Order a Belgian Ale
The beer world is changing due in significant measure to the influence of Belgian
ales. These beers have brought a sort of epiphany to many American beer
drinkers. In Belgian brews they have found something they’d never want to drink out
of a plastic cup, use for beer pong, or chug at a party. Even more, many of these
new found Belgian beer lovers have put aside their pretentious notions about wine
and now order beer at a restaurant or when cocktails seem in order.
Indeed, Belgium beers possess many of the characteristics that helped wine grow in
popularity in the US over the last several decades. Belgium beers are made to be
enjoyed slowly and thoroughly. They are often second fermented in the bottle which
allows them to be aged for years. This bottle fermentation produces a natural
carbonization giving the beer velvet-like mouth feel. It also boasts the alcohol
content to areas double that of a standard American macro. Finally, the beers are
cork finished and served in glasses specially designed for the individual beer style.
Clearly, this is not something for the typical Bud or Coors drinker.
Belgian ales come in a variety of styles and complexities that make them pair
extremely well with different types of food. While the flavors are robust and complex,
the brews are also very quaffable. Belgian brewers pride themselves in producing
ales that are designed not to overwhelm the pallet with any one flavor. Instead they
artistically balance their brew so that the drinking experience is wholly pleasurable.
Many of the Belgian breweries are family owned and have been in business for
hundreds of years.
You will often see Belgian beers that identify themselves as triples or doubles. The
terms are an identification of strength. The more malt the brewer uses in the brewing
process the higher the alcohol levels in the beer. A beer is considered a “double”
when the brewer uses twice the normal amount of malt to brew. Just as logically, a
triple uses three times the normal amount of malt. In Medieval times simple beers
were for peasants, doubles for the monks, and triples for the Bishop, Abbots, and
American breweries have taken notice of the surging popularity of Belgian beers
around the world ($5.1 billion gross in 2009) and many have created brands labeled
“Belgian Style Ale”. Blue Moon from Coors and Shock Top from Anheuser-Busch are
the two largest selling pseudo-Belgian ales in the world. Many craft brewers are also
entering the field with excellent results such as those from Allagash and Ommegang.
There are approximately 125 breweries in Belgian ranging from international giants
to the truly great small breweries that produce what the world generally means when
they say "Belgian beer".
In Europe, only Germany, France and the United Kingdom are home to more
breweries. Belgian breweries produce about 800 standard beers. When special one-
off beers are included, the total number of Belgian beers is approximately over
8,500. The majority of this is for export though Belgians drink 93 litres of beer a year
Perhaps the most famous Belgian beers are the Trappist ones. Trappist beers are
beers literally brewed in a Trappist monastery. For a beer to qualify for Trappist
certification, the brewery must be in or near a monastery, the monks must play a role
in its production and the profits from the sale must be used to support the monastery
and/or local social programs. Only seven monasteries currently meet these
qualifications, six of which are in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The current
Trappist producers are Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven (the Netherlands), Orval,
Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. Trappist beer is a controlled term of origin:
it tells where the beers come from, it is not the name of a beer style. Beyond saying
they are mostly top-fermented, the beers produced by the Trappist have very little in
Abbey beers are produced by breweries under an arrangement with an extant
monastery that does not meet all of the criteria for a Trappist certification. Some of
these are even branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by a
commercial brewer; or given a vaguely monastic branding.
Abbey beers can be in a number of styles but be warned against assuming that
closeness of connection with a real monastery is indicative of quality of product.
Various Abbey beers include Inbev's Leffe, Affligem, Grimbergen, Maredsous, St.
Bernardus, Tripel Karmeliet, Saint-Feuillien, Floreffe, and Val-Dieu.
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