Many do not know that aside from being Minnesota’s only Certified Cicerone™, I also own a theatre company called GTC Dramatic Dialogues that tours to college campuses across the country doing interactive performances on a number of topics. One of these topics is diversity issues. Race relations in the United States is a keen interest of mine. Thus, I was thrilled in recent days to see my two worlds finally coming together. The controversial arrest of Henry Louis Gates and the subsequent invitation to the White House for beers made beer a focal point in the nation’s ongoing dialogue about race. What would the three men discuss? And what beers would be poured?
Well…the choice has been revealed. The President will be drinking Bud Light. Gates prefers Red Stripe. And Officer Crowley will quaff Blue Moon.
Last Friday night the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club was at it again. Meeting this month at the home of club member Cory, generic 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, doctor 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, treat 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 lightHoegaarden 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.
I thought this was an interesting post about the current craft brewing craze of (or at least the beer geeks infatuation with) ever bigger, seeklook hoppier, genericorder oakier, decease and boozier beers at the expense of delightfully subtle lagers. I have been arguing in favor of balance for some time and have garnered the undeserved title of “hop-hater” (albeit often in jest).
The followup comments are also of intereste.
I facilitated a beer dinner last night at the Dining Studio in Minneapolis. The main course was a ribeye of prime beef with a bleu cheese potato gratin. I paired this course with Traquair Jacobite strong scotch ale flavored with coriander. As I made my way around the room there was one gentleman who was not overly fond of this beer. He had pushed his glass away and gone back to the leftovers of the earlier two beers. When I asked him what it was he didn’t like about it, he said it tasted too much of chocolate. I guess he wasn’t a fan of chocolate, at least not in his beer. He swore to me though that he would try it with the ribeye.
When I came back to his table a few minutes later, he had pulled the glass back toward himself and it was now half empty. This time he said that he loved the beer. While he didn’t like it on its own, the food pairing had mellowed the chocolate flavors and enhanced the dark fruit flavors, making the beer not just palatable to him, but pleasurable.
Flavors played off of each other really do affect one another. It’s a nice testament to the power of pairing the right beer with the right food.
I recently heard a National Public Radio commentator say that the weather in Minnesota is miserable nine months of the year and then the other three months are miserable in a whole other way. Well, it’s the middle of July and we find ourselves in those other three months when the two days of spring have passed and hot, sticky, summer weather takes over from the deep freeze. It’s a great time for a lazing on the patio with a cold beer. I have been drinking a lot of wheat beers this summer and that has me thinking about summer beers in general.
Summer is a time for light refreshing beers. When the mercury rises you don’t want to be weighed down by a thick, full-bodied beer. Nor do you want a lot of alcohol enhancing the already draining effects of the hot sun, leaving you in need of a nap after the first beer. Lean and crisp is the order of the day. But this needn’t mean resorting to flavorless light lagers. There are a slew of flavorful beers and beer styles that are perfect for steamy summer sipping.
I mentioned above that I have been drinking wheat beers this summer. Generally, any beer with a large amount of wheat in the recipe will make a great summer beer. Wheat gives beer a refreshing zip and a substantial body that isn’t too heavy. The high level of carbonation often found in wheat beers adds to their refreshment. There are a few styles of wheat beer to choose from. German wheat beers or Hefeweizen are the most substantial of the lot, full-bodied and cloudy from wheat proteins and suspended yeast. It is the yeast that gives these beers their great summer zip, filling them with the flavors and aromas of citrus, banana, and clove. Often these beers are served with a wedge of lemon on the glass. There is much debate over whether this is proper. The Germans do it, so I don’t see why you shouldn’t. I prefer to skip the fruit, but suit yourself and don’t let anyone get down on you for drinking your Hefe with a wedge. My favorite authentic German wheat is Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier from Munich. Minnesota’s own August Schell Brewing in New Ulm also makes a great German style wheat beer that recently won a gold medal for the category in the US Open Beer Championship.
Other great wheat beer styles are American wheat and Belgian Wit. American wheats tend to be lighter and hoppier than their German cousins without the yeasty banana and clove character. The classic American wheat beer is Bell’s Oberon, tasty with its hint of orange. Other favorites of mine are Goose Island’s312 Wheat and Crack’d Wheat from New Glarus. The latter is the most bitter of the three with a citrus/apricot Amarillo hop character. It’s a great summer beer for hop heads. Belgian Witbier is lighter still, with a spicier Belgian yeast character that is enhanced by the subtle use of coriander and bitter orange peel in the brewing process. The classic here is Hoegaarden from Belgium, but I prefer Sterkens White ale. If you want to keep your beer buying dollar in the US, try Witte from Brewery Ommegang.
An often overlooked style of beer that is great for summer is Pilsner. A true pilsner beer is like American lager on steroids. Full of rich bready/grainy malt and pronounced spicy European hop character. The original and still among the best is Pilsner Urquell, a malty bohemian style pilsner with assertive, perfumy Saaz hop flavor and bitterness. But look for it in cans or on draft. If you get the green bottles it will most likely be skunked from exposure to light. Another good Bohemian pilsner is Lagunitas Pils from Lagunitas Brewing of Petaluma, California. For a great German style pilsner (less malt and higher bitterness) try Victory Prima Pils. It is a world-class pilsner in which I detect the lightest touch of citrusy American hops.
