A look into the best Belgian brews
Alliteration aside, Belgian beers still have my heart after all these years. They are the beers that really got me from merely interested, to passionate about craft beer. American brewers have taken nearly every “traditional” style of beer brewed on the continent, and have tried to re-produce them to the best of their abilities, or better yet, take those styles and put their own spin on them. But, in my opinion, the original laboratory for experimentation with different (adjunct) ingredients (spice, fruit, sugar, etc.) and all sorts of different yeast strains was in Belgium. Over the past 4-5 years, American brewers have really honed in their ability to consistently execute the traditional versions of the great Belgian beers, but I’m going to focus on the Belgian beers from the continent that really turned my head around and transformed what I thought craft beer was, or could be. Of course, I’m sure I’ll be missing some of your favorites as I only have so much room.
Trappist Rochefort 10 = game changer. Certainly this beer has chocolate, or dark fruits added to it….and maybe it was aged in a whiskey barrel of some sort? How in the hell can a beer be 11.3% alcohol and still be beer? (I understand that there are plenty of beers that are much stronger, but just bear with me). Even weirder….it actually tastes a bit better when the liquid gets closer to room temperature? I didn’t know a straight forward, traditionally (mostly) made beer could have these qualities. The beer is so immensely complex, dense with flavor, ever changing as the temperature changes, and so interesting that it blew my mind. Quite a few good bottle shops and a handful of high end beer bars should generally have this on hand, but please note that it’s not going to be cheap. It’s going to run for at least 6-7 bucks at most liquor stores and 10 bucks on the low end at a bar for an 11.2-ounce bottle. Trust me though, when you want/need a treat, this is worth splurging on here and there. For the ideal serving scenario, pull this beer at of a fridge and let it sit for a good 30 minutes. 50-55 degrees F is going to be the ideal serving temperature.
Saison Dupont is about as influential of a beer as is available. I understand that it is not the ONLY traditional saison or was it the first one ever produced, but it’s one of the first that was and still is widely available and is consistently an absolutely fantastic brew. IPAs still rule the scene, it seems, among American craft beer, but nearly every brewery nowadays tries to have a widely available saison in their portfolio. Mostly because it is a delicious brew to enjoy, and maybe even more-so in that it is quite possibly the most versatile and approachable style available in the realm of “craft beer”, foreign or domestic. Saison Dupont is all of the following: refreshing, drinkable, interesting, funky, hoppy, spicy, citrusy, and complimentary with nearly every cuisine. (I find traditional mussels steamed with herbs, white wine and lemon is always the best). A huge part of the flavor profile of this beer is the yeast strain that is used. Ask nearly every homebrewer and a number or professional brewers: the first saison they ever attempt to brew is going to be using a cloned Dupont yeast strain, or something extremely similar to what is used in Saison Dupont. The yeast used contributes to the funky, dry, earthy, spicy, hay-lemon grassy notes you find in the beer. The malt and hops that are used are most likely chosen to compliment those aforementioned flavors given off by the yeast. If you’ve never had this beer, please please please make sure you give it a shot. The next time you drink a Boulevard Tank 7, a Goose Island Sofie, Ommegang Hennepin or North Coast Le Merle (all fabulous beer, btw), you’ll absolutely taste a little bit of Saison Dupont each time.
I’m not sure anyone doesn’t like a traditional Duvel. It’s extremely approachable, yet highly unique all at once. Essentially take the malt and hops you would normally use to make a traditional pilsner, raise the alcohol up a bit, and add in a proprietary yeast strain. The result is a beer that mostly looks like a standard pilsner but features an extremely large amount of carbonation, head retention (how long the foam sticks around in the glass) and just enough complexity in the aroma and taste to keep pretty much any beer drinker from novice to nerd, interested. What this beer made extremely popular is the idea of bottle conditioning, which adds a considerable bit of character to the product after it is put in a bottle. You will find this beer on tap here and there, but rest assured it is a bit different than the traditional version which only comes in bottle form, due to the bottle conditioning aspect. The draft version will also be under 7% abv, while the bottle clocks in at 8.5%. Also, when drinking this beer, be sure to use a large tulip style glass or a large wine glass and allow for AT LEAST half of the glass for the foam to accumulate. Otherwise that carbonation stays in the liquid and goes into your belly as you drink. So don’t worry about taking a bit longer than usual to pour the beer out of a bottle….unless being bloated and burping a lot is your thing. Oh, and one more thing, the real way to drink this beer is out of the 750ml bottles, but it’s not completely sacrilege to enjoy the smaller bottles, as well.
Anything from Cantillon Brewery. Among the hard-core beer nerds, Cantillon is a well-known, yet not necessarily easily found product. When I got into the game 6+ years ago, it wasn’t all that uncommon to find a few bottles from Cantillon at your local bottle shop or the few craft beer bars that were kicking around at the time. With the demand for craft beer growing and competition among craft beer bars and stores growing, the small amount of Cantillon that we get in this country is extremely stretched these days. If a store or bar in the Midwest happens to come across a few cases of this sought after product, they will usually be offering it during a special event or pre-ticketed release. Now….why has this beer become so sought after? For many people, it was the first product they enjoyed that offered an extremely sour, funky, and massively complex flavor profile. (Do yourself a favor and read a bit of the history of the lambic style of beer, which Cantillon does as well/better than anyone else.) If you go out to your legit craft beer retailers and bars and see them loaded with sour-forward beers, you can thank Cantillon for keeping the sour styles relevant for decades before they really took off like we are seeing now.
If you are just getting into craft beer, these brews are must tries (well, if you can find a way to get your hands on anything from Cantillon). The same goes for more experienced beer drinkers, we all like to go back to these brews from time to time to remember and give proper respect to beers that acted as precursors to so many of the great brews produced all over the planet.