"Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars and France is to wine"
— Oxford Companion to Beer
I suppose I could just stop writing after that quote and go straight to the tasting notes, the OCB having nailed it, but there is in fact much more to say, all of it intriguing.
Belgium is a country that holds itself together against the odds, with internal divisions that are religious, language-based and political.
Belgium's brewing tradition goes back centuries, and it has not been lost, but rather carried forward and informed by contemporary knowledge and brewing practices. That long tradition, and the care with which it is kept, has allowed brewers all over the world to look to Belgium the way California winemakers looked to France in the decades after Prohibition.
Like Pinot Noir, beer brewing was a monastic endeavor. Many monasteries of Belgium were burned during the French Revolution, and it was not until the 1830s that the Belgians achieved a sufficient measure of independence and safety to reopen the monasteries and build breweries. The beer styles varied, being made with barley, but also with wheat and oats.
The next disaster came in the guise of the first World War, during which the German army appropriated brewing equipment for its prized copper components. The recovery began right after the war. In 1919 a national law was passed that banned the sale of distilled spirits in Belgian bars and cafes. The beer brewers responded in part by creating higher-alcohol beers to fill a gap in the market.
Monks created a variety of different beers — lighter beer with less complex flavor profiles for their own use and stronger, more complex ales for sale outside the monasteries. Their success inspired copies then and now.
Now, while I say things like heavy or complex, it's important to keep in mind that Belgian beers were originally, and often still are, pilsner or pilsner-like creations. So, what makes a Belgian beer different from, say, a German or Czech or Italian one? Yeast, for one thing — yeast that has its own regional character and tends to produce beers that can deliver fruit, spice and complexity.
A second characteristic is malt. Belgian beers often use pilsner malts, but can also employ Vienna malts.
Sugar is another distinction, and the OCB tells me that Belgian sugars (which feed the yeast for fermentation, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol), caramelized sugars are common. This can account for the darker shades of many Belgian ales, the fact that they don't all have the light yellow-gold color of German and Czech Pilsners.
Bottle conditioning is frequently used in Belgium, by which I mean the finished product has good carbonation, a major factor in the frothy foam that piles up in the top half of the glass when you pour a good Belgian ale.
The United States has, over the past several decades, become a major export market for Belgian ales. The American attempts to recreate these brews (look for words like Dubbel, Tripel, and abbey ale on the labels) have been very successful too. We're not the only ones experimenting — you can find homegrown Belgian style ales in Canada, other countries in Europe, South America.
Corsendonk Agnus Tripel Ale, Brewery DuBocq, Turnhout, Belgium; 7.5% abv. This is a Belgian ale in the "Tripel" style, that is, higher alcohol, gold colored, though sometimes reaching an amber hue. It is one of hundreds of Tripels brewed today. "Tripel" may refer to the medieval days when beer casks were marked with X's so that a population that was largely illiterate would know the strength of what was in the barrel. So, X, XX, XXX, the last one being "Tripel X". Pilsner malt gives it its light color, with some added sugar to give the sense of a little more body. Fruit and spice notes are characteristic of this style.
(If this is one you like, you can find other Tripel styles locally, including Chimay White/Cinq Cents (the label is actually kind of yellow, to distinguish from the heavier red and blue labels, Allagash Tripel, and Brooklyn Local 1.)
Poured slowly into a Belgian ale glass, a Duvel glass in my case, the foam comes just short of the rim and is frothy and lasting. The beer is gold in color, and appears a bit cloudy/unfiltered. Spicy and citrus notes greet you, and the first thing that strikes the palate is a bright, refreshing acidity — note how the sides of your mouth water from the first sip. It is just off-dry, with good but not overwhelming bitterness, light carbonation, balanced alcohol, and flavors of citrus and fruit from the hops — lemon, floral, blossom, and sweet spice. There is just a hint of malt in the background — this is a hops beer, for sure, and well worth it. Long finish that hold the complexity of the palate and leaves just the right amount of bitterness on the finish. Very good.
Lammsbräu Organic Pilsner, Premium Bavarian Lager, 4.8% abv. After having said all that about Pilsner style, here's German Pilsner for a side by side of sorts. It's brewed according to the Beer Purity Law of 1516 at what bills itself as the world's oldest certified organic brewery (though in 1516 they were probably thinking more "survival," or, "Wow, the price of Bibles has really come down since that Gutenberg guy started printing them — do you think they can make a go of it?" and "Why does Fr. Martin Luther keep looking at that church door?" rather than "organic").
Lemon-colored beer, slightly cloudy, white sizeable creamy head. The nose is citrus, a little skunky at first, but this calms down quickly. It's a hoppy beer, with some malt background, flavors of citrus, spice, and pine/herbal on the profile. It's dry, with good bitterness and acidity, light carbonation, balance light alcohol, light body, light texture, a good flavor profile that lasts through the finish, and a medium-plus length on the finish as well. Some malt presents itself right at the finish too. Very good for a warm summer night (not that we've had many of those lately, mind you).
Next Week: Hot weather? How 'bout a shandy?
Contact local beer and wine writer Jim Beauregard at tastingnotesnh.com.