Belgium is the cornucopia of the beer world. It froths and foams with a vast and diverse offering of the fruits of barley and wheat. A small country rent by political and linguistic antagonisms, united by its passion for beer.
This passion is not confined to connoisseurs and brewers. It spills over into bars and restaurants. Waiters and bar staff will present customers with beer menus and discuss the merits of particular brews or the best beery companions for certain dishes.
Often bottles come wrapped in coloured tissue paper and have Champagne-style cradles and corks. Beers are labelled Grand Cru as if they were as important as wine. Quite right, they are as important as wine.
The casual visitor to Belgium, faced by umbrellas and awnings announcing the ubiquitous availability of Stella Artois, could be excused for thinking the country is yet another haven for global lager brands. There are indeed several examples of what the fastidious Belgian call pils. But there is more, much more. The less than casual visitor will know of the remarkable ales brewed by a handful of monks in the seclusion of their cloisters. The acclaim for these monastic brews has spawned – not without controversy – a far bigger cluster of commercial “abbey” ales.
Belgium is also home to perhaps the oldest form of brewing in the world. Lambic and gueuze beers, produced by “wild” or spontaneous fermentation, feature in the paintings of Pieter Bruegel, sour and rustic drinks that have been made and consumed by stolid country folk for 500 years or more. They are the palpable link to the earliest days of brewing, some 3,000 years BC, when sodden grain was allowed to ferment with wild yeasts in the atmosphere. Fruit, usually in the form of cherries or raspberries, are added to create the tartly quenching styles known as kriek and framboise.
Sourness is not confined to the lambic style. The red beers of West Flanders, matured in oak vats, pick up sour and vinous notes from wild organisms in the wood. There is an equally tart character about the “white” or wheat beers of the country, often brewed with the addition of spices and fruit. Golden ales, the remarkable Duvel in particular, have enormous depth and complexity. Prepare for a fabulous journey.
TRAPPIST AND ABBEY ALES
When monks belonging to the Trappist order were driven out of France during the French revolution they headed north into the Low Countries where they built new religious communities. Small breweries were an essential element of the abbeys they constructed. Beer was part of the monks’ simple diet and sustained them during Lent. Eventually some of the monasteries began to sell small quantities of their beers commercially in order to raise funds to maintain their buildings and their missionary work at home and abroad.
Today there are six Trappist breweries operating in Belgium. The monks are at pains to stress that there is no such thing as a Trappist style. It is more a tradition, of brewing rich and characterful bottlefermented ales that they treat as seriously as fine wine. The best-known monastic brewery is Chimay, which was the first to sell beer commercially.
The three beers, Red, Blue and White, derive their names from the colour of their bottle caps. Red and Blue, 7% and 9% respectively, are copper coloured and intensely fruity while White (8%) is distinctively different, with a citrus fruit and spicy hops appeal.
Orval, a spectacular monastery in the wooded Ardennes, is unique among the Trappist breweries in producing just one regular beer, a 6% peach coloured ale. Enormous dedication goes into the production process, with four or five barleys imported from several countries along with English and German hops. The beer enjoys three fermentations – the last in bottle – to produce a beer with a tart fruit and peppery hops character.
To prove the point that there is no unifying Trappist style, the three beers from Rochefort, labelled Six, Eight and Ten, are dark and malty: the monks emphasise the fact that they are the archetypal “liquid bread” beers brewed in monasteries for centuries. The world-famous Tripel (9.5%) brewed at the Westmalle monastery near Antwerp is again markedly different, as pale as a pilsner with a ripe fruit and hops appeal. Westmalle also produces a 7% Dubbel or Double that is dark and malty.
The Westvleteren monastery near Ypres is the smallest and most reclusive of the Trappist producers: brewing is spasmodic and the bush telegraph in the Low Countries announces when beer is available direct from the brewery gates. Drinkers arrive by car, van or even bike to pick up supplies and the effort is worthwhile, as the Blond (5.8%), Extra (8%) and Abt [Abbot] (11%) are superb ales, ranging from pale, russet to dark brown in colour and all with massive malty, fruity and hoppy notes.