A couple of lesser known summer beer styles are the German Kölsch and the Belgian Saison. By law, a true Kölsch can only be brewed in the German city of Cologne, however many American brewers make respectable Kölsch-style beers. A good Kölsch is like a more subtle and delicate version of a pilsner, with soft grainy malt and a lighter touch of spicy German hops. Fermented with ale yeast, Kölsch can have a softer mouthfeel and a very light fruitiness, although colder fermented versions can have a lager-like crispness. If you want to try an authentic German Kölsch, the only one I have seen in the Twin Cities is Reissdorf Kölsch. For a Kölsch-style beer brewed close to home try Goose Island Summertime Ale or Lake SuperiorKayak Kölsch. Our own Summit Brewing will soon release a Kölsch as the first in their Unchained Series. Look for it in August.
Saison is a Belgian style farmhouse ale that was originally brewed to keep farmhands hydrated when access to potable water was limited. While there is great variation in this style, Saison is typically a light and effervescent beer with a golden/orange color. Bready malt is countered by a relatively high bitterness and black pepper spicy notes from the yeast, often accompanied by light stone fruit flavors. The finish is dry and spicy. The benchmark for the style is Saison DuPont from Brasserie DuPont in Tourpes, Belgium. My personal favorite is Fantóme. It has a more pronounced citrus character and a hint of wild yeast funkiness that I like. From the US I recommend Saint SomewhereSaison Athene, or the Boulevard Smokestack Series Saison. Locally both Surly and Lift Bridge brew examples; Cynic Ale from Surly and Farm Girl from Lift Bridge, which is now available in bottles.
I could go on and on about summer beers. They are light, refreshing, and easy to drink with enough variety to suit any palate. There are so many beers and styles that I haven’t even mentioned here, Cream Ales, fruit beers, even some Belgian sours; the list could be endless. But I think I’ll stop here and go sit on my patio with a nice, tall wheat beer.
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.
If that is the case, what exactly is it that makes a Belgian beer “Belgian.” This is the question that we will attempt to answer as we sample a wide range of Belgian beers and Belgian beer styles. From the delicate, summery Witbier to the ponderous Strong Dark Ale and mouth-puckering sours, we’ll try them all on our own little tour of Belgium.
“The antithesis of Unearthly.” That is how Southern Tier Brewing describes Iniquity, their imperial black ale, referring to their imperial IPA called Unearthly. The reference is not inappropriate. Iniquity is a style bending beer that blurs the line between imperial IPA and Russian imperial stout. It’s bitter like the IPA with distinctly American hops. It’s big, black, and chocolaty like the imperial stout, but without the thick, heavy mouthfeel that one usually finds in that style. I find with most beers from Southern Tier that they are either superb or superbly flawed. Again, this one lies somewhere in the middle, neither great, nor horrible. It inhabits that blurry area in more ways than one. Here’s my notes. Iniquity
Southern Tier Brewing Co., Lakewood , New York
Style: Specialty Ale (Imperial Black Ale)
Serving Style: 22 oz Bottle
Aroma: Chocolate, roast, and pine tree. Slight alcohol is apparent. Appearance: Dark brown and clear. Almost black. Clear. Little to no head. Fine film of tan head was all that I was able to raise. Flavor: Crisp and assertive bitterness is the first sensation. This is followed by a flood of chocolate malt, a bit Hershy’s™-syrup-like, but in a good way. Reminds me of the Choklat Stout from the same brewery but not quite as intense. Hop flavor is pronounced with a mostly pine resin character and hints of citrus. Light sweet alcohol, but not hot. Long finish that lingers on chocolate after one last burst of bitterness. Mouthfeel: Rich and creamy, but not so thick as a Russian Imperial Stout. Medium-low carbonation could have been stepped up a bit. Some alcohol warmth. Overall Impression: While I wouldn’t turn it away, this beer is not really my cup of tea. I am not a fan of the combination of roasted malt flavors with heavy doses of citrus/pine American hops. What I did like about this beer was the crisp quality of the bitterness. It has a sharp, clean character like one might find in a great English IPA.
New Belgium Brewing of Fort Collins, Colorado is a relatively new entry into the Twin Cities beer scene having made their debut here just a couple of years ago with their flagship brand Fat Tire. Since then they have slowly been adding to the collection of beers available to Minnesota’s thirsty beer drinkers. While we can now get most of the New Belgium product line, it may come as a surprise to those less familiar with the brewery that they have a series of Belgian style sour beers. These include Transatlantique Kriek, a cherry lambic style collaboration brew with Brouwerij Boon, a holiday seasonal raspberry lambic called Frambozen, and the Lips of Faith series of beers created by brewery employees. The best of these beers is La Folie, a Flanders red style ale aged in French oak barrels for one to three years. La Folie is arguably the best beer in the New Belgium lineup. Here’s my notes. La Folie
New Belgium Brewing, Fort Collins, Colorado
Style: Flanders Red Ale
Serving Style: 750 ml Bottle
Aroma: Caramel malt with hints of toast. Loads of fruit, predominantly cherries. Light acidic sourness. Appearance: Beautiful, clear dark mahogany red. Good size tan head that dissipated relatively quickly. Flavor: After an initial burst of balsamic vinegar-like sourness a world of malt opens up. Caramel, toast, and chocolate compete for center stage with loads of fruitiness, cherries and currents. Tart and refreshing. Dry finish lingers on sour cherry/berry. Mouthfeel: Medium-light body. High carbonation. Dry. Overall Impression: By far the best beer that New Belgium makes. Complex. Well developed sour that still leaves a good base of malt character intact. And that malt character retains a good bit of complexity in its own right. It’s even pleasant to look at. Nice beer. More please!