Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Glimpse Into the Wonderful World of Belgian Beer

by Andres Acosta
The Wine Country’s Beer Specialist
Our recent, ragingly successful BeerVenture tasting graphically displayed a small cross-section of the vast variety of flavors, textures and styles of beer found in Belgium, arguably the center of the beer universe. We didn't have the time, or liver capacity, to explore all the different styles of fermented malt beverages from the land of the Flemish and the Walloons, but with the assistance of Larry James, a bona fide Belgian beer expert, we did sample a nice selection of styles, starting with five sour beers.

Sour beers are an incredibly distinct and somewhat polarizing style of beer, and to an ever-increasing number of hard core beer geeks, the only style that matters; one could say trendy, as well. They are brewed using indigenous wild yeast and sometimes inoculated with specific bacteria, which leads to varying levels of discernible acidity or sourness in the flavor of the beer. The main styles are lambic, gueuze and flanders red ale along with fruit-added versions, such as kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry), and other local blends and variations. Since we are talking about wild yeasts, and this simple, yet complex, living organism varies by location and environment, there is a wide variation in the flavors of the beers made by each brewery based on their particular yeast strains, even within the same category of beer.

A large and seemingly growing group of beer aficionados can't get enough of these beers and I am frequently asked to point them out on our shelves or asked to try and procure the more unique and rare versions. Perhaps the majority of lovers of fermented malt beverages, me among them, think that many of these sour beers taste like somebody screwed up perfectly good beer by pouring vinegar into it.

That being said, since I am the beer guy here at The Wine Country and it seems like I should be familiar with most, if not all, of the styles of beer we sell, I am making a conscious effort to warm up to sours. I can happily report that this effort is meeting with some success and the first beer we poured is one of the reasons why.

Strubbe's Grand Cru Flemish Red Ale was a huge hit ($3.99 per 330ml bottle and 6.5% abv). It has a pretty malty sweetness with a hint of cherry at first and then a delightful mild sour tang at the end, sort of like the Sweet Tarts candy I used to eat as a kid. As sours go, this beer is at the barely sour end of the spectrum, and it is really refreshing and hard to put down. An entry level sour beer, if you will, and a good introduction to the style, particularly for those who think they might not like this style of beer.

Well, beer number two really cranked up the sour quotient and the sour heads in the crowd began murmuring excitedly with their first sips, with many of the rest of us doing a sort of shocked taste double take as the Petrus Aged Pale Ale hit our taste buds ($4.19 per 330ml bottle and 7.3% abv). Aged in oak barrels, this award winning beer is quite sour and somewhat wine like, with the oak noticeable in the mouth and nose. It also has enough malty sweetness to balance the vinegary tartness. Many of the sour aficionados really enjoyed this beer for its aggressive up front sourness and clean finish.

With the third beer, we definitely knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore, Toto. The Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge Barrel Aged Sour was noticeably more sour than the Petrus, which is saying something; mouth puckering sour($5.89 per 330ml bottle and 5.5% abv). It too is aged in oak barrels and had a distinct tart black cherry note to go with its remarkable depth and complexity Many thought it was the beer of the night and had similarities to a fine wine, with a flavor profile that would lend itself to serious food pairings.

Beer number four was the Timmermans Oude Gueuze "Lambicus" ($15.99 a 750ml bottle and 5.5% abv). This was another sour beast, although different from the oak aged beers that preceded it in the tasting. A blend of old and new lambic brews, this beer had a citrusy component to go with its significant sourness and more sweetness than either of the two previous beers. It also had a bit of that Belgian spiciness, and a somewhat rustic, slightly earthy note. The Timmermans brewery lays claim to having a lineage to the original brewers of lambic beers and this beer is made in their meticulously traditional style in extremely limited quantities.

The next beer was, to me, the most interesting beer of the night. The Reinaert Flemish Wild Ale is made with two yeasts, the usually-to-be-avoided Brettanomyces and the typical brewing yeast Saccharomyces ($3.99 per 330ml bottle and 9% abv). As a wine lover, it did seem odd to me that you would advertise Brettanomyces on the label, something which, when present in wine, is frequently considered a fatal flaw. Not so in beer, apparently, and I must say that this beer had a really interesting complexity and earthiness unlike any beer I have ever tasted. There isn’t much malty sweetness present, but it does have a wild combination of citrus, minerality, herbs, wood and a hint of tropical fruit. Not really a sour beer, but it did have a hint of sour in that wild mix of flavors.

