I recently went back for a U.S. visit and met up with a friend of mine from college who I hadn't seen in almost 20 years. We caught up on small-talk and I told him I'm now living in Belgium. Before I get to what he said next and the moral of this story, I need to describe my friend (let's call him 'Steve' because, well, that's his name) a bit: he's technically half American/half British, but he's Yank through and through. I'm guessing he earns well into six figures, works in Manhattan and does the sympathy-inducing commute to the NJ suburbs every night to be with his wife and 2.2 children. He doesn't live in a red state, drink Bud/Coors/Miller Lite or reside in a double-wide. I figure he knows the difference between a Merlot and a Zinfandel, dined with regularity at Tavern on the Green in its day and drives an imported car (ok maybe minivan). In other words, he's a successful if, in many ways, typical American.

So when I told our 'Steve' that I live in Belgium, he gushed: "Oh, I love Hoegaarden!" Naturally, I cringed inside (the way one might cringe at a hotel bar offering Bud/Bud Light/Heineken/Amstel as your choices on draft). I didn't cringe because Hoegaarden is, prima facie, a bad beer. It's just because, compared to the rest of the exceptionally broad universe