Wine has been an intrinsic part of my professional and personal life for decades now. It has provided me with means to live, it has given me opportunities to travel worldwide, dine at some of the best restaurants, and drink some of the most desirable wines. Most importantly though, through wine I have met some of the best people with whom I have formed lifelong friendships.
My experiences with libations, however, did not start with wine. It was in fact beer from which I got my first buzz. Growing up in communist Poland where basic food shortages were a common occurrence, quality wine was nonexistent. Wine was considered a bourgeois product unworthy of a true proletarian worker. As a matter of fact, I didn’t have any wine until my arrival to California in my mid-20s.
Now beer is my “off duty” drink. It allows to me to relax by removing myself from the professional attachment to wine, but still getting a groove on. I like to say, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Belgium beer.” The reason why the Belgian brews are my beers of choice is their one-of-a-kind multiplicity of styles and a liberal, nearly nonchalant non-conformity of brewing methods.
“In Belgium, there are no styles of beer,” proclaims Peter Bouckaert, the Brewmaster of New Belgium Brewing, and that statement perfectly defines the individuality and creativity of Belgian brewers. In contrast, the German beer industry adheres to a 500-year-old purity law, Reinheitsgebot, which restricts the number of ingredients in beer making to four: water, hops, barley, and yeasts.
The modern tradition of brewing beer in Belgium dates back to the 12th century, but its heyday occurred much later. It was at the end of the 18th and the first decades of 19th centuries, during and after the French Revolution, when large groups of clergy, among them monks escaping persecutions, fled France and settled in the neighboring countries of Belgium and the Netherlands. Catholic monks of different orders have always played a crucial role in wine and beer making in Europe. Historically, many monasteries have managed to be self-sufficient; growing and raising their own food, making their own wine, and brewing their own beers, a tradition cultivated even in present times.
There is an exclusive and coveted category of beer called Trappist. (The Trappist order of monks is a fraction of the Cistercian order characterized by rigid regulations of silence and austerity of lifestyle.) Presently, there are only fourteen breweries recognized by the International Trappist Association: 6 in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and one in the US. There is set of specific requirements which must be met for a beer to be labeled Trappist and display the seal of Trappist authenticity. In particular, it must be made exclusively within the walls of a Trappist monastery. The profits from sales must be used to sustain the monastery, the monks, surrounding communities, and designated charities. All Trappist breweries boast their own, unique recipes and follow the highest quality protocols.
Some of the most popular Belgium beer styles
White Ale, known as witbier, is made with as much as 40% of wheat and often “spiced” with ingredients like coriander, orange peel, and nutmeg. This style is made unfiltered giving it a hazy, pale appearance. These beers usually come with a moderate alcohol level of 4.5%-5.5%.
Saison or “season” in French. This style originated in farmhouse breweries of Wallonia, the French speaking part of Belgium. Brewed during cold months, saison was intended to be consumed by farm workers during the summer. (I guess there was no heavy machinery involved) This is a very broad category with numerous interpretations of the style from light to heavy in body, murky to clear in appearance, and spicy, fruity, herbal in flavors, with alcohol levels ranging from 4.5% to 9%.
Dubbel requires twice the amount of grain. They are red to dark brown in color, with the color imparted from the use candi sugar, which usually contributes to the flavors of raisins, caramel, and chocolate. The best Dubbels are often bottle-conditioned resulting in generous carbonation. Alcohol is on a higher side: 6%-8%.
Tripel: Yes, you guessed it! Here three times the amount of grains are needed during the brewing process. And as predicted the alcohol content in this style goes up. You should expect a range of seven to 10 percent. Despite the high ABV, good tripel should not be boozy due to its balanced body. This style was popularized by Westmalle Brewery in 1956 and the flavors are complex: herbs, tropical fruits, nuts and flowers.
Quadrupel. And there is this monster! Quadrupels are of deep amber, copper-brown color with intense flavors of malty richness, roasted chestnuts, coffee, pumpkin spice and more. At its most dangerous a Quadrupel can boast up to 14 percent of alcohol.
Flemish (aka Flanders) red and brown ales are produced in the West Flanders region. These beers are usually blended and barrel aged. Red versions tend to be more savory with aromas of barnyard and cheese rind, where browns offer sweeter flavors of caramel, chocolate, figs and black currant.
Lambics are wheat beers brewed mainly in the Pajottenland region of Belgium. While most modern beers are brewed with the use of cultured strains of yeasts, Lambics are fermented by exposure to native, ambient yeasts. That spontaneous fermentation results in a beer unlike any other with in-your-face sour, bright funky flavors underlined by subtle earthiness. These beers usually undergo a long aging period which can vary from three months to three years. A fruit lambic is made by an addition of fruit during the brewing process. Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) are the most popular.
There is a subcategory of lambic beers called Gueuze. It is a blend of carefully selected old and new batches of lambics (similar to non-vintage Champagne). Gueuze must be barrel aged and bottle fermented, contributing to its high carbonation and pronounced sourness.
These are the main, classic categories of Belgian beers, most representative of the industry. Within these categories there are variations and variations of variations.
If imitation is the best form of flattery, Belgian brewers should feel extremely flattered. Belgian beer making has given birth to an international trend. Inspired by their versatility and quality, brewers from all over the world have been producing Belgian style brews.
The American beer industry is among the top of those imitators in crafting Belgian style offerings. Boulevard Brewing Co. in Kansas City and their Long Strange Tripel, Russian River Brewing Co. in Santa Rosa and their Damnation strong golden ale, and one of my favorites from Allagash Brewing Co. in Portland Maine and their witbier.
These are just a few of my personal choices in the plethora of American made Belgian style beers.
Cezar Kusik Wine Contributor Polo Lifestyles 2021