So by now, the sour-loving people in the crowd are getting really happy, and the rest of us are wondering when the ordeal of tartness will be over and we get to taste some “normal” beer. The Poperings Hommel Golden Ale returned us to sanity, with its delightful malty sweetness and solid hit of hops ($4.09 per 330ml bottle and 7.5% abv). Hoppier than many Belgian beers but not quite what I would call an IPA in California terms, this beer really hits my sweet spot, with the combination of rich maltiness and medium strong hops typical of a good golden ale. Sporting a nice hint of citrus and spice to go along with a smooth balanced flavor, to many in the room this beer tasted like soothing sweet nectar after the previous five beers’ vinegary assault.

The next beer was the Caracole Saxo Blond Ale ($5.39 per 330ml bottle and 8% abv) and it, too, had a delectable malty sweetness, and, although it had a very nice citric hoppiness, it had less of a hop signature than the Poperings. It displayed a lemony/floral nose and showed a bit of fruitiness in the mouth with a slightly rustic but interesting finish. It finished fairly dry but had a solid sweet streak throughout. A good example of a blond ale and the sweetness hid the not insubstantial 8% alcohol nicely.

We moved next to a style of beer that is relatively new to Belgium, a truly hoppy California style IPA, and, based on sales, it was a big favorite. The Troubadour Magma Triple IPA ($5.09 per 330ml bottle and 9.3% abv) brilliantly combines the strong hop signature of a California style IPA, achieved by using American hops and also dry hopping the beer, with the unique flavor profile generated by utilizing the brewing style, malted grains and yeast typical in Belgium. Although it was labeled a triple IPA, mostly because of the high alcohol content,  in California terms it had the hoppiness of a single IPA. It had an interesting thick and creamy mouthfeel, a nice fruity/spicy streak typical of Belgian ales, and a dry hoppy finish. Overall, a really nice balance of a very slight sweetness, fruit, spice, hops and alcohol. Some of the folks in the crowd who identified themselves as California IPA drinkers indicated that this was the first Belgian beer they had ever had that they truly liked.

We then switched styles to a magnificent example of a brown ale, the Val-Dieu Brown Abbey Ale ($10.09 for a 750ml bottle or $x.xx for a 330ml bottle and 8.0% abv). This beer really had a lot of subtlety and complexity to go with its basic deliciousness. And it was just downright delicious, with a beautifully smooth dark malty sweetness that went on nearly forever. Classified as a dubbel, as opposed to the stronger tripel and quadruple style ales, this beauty had chocolate and coffee notes on the nose, and in the mouth, a complex combination of deep malty sweetness, slightly bracing malty bitterness, a hint of bittersweet chocolate and with just enough of a hop signature to balance everything perfectly.

At this stage in the tasting, we were starting to crank up the flavor, intensity and alcohol content, for which the Belgian brews are famous. There’s a reason all the monks on the labels of these beers are sporting a you-know-what-eating grin. The Brasserie des Rocs Grand Cru Brown Ale ($4.89 per 330ml bottle and 9.5% abv) certainly had the alcohol, at 9.5%, to go with its massive sweetness. We’re talking caramel, brown sugar, figs and prunes to go with the typical spiciness found in most Belgian beers. The remarkable thing about this incredibly thick and smooth beer is that there is virtually no hint in the mouth of the high alcohol. This would make a great dessert beer.

OK, time for the double-digit alcohol big boys to come out and play and boy, did they. In its distinctive white bottle, the Gulden Draak Dark Tripel ($4.99 per 330ml bottle and 10.5% abv) has been a standard bearer in the States for huge, dark, sweet and malty Belgian beers for quite some time. You’re greeted by aromas of licorice, raisins, even toffee and in the mouth, an explosion of thick, smooth flavors - malty chocolate, molasses, candy sugar. It has a wonderful combination of syrupy sweetness and peppery alcohol that balance beautifully. All most of us could say is wow. It reminded some of Port wine in its complexity, sweetness and strength.

Last, and certainly not least, was the only quadruple ale we dared taste, the Straffe Hendrik Bruges Quadruple ($12.29 per 750 ml bottle and 11% abv). If the Gulden Draak elicited wows, this beautiful behemoth had many of us uttering mild oaths to our preferred deities. Boldly strong, hauntingly complex, intensely flavorful, remarkably smooth and with extraordinary depth, this sweet, lush malty beauty had it all. It had strong malt bitterness which combined perfectly with the sweet brown sugar, caramel and toffee flavors. The finish stayed with me for literally minutes. With just enough hops to go with the other massive flavors, this beer didn’t show its 11% alcohol either. A pinnacle of the brewing arts and just a magnificent beer, it was a fitting way to end the magical evening.

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