available in Minnesota. I like to feature local breweries in these events anyway, so Flat Earth it was. And their Belgian Pale is a good example of the style. Basically a Belgian take on the classic English Bitter, this beer features a caramel, toast, and biscuit malt profile supporting an assertive spicy bitterness and fruity/spicy Belgian yeast. Purchased in growlers from the brewery, we had both filtered and unfiltered versions to sample, although interestingly the filtered version was cloudier than the unfiltered. The differences between the two beers are small, but basically the filtered version features crisper flavors and mouthfeel with more pronounced bitterness and yeast derived fruit and spice, while the unfiltered version is softer and creamier with more subdued flavors. It is a bit like the difference between drinking a draft and a cask ale in a pub.
Our next beer, Urthel Hop-it, was an example of what’s new in Belgian brewing. Like the United States a decade ago, Belgium is in the middle of a craft-brewing explosion. Small breweries are popping up all over the country making a variety of traditional and non-traditional beers. Many of these upstart breweries are taking inspiration from the US craft beer scene, making huge and hoppy beers that blend old and new while pushing the envelope on bitterness and flavor. Hop-it is a Belgian IPA with huge hop bitterness and spicy hop flavor combining with that unique Belgian yeast character. While many love this beer, I have to admit that the combination is not one of my favorites.
The next stops in our journey took us into the world of Trappist and abbey beers. The dubel, tripel, and quadruple are the beers that many people most closely associate with Belgium. While most believe these beers to be age-old traditional recipes, they were actually created in the 1930s as a response to the growing popularity of lager and government restrictions on the selling of spirits. To be called “Trappist” a beer has to be brewed on the grounds of a Trappist monastery under the supervision of monks, with a portion of the proceeds going to charitable acts. Abbey beers on the other hand need only have an association with or use the name of a monastery. We started this leg of the expedition with Orval, one of the most unique of the Trappist beers. In a class all by itself, Orval is cloudy orange colored beer with caramel malt character, peppery hops and complex light stone fruit flavors. Its high level of bitterness is accentuated by high carbonation. A shot of wild Brettanomyces yeast at bottling gives this beer an added barnyard/funky depth. I had to pick up bottles of this beer from different locations. As a result, we had two examples bottled several months apart, affording the opportunity to try a younger and a more aged version. The younger bottles had a more pronounced hop flavors and a subtle background of wild yeast character. The aged version was significantly funkier with more malt flavor and a drier finish.
From Orval we went to St. Feuillien Brune and Westmalle Tripel. The first is an abbey dubel with rich caramel sweetness and a restrained Belgian yeast character. It lacks the dry finish of some of the Trappist examples of the style, but is quite tasty nonetheless. Westmalle Tripel is the original beer of the style. Deep golden yellow in color, it sports a rich, creamy head that lasts a good while in the glass. Sweet malt flavors quickly give way to an intensely bitter and peppery hop. The finish is bone-dry and the yeast character leans decidedly to the spicy end of the spectrum. This is the benchmark for the style.
The penultimate stop on this Belgian beer tour was Duvel, the original example of the strong golden ale. This style shares many characteristics with the tripel. There is so much similarity and so much overlap between the styles that only broad generalizations can be made about what separates them. These general differences were on display when comparing Duvel to the Westmalle. Duvel was lighter in color and smoother with a less assertive bitterness. The yeast character is fruitier than the tripel and the finish a bit less dry.
Our final beer of the night was the Trappist Rocheforte 10. This is a big, mysterious, rich beer with very low carbonation. Sweet caramel malt and complex dark fruit flavors dominate with some hints of spicy hop. There is just enough bitterness to balance the sweet. The warming effects of the 11.3% ABV are apparent.
Basically Belgian was a superfeast of big Belgian brews and we didn’t even touch the sour beers. With so many beers and beer styles to choose from we had to miss a few. Once again it was great people tasting great beers. Thanks to all who came. If you are interested in attending a Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club event, click here for more information.