Belgian Masterpieces, American Style
“Mussels in Brussels?” That’s what the gal who wrote our plane ticket asked us before our first trip to Belgium.
Of course, we ate the mussels and frites and we tasted the chocolates and waffles. But you know the real reason for our trip. We, too, had watched Michael Jackson’s “Beer Hunter” video in which he visited Father Theobold at Chimay, one of the country’s largest Trappist breweries.
At the time, America’s craft brewing revival was still young, and the only Belgian-style ales we’d enjoyed were from a limited bottle selection at a local store. We knew the trip would be an adventure, but had no idea it would uncork, so to speak, an entire new world.
We think it’s worth a trip by itself, but even if you’re visiting London or Paris, extend the trip and take the train to Belgium. You won’t regret it. Trust us on this one.
In Brussels, we got a fascinating peek into brewing history at the Brasserie Cantillon and their Gueuze Museum. Since 1900, the Van Roy-Cantillon family has carried on the tradition—and art—of wild yeast brewing.
Yes. You read that correctly—wild yeast, the homebrewer’s worst nightmare. At Cantillon, they literally open the louvers after they fill wide, shallow cooling tuns with wort. Then they let Mother Nature take over. The result is lambic, one of the world’s oldest beer styles, and the aged, blended or flavored variants on lambic.
The self-guided tour explains lambic as you walk through the working brewery. Then comes the sampling. We were served from traditional stone pitchers in the intimate tasting room. Gueuze (aged lambic) and kriek (lambic flavored with cherries) are only the beginning. We got lucky, and were offered some faro, a lambic sweetened with sugar or caramel. It was the most popular drink in Brussels a hundred years ago.
Not into touring? That’s O.K. too. There’s an abundance of beer bars to visit. Imagine looking at a menu of 350 or 400 beers, all brewed in Belgium. And every one of them is served in a glass specially designed to match the beer. It’s reading material for beer lovers, and tasting fit for the gods.
Luckily, the fine art of brewing Belgian-style beer has spread to this side of the Atlantic. Not long after our first visit, America’s craft brewing community began to fill the void. For that we can thank intrepid brewers who stepped up to the plate with new beers, and took on the daunting task of educating consumers about these novel styles. A tip of the hat as well to grass-roots groups that successfully challenged silly laws about bottle sizes and alcohol content, making distribution possible in even more states.
Whether or not you’ve made it to Belgium, visiting local Belgian-style breweries is a great experience. Join us at a few of our favorites…
Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York is just a few miles away from the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Now owned by the Belgian company Duvel Moortgat, the 136-acre property was, fittingly enough, a hops farm in a previous life. A century ago, 80 percent of all hops grown in the United States were cultivated within 40 miles of there.
The brewery can be a little tricky to find among the winding county roads, but your effort will be rewarded. As you approach the door to the reception area, notice the wrought-iron strap hinge in the form of a hop plant. It was hand-forged by a fourth generation Dutch blacksmith who lives nearby. It’s just one example of the handiwork inside.
If you take the tour, you’ll be led through a rambling two-winged building that’s reminiscent of an old French farmhouse. A highlight of the tour is the open fermenters, where you’ll learn how the yeast is skimmed off the top and re-used to ensure consistency. Afterwards you’ll be offered samples of the exquisite beer along with some complimentary Belgian snack items including pretzels, mustards and malted milk eggs. Your admission ticket can be applied as a credit towards a purchase.
The brewery produces five year-round brews: Rare Vos, Ommegang, Hennepin, Three Philosophers and Witte, along with seasonal brews for special occasions. The most recent offering was their 10th anniversary ale, Chocolate Indulgence
In 2004, when a local brewer named Ron Jeffries set up his own shop, we couldn’t have been happier. Along with his wife and partner Laurie, Ron opened Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, MI, a quiet village outside Ann Arbor with plenty of charm.
Buzz about the beer is anything but quiet however. Jolly Pumpkin won a gold medal at the 2004 Great American Beer Festival—with Ron’s first batch, no less. Oro de Calabaza won in the Belgian- and French-style category and, in 2005 won a bronze.
The name says a lot about Ron and his brewery. “Jolly Pumpkin” is the fun part of the name. Everyone loves Halloween, Ron told us, and the smiling jack-o’-lantern that symbolizes it. And yes the name, like the beer, brings a smile to our faces. But the rest of the name, “Artisan Ales,” is the serious part. Even the bottle labels, which feature the fantastic, almost surreal, work of the illustrator Adam Forman, are part of the brewery’s artisanal bent.
Ron open-ferments and then barrel-ages his beer, bottle-conditioning it before it leaves the brewery. There is no taproom, but there is a retail area. The decor, as you might expect, is fun. Ron’s GABF medals hang from a monkey-themed tapestry, not far from the plastic palm tree decked out in Christmas lights and the stuffed parrot in an open cage.
In addition to Oro de Calabaza, there are three year-round beers: La Roja, Bam Bière and Blanca Calabaza, along with a long list of seasonals. Production for 2007 was less than 1000 barrels, but Jolly Pumpkin finds its way into most states—perhaps yours if you look carefully.
At New Belgium Brewing in Fort Collins, CO, husband-and-wife team Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan have been front and center in the American craft brew industry. Twenty years ago Jeff bicycled around Belgium with Michael Jackson’s book in tow. Jeff enjoyed what he found there so much that after returning home, he homebrewed Belgian-style beer.
In 1991, Jeff’s basement operation went commercial, and New Belgium has grown steadily. The brewery moved to new and larger quarters in 1995. Today it’s one of the largest craft brew operations in the country. It’s an environmentally friendly operation to boot; the electricity, for instance, is generated by wind power. It’s a sight to see: an aesthetically pleasing building, modern brewing equipment and row after row of oaken barrels.
Look carefully, and you’ll see just how far they’ve come. Jeff’s original brewing equipment sits in one corner of the brewhouse, dwarfed by one of the Steinecker brew kettles. Those first galvanized steel containers look like toys in comparison.
There are seven beers plus seasonals in the lineup. Fat Tire, the largest seller, is named after Jeff’s epiphany trip and the mountain bike he rode in Belgium.
Do all their beers fit into what some purists say are true Belgian-style guidelines? No. But the spirit of fruits and spices, wild yeast strains and oak barrels are predominant in all of them. Don’t forget, this is New Belgium. It’s a subtle, yet important, point.
New Belgium Brewing will always be special for us because that’s where we had the privilege of meeting Michael Jackson. We tasted Chimay from several different years that evening, while listening to Michael impart his wisdom and tell fascinating stories. And yes, one of them was about Father Theobold.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.