The strength of the Trappist tradition can be measured by the emergence in 1998 of a sixth monastic brewery. The Achel brewery at the Abbey of St Benedict close to the Dutch border is small and supplies, in the finest monastic tradition, a tavern within the grounds. There are two draught beers, Blond and Brune [Brown], both 5%. Bottled versions are considerably stronger, at 8%, and are giving the brewery wider appreciation.
In 1997 the Trappists discussed the confusion caused by a flood of “Abbey” beers, which, they felt, undermined the monastic tradition. As a result, they decided to label their products – bread and cheese as well as beer – with the appellation “Authentic Trappist Product.” The problem for the monks is that some Abbey beers do have genuine ecclesiastical connections. Several Belgian monasteries stopped brewing during the Napoleonic period and World War I, for the good reason that their breweries were destroyed or ransacked for valuable copper. More modern interpretations have little or no religious background and are merely cashing in on the trend.
The best-known Abbey beers are Leffe Blond and Brown, brewed by global giant Inbev, replete with a stained glass motif on the labels. Affligem beers are connected to a monastery in the hopgrowing region of Aalst. The beers are Blond (7%), Dubbel, also 7%, and Tripel (8.5%), all notably fruity and hoppy. The beers are produced for the monks by the De Smedt brewery, which changed its name to Affligem and became part of the Heineken group.
The Corsendonk beers have ancient links with an Augustine priory and stress the link with such names as Pater Noster [Our Father], 7%, and Agnus Dei [The Lamb of God], 8.1%. They are brewed by the substantial commercial brewery of Du Bocq.
Some of the most highly regarded Abbey beers carry the Maredsous label, from a 19th century Benedictine abbey near Namur. Maredsous 6, 9 and 10 range in colour from gold through tawny to amber and are fruity with coffee and chocolate notes in the darker beers. They are brewed by Moortgat of Breendonk.
LAMBIC AND GUEUZE
Lambic is a style that is also under attack, not only from large commercial brewers, with sweetened and undemanding versions, but also from government bureaucrats. Some practitioners of the style gave up in disgust in recent years when they were told by health officials they had to clean up their breweries: it is the presence of moulds and spiders’ webs that help create the character of the beer, harbouring natural micro-organisms and, in the case of spiders, killing fruit flies. A compromise of sorts was reached but lambic breweries have been sanitised and many fear the bureaucrats will be back for – if you will pardon the pun – another bite of the cherry.
Lambic is a rustic style, based in the valley of the River Zenne, the capital of which is Brussels. The style went into steep decline in the 20th century as urban industries replaced agriculture, and modern ales and lagers became the vogue. Today only a handful of lambic brewers and blenders remain to produce these amazing beers.
The method of production remains firmly bucolic. Brewing does not take place in summer, when temperatures are too high. A mash is made of malted barley and unmalted wheat. The resulting sweet extract is then boiled with aged hops: hop bitterness does not marry well with the aromas and flavours produced by wheat, so only hops that have lost their bitterness are used for the preservative qualities.
The hopped extract is then pumped to an open pan, known as the cool ship, located in the attic of the brewery.
Louvred windows are left open and during the night air-borne wild yeasts enter and attack the sugars in the liquid. Once fermentation is underway, the liquid is transferred to large oak casks in cellars beneath the brewery.
Microflora in the wood and the atmosphere attack the fermenting liquid and create a “flor”, similar to that in sherry, on top.
The beer stays in cask for as long as six years. Straight lambic, served on draught, is rare. Most forms of lambic are known as gueuze, and are a blend of young and old lambics, usually in bottle. The name may derive from the fact that the foaming and spritzy beer gushes like a geyser. The most exotic forms of the beer are those to which cherry or raspberry fruit are added: cherry versions are known as kriek, from the Flemish word for the fruit, while raspberry beers are known as framboize or frambozen.
