As mentioned in a previous post, I used to be a fan of all the mainstream (read: big, corporate) Belgian beers exported to the U.S. (mainly AmBev and Duvel’s beers). I’m not ashamed to admit the truth about my past. Like a Michelin chef who was raised on the holy Trinity (Dominos, Doritos and Ding-Dongs), I overcame my upbringing. Better still, my taste palette and appreciation for good Belgian beers continues to change.
I first drank the beers you could easily access in the U.S.: Leffe, Stella, Duvel, Chimay, Hoegaarden, etc. I remember once at the Brickskeller in Washington, DC
(a great beerpub with a diverse selection) when I tasted a Stille Nacht
Christmas brew and I really enjoyed it (in fact it remains one of my favorites but is surpassed by Oerbier’s Arabier). But I wasn’t able to find such diversity regularly, nor did I fully appreciate it at the time.
When I moved to Brussels, naturally I tried a sampling of beers that are lesser-known in North America. My instant favorite was Westmalle Tripel, a delicious, complex, richly golden-colored (almost orange) trappist that is nearly 10% ABV (more to come in a future post about Belgian/Dutch Trappists…).
I liked Westmalle Tripel right away because, like a fine wine, it has layer after layer of flavor — just when you experience and appreciate one taste, the next one hits you. It has great mouthfeel — in other words more carbonation than most American beers, but not in that bubbly, soda pop way that panther-piss like Bud and Coors have. Rich fruity taste is well balanced against just the right amount of hoppy bitterness. This remains one of my favorite beers as, despite its high alcohol content, it is remarkably drinkable.
A Full-Fledged Love Affair
So at first I stuck mainly to the blondes that were hot (high in alcohol), full-flavored and drier. I didn’t care as much for the dubbels or browns, such as those offered by Westmalle or Grimbergen, finding them treacly sweet and syrupy-thick — the first step on a continuum that eventually ends at Jagermeister…and a bad headache. They reminded me too much of sweet British stouts like Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, one of the few beers that I couldn’t really stomach.
Then one night out at Bar del Sol, a charming (if ordinary) cafe-cum-pub in Leuven, a friend of mine was drinking a Trappistes Rochefort 10 in its handsome gold-rimmed glass.
Though I initially presumed it wouldn’t suit my palate, something about it appealed to me: that rich, dark (almost chocolately) body contrasting sharply with a bright creamy head. It reminded me a bit of Guinness in appearance, but not as dark.
I ordered one, on a whim, if only to reassure myself that spurning the darker beers was the way to go. But I discovered a real treasure!
First of all, it wasn’t too sweet. And though it is over 11% ABV, it never tastes phony or too strong. Best of all, it had the same complexity of flavor I had enjoyed with the blonde beers: a great fruity mix up front with waves of taste that hit you before a raisin-y or molasses-y finish.
This beer opened my eyes. I now regularly mix brown beers into my normal rotation, especially Westmalle Dubbel, Chimay (red and blue) and Gulden Draak. But Rochefort 10 remains my favorite brown…for now.