Belgium is beer’s idea of Heaven, where the globe-bestriding march of the lager brands comes to an ignominious halt in the sticky Flanders mud, where shiny-faced drinkers cherish their local, often deeply idiosyncratic styles – made by thriving, dedicated small producers – and beer is on the pedestal that is the exclusive preserve of wine everywhere else, especially for accompanying fine cuisine. Well, they had to get something right, didn’t they?
Of course not everything is as rosy as the cheeks of those discerning drinkers (who are however shipping nearly a third less of the stuff than they did 40 years ago) – brewers do get bought up (Stella Artois, long ago, by what is now AB Inbev; Affligem by Heineken) and there is more bog-standard stuff than before (although even “white van” Stella – in the embossed tinnies found in metropolitan offies – which is brewed there, is hugely superior to the UK-brewed version) and, in among the couple of dozen unique Belgian styles, there are some that only a local could like. Taken overall, though, the good stuff is arguably the best in the world.
Some of the styles …
abbey beers – similar to the Trappist beers but made by (avowedly) commercial companies … don’t get me started but AB Inbev’s Leffe Blonde does seem to taste saccharine-y, doesn’t it (although the Brune doesn’t)?
ales – sometimes made in the style of British versions, which is encouraging (De Koninck, Palm)
bière brut – fine things intended to be made in the image of, and with similarly labour-intensive methods and prices as, Champagne … we’ll see (Bosteels)
lambics – are “wild beers,” and they taste of the woods: wine-like, tart – sour even – and smoky and spicy. They are a true artisan product, using a third raw wheat in the grist, just a few hops as a preservative and then fermented over an extended period – sometimes years – by airborne yeasts which are encouraged to thrive in a hygeine regime that would give most head-brewers the screaming ab-dabs. An acquired taste, the best route in is via geuze (aka gueuze) the semi-commercial form, which mixes young and old beers (Belle-Vue, Cantillon, De Ranke, Girardin, Timmermans); fruit beers like kriek (with cherries – Liefmans) and framboise (with raspberries – Chapeau) are made with lambics and are fine as long as you think of them as being something somewhat other than beer
red and brown beers – tart enough to shock the uninitiated, the former with a vinegar twang, these are a Flemish speciality (Rodenbach)
saison – strong, sharp, copper-coloured ales brewed for summer (Dupont, Fantôme) and catching on with UK craft-brewers
Trappist beer – unlike monastery-breweries elsewhere Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren produce a specific style (or range of styles) unique to them in the traditional “triple” and “double” beers which are the results, respectively, of the first and second soakings of the mash, and are thrice and twice as strong as the third, a “small beer.” The former – rich, strong and complex – are, along with an upstart “quadruple” style, among the finest things a brewer can do.
witbier – Hoegaarden, the brand that got the whole white beer wave started, was set up by Pierre Celis who subsequently moved to the USA and became something of a cult figure among brewers of cloudy ales. It’s the biggest brand, now owned by AB Inbev, flavoured with bitter orange peel and coriander seed (and perfectly OK, as long as you have some lemon to cut the soapiness)
wicked beers – the late Michael Jackson – no, not that one, but the ur-beer writer – came up with the term to plug the gap in the nomenclature for a bunch of beers made to flatter Moortgat’s peerless Duvel (pronounced Doov’l and literally “Devil” after an early guinea-pig apparently pronounced it a “devil of a beer.”) From Flanders, with it’s light body and billowing head it looks like a lager but it’s top-fermented to 8.5% abv – you’d never guess, until it’s too late. (It’s little brother Vedett is a saintly 5.2% abv, by the way.) Other good ‘uns are from Abbaye des Rocs, Achouffe, Anker, De Proef, De Struise, Drei Fonteinen, Alken-Maes (Grimbergen), Lefèbvre, Proef, St. Bernardus and not least Mort Subite (but at least I’d be dying happy in the peerless perfection of their Brussels bar)