Walk into a good multi-tap bar these days or, especially, a good beer retail store, and Belgium rules. A beer lover shopping for new flavors is confronted with bewildering choices: bottles that are corked and wired in the manner of champagne, beers that claim religious connections and others with fruit incongruously depicted. The labels, written in Flemish or French, may display examples of the cartoons for which the Belgians are famous, but the high prices of some of these brews are no joking matter. Faced with expanding choices, how to choose?
All this cultural beer exchange is not unidirectional. America’s microbrews are having an effect on what beer lovers drink in Belgium—and what gets exported to the United States.
Belgium may be a small country within Europe, but it is huge in the world of beer, with every village seemingly hanging onto its own individual brewing tradition. The result is a diversity of beer styles unmatched in any other traditional brewing nation. With so much variety, it’s not possible to define Belgian beer, per se. However, many Belgian styles can be clustered together in a relatively small number of categories according to their dominant flavor character. With some guidance, whether the beer is brewed in Belgium, brewed elsewhere but inspired by Belgian brewing, or brewed in Belgium with foreign inspiration, it’s possible to make an educated choice and select a new beer you’ll enjoy.
Spices and Citrus: The White Beers
Let’s say you’re in a local watering hole, and you see patrons enjoying a cloudy, blonde-colored beer. The bartender says it’s a Belgian brew, and that it’s kind of spicy and citrusy, but not too strong.
You have just discovered “white” beer. It’s also called witbier in its native region of Flanders, and bière blanche in French-speaking Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium.
Belgian white beers originated in the town of Hoegaarden over five-hundred years ago. The last white beer brewery in Hoegaarden closed in the late 1950s. Pierre Celis resurrected the style in 1966.
Wit beers are fine warm weather thirst quenchers. They typically contain about 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and are noticeably spiced, often with coriander and curaçao—a remnant of Belgium’s role in the spice trade. The wheat gives the beer its spritzy, almost lemony character. A good Belgian witbier should be easy drinking, yet still satisfying.
Some of the best Belgian examples are Troublette, from Brasserie Caracole, Blanche de Honnelles from Brasserie de Rocs, St. Bernardus Witbier, Watou’s Witbier from Brouwerij Van Eecke and Saisis from Brasserie Ellezelloise. Here in the United States, some especially fine white beers include Allagash White from Maine, Great Lakes Holy Moses White from Cleveland, Lakefront White from Milwaukee and Ommegang Witte from Cooperstown, NY. Have you been drinking Blue Moon? That Coors product is also an example of a wit beer.
Herbal and Earthy: Ale Brewed in a…Farmhouse?
Truthfully, most Belgian “farmhouse” ales aren’t literally brewed in a farmhouse. This style family, referred to as saison in Belgium and bière de garde in Northern France, is thought to have originated primarily in Hainaut province, a rural area of Wallonia where both farming and brewing have been important economic activities for centuries. Session beer-strength saisons (3 to 5 percent alcohol) were brewed in the winter and spring, to be consumed by farm workers in the summer heat. Stronger versions of farmhouse ales were brewed for winter enjoyment.
“Farmhouse ale” is a sort of a convenient catchall term to describe saison beers that are aromatic, dry, earthy and fruity. Saisons can also be spicy, but these notes suggesting anise, pepper or green herbs most often come from the yeast, not from the actual addition of spices, and the beers display a light to medium tartness. Some saisons are, however, spiced with various ingredients. Bitterness ranges from pleasantly hopped to highly hopped, by Belgian standards. Translation: don’t expect any farmhouse ale to knock you over the head like a double IPA.
This style is very wide-ranging, and encompasses beers such as Saison Dupont and Avec les bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont, which are both world classics and benchmarks of the style. The often very idiosyncratic ales of Brasserie Fantome in Soy, such as Black Ghost and Noel, are also farmhouse ales—though these beers may seem to have little in common with the Dupont brews. Taste ‘em and decide for yourself.
Other standout Belgian Farmhouse ales include the superb Saison d’Epeautre and La Moneuse from Brasserie de Blaugies, Saison de Erpe-Mere from Brouwerij de Glazen Toren and Saison de Pipaix from Brasserie a Vapeur, the last solely steam-powered brewery in Belgium.
Excellent Belgian-inspired U.S.-brewed farmhouse ales include Pecore from The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore, Bullfrog Brewing Beesting Saison from Pennsylvania, Iron Hill Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière, Red Barn from Lost Abbey in San Diego and Ommegang Hennepin.