Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fine Belgian Beer

This is a continuation of our Belgian food series.

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. - Benjamin Franklin

Any beer connoisseur knows Belgium brews some of the finest beers in the world. Beers of every variety are brewed in Belgium, from cherry-flavored to those with upwards of 11% alcohol by volume (ABV)—nearly the same ABV as a glass of wine! Visiting breweries is a popular tourist attraction in Belgium, and a fun way to spend the afternoon.

Fun fact = Belgians consume, according to one estimate, 93 liters of beer per person a year, compared to the US at 81.6 liters per person

During the 19th century, there were over 3,000 registered breweries in the country. But after two World Wars and a depression in the first half of the 20th century, the number of breweries dropped to 755. Later, with the growth of industrialization, many breweries merged and were taken over my larger concerns, dropping the number of remaining breweries today to around 100.

Fun fact = In Belgium and other parts of Europe, the words "café" and "bar" are used interchangeably to denote what we would call a bar in the US.

Belgian beers can be classified by their style, differences in taste and color created by variants of the brewing process, and type, details like the brewing location and alcohol content.


• Blonde, Amber, and Brown ales are beers differentiated based on their color. A beer's color is dependent on the color of the malts (the germinated and dried grains like barely used to make beer) used in brewing, and is unrelated to the alcohol content. My favorite of these ales were the Blondes; I recommend trying Leffe Blonde, La Chouffe Achouffe, and Delirium Tremens.

Fun fact = Délirium Café in Brussels holds the Guinness World Record for the bar with most beers available at 2,004.

• Pilsner is another popular style of beer and is characterized by its light color and hop flavor. Stella Artois, Jupiler, Maes pils, and Cristal are all Belgian Pilsners. Stella Artois originates from Leuven, the town I studied abroad in, and is still brewed there today. In student bars you could get a glass for 80 Euro cents, about $1.05 US dollars—much cheaper than the $5 and upwards you’ll pay for a Stella in the US!

Fun Fact = Belgians, as I observed, drink beer around the clock. On sunny days, the Oude Markt (an historic central square filled with bars/cafes and restaurants) would be full of people drinking at tables by 11 a.m..

• Lambic beers are produced using spontaneous fermentation by exposing the beer to wild yeast in the air in large, open vats. This unusual process results in a characteristic cidery flavor with a sour aftertaste. Some of the more interesting Lambics I tried in Belgium were fruit flavored, like cherry-flavored Kriek and raspberry-favored Framboos.

Fun fact = Almost every brand of beer has its own unique glass, ranging from elaborate hour-glass shapes that require a stand (see photo), to branded chalices and goblets. Broken glassware, as you can imagine, is a huge expense for the bars, who have to stock the different glasses for all of their beers.

• The last style, but certainly not the least, of beer I’ll describe are White beers, which are made with a blend of herbs (mainly of coriander, orange, bitter orange, and hops), wheat, and barely. They get their name from the pale, cloudy color they have when cold. My favorite of this variety was Hoegaarden.


• Some will be familiar with the term “Trappist beer,” but fewer know the history behind it. Trappist is a Roman Catholic religious order of cloistered monks, and it was Trappist monks who first brewed beer in Belgium during the Middle Ages. There are strict criteria to label a beer as Trappist, and today only six Belgian monasteries selling Trappist beer remain: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. I tried the famous Westmalle Tripel, a strong pale ale; it was the most alcoholic beer I had while in Belgium at 9.5% ABV.

Fun fact = “Cheers!” in Dutch is “Proost!”

• Certified Abbey beers are beers brewed by other non-Trappist monasteries, or by commercial breweries in connection with an existing or abandoned monastery. (Remember, neither the terms Trappist nor Abbey signify a style of beer, but rather they tell where the beers come from.)

Fun fact = In 2008, Anheuser-Busch, an American brewery known for its brands like Budweiser and Natural Light, was acquired by Brazilian-Belgian brewing company InBev (which brews Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, among other beers) for a total value of $52 billion

•The terms Tripel and Dubbel indicate the percentage alcohol content of the beer. A Dubbel has double the alcohol content of your average beer at 6 – 7.5% ABV, and a Tripel, you guessed it, has triple the alcohol content at 7% - 10% ABV. My favorite Tripel was the Tripel Karmeliet (8.4% ABV).

Luckily, Philadelphia is full of bars offering a variety of fine Belgian beers. City Tap House in West Philly serves an impressive 11 Belgian beers, including Tripel Karmeliet!

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