The finest practitioners of the style are: Frank Boon, based in Lembeek, from which the term lambic is derived, with his tart and lemony Geuze (note the spelling variation) and the toasty, sour and quenching Kriek; Drie Fonteinen of Beersel with Oude Gueuze, Framboise and Kriek; and Girardin Black Label Gueuze from Sint Ulricks Kapelle. At the time of writing, reports suggest that the celebrated Cantillon lambic brewery may close, not due to lack of success but because of the violence in Anderlecht that has led to burglaries and attacks on members of the Van Roy family.
Closure would be a tragic loss.
In Belgium, wheat beers are conventionally called “white” (wit in Flemish, blanche in French), possibly as a result of the large fluffy white heads of foam created by the substantial amount of wheat used alongside barley malt.
The style is phenomenally successful, due to the work of Pierre Celis, founder of the Hoegaarden brewery in the small town of the same name.
Belgian wheat beers, unlike their Bavarian counterparts, are often spiced, a habit that dates from the time when seafarers from the Low Countries brought exotic spices and fruit back from their journeys. Hoegaarden uses ground coriander seeds and dried orange peel.
In the hands of mighty Inbev, the Celis brewery has been closed and production moved to its vast lager plant at Jupille. Other independent producers of white beer include Blanche de Namur from Du Bocq, Dentergems Wit and Haacht Witbier.
The sour red beers of West Flanders form yet another style with a fascinating history. The best-known brewery by far is Rodenbach of Roeselare and one member of the Rodenbach family, Eugene, spent some time in England during the 19th century studying the methods used to make porter and beers aged in wood.
Rodenbach Grand Cru (6%), a world classic, is made from pale and slightly darker Vienna malts with German and English hop varieties.
Following fermentation, the beer is aged in ceiling-high oak tuns for 18 months or more.
The tuns are unlined and lactobacilli and other organisms in the wood add a sour, lactic quality to the beer. The finished beer is vinous, tart, oaky, tannic and sharply fruity. A less aggressively sour version is Klassiek (5%), a blend of aged and young beer.
For many beer lovers, the golden ale Duvel is Belgium’s best-known export. It has been brewed since the 1970s though a darker version was launched between the two World Wars. The name is a play on the Flemish word for the devil and the joke is that it is the devil of a good beer.
It is a stunningly complex beer that enjoys three fermentations, the last in bottle. Extremely pale malt is used, giving the finished beer a colour rating scarcely darker than a pilsner’s. The hops are Czech Saaz and Styrian Goldings.
Primary fermentation lasts for six days followed by three days of secondary fermentation at a cold temperature. The beer is then bottled with a dosage of dextrose to encourage a strong third ferment. This lifts the final strength to 8.5%. The beer has a rich bouquet of hop resins, pear fruit and lightly toasted malt. Fruit and hops dominate the mouth while the long finish has perfumy hops, juicy malt and rich pear fruit.
The end of the trip yet no space to mention the brown ales of East Flanders, the rustic saisons or seasonal ales or even Mad beers. Another time, another journey…
Achel: Abdij de Achelse, Hamont-Achel
Chimay: Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont, Forges, les Chimay, Hainaut
Orval: Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval, Villersdevant- Orval
Rochefort: Abbaye de Notre-Dame de St Remy, Rochefort
Westmalle: Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle, Malle
Westvleteren: Abdij St Sixtus. Westvleteren
Brouweri Frank Boon, Lembeek Brassrie Cantillon, Anderlecht, Brussels Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen, Beersel Brouwerij Girardin, Sint Ulriks Kapelle
Brasserie Du Bocq, Purnode Dentergems Wit, Liefmans, Dentergem Brouwerij Haacht, Boortmeerbeek
Duvel, Brouwerij Moortgat, Breendonk