Tasting Notes with Jim Beauregard: Belgium inspired brewers around the worldBy JIM BEAUREGARD June 19. 2018 10:56PM
Like the great wines of France, beer makers the world over looked to Belgium as one of the classic beer-making regions, and have long sought to create beers in the styles of these northern European cultures.
So, if you want to imitate as a form of flattery, it probably makes sense to start with the best. This means Belgium. The brewing tradition in Belgium goes back for many centuries. Beer eventually became, over centuries, a symbol of Belgian culture, as Belgium sought to maintain its own identity, surrounded as it was by larger powers such as France, Germany and the seafaring Netherlands.
I’m not kidding about maintaining cultural traditions. Belgium was originally part of the Netherlands, though in 1579 three of the southern provinces sought independence from the Protestant North, which the Spanish king was happy to step in and provide. The region was a battleground in the wars of the Spanish succession, and they belonged to the Austrian Hapsburgs in the 18th century. The Belgians eventually drove the Austrians out, though they became part of France, after which they became part of the Netherlands, and in 1830 there was another revolt, with Belgium finally gaining independence in 1831.
Still with me? Beer was a constant throughout all of this, in a particular style, in a particular way of beer making that helped foster a sense of cultural identity. A tradition of beer making in Belgium has been to sometimes add spices while the beer is fermenting — everything from coriander and pepper to orange peels. These do not tend to dominate the blend; the Belgian yeast and hops they use maintain overall style.
In addition, bottle fermenting is pretty common in Belgium. Sometimes there is carbonation added before bottling, while others have some sugar and yeast added just before a champagne cork goes in, which means a second fermentation goes on in the bottle, creating carbonation and adding flavor. (Once again, don’t point the bottle at anybody you like while you are removing the cork).
Belgium isn’t the only place making Belgian-style ales nowadays. We sampled one from Canada last week, and one can find Belgian ales all over Europe, in the Scandinavian countries, and in Brazil. The common denominator in all these as they look back to Belgium as a touchstone when they make their own.
Here’s one from where it all began:
Piraat Belgian Ale, brewed by Brouwerij Van Steenberge N.V., Belgium. 10.5% alcohol by volume, 11.2 fluid ounce bottle, about $4 at Harvest Market in Bedford.
The head is enormous, as a Belgian ale should be, and it leaves a classic Belgian lace down the side of the glass as it slowly recedes. It’s off-white over golden beer with just the slightest hint of orange. The aromas are rich in hops and citrus. The palate is dry, with good balance of components, including the relatively high alcohol level, and the flavor profile is again rich in hops with citrus — lemon, a hint of orange, and some spice along the way to a pleasing and long finish.
Contact wine and beer writer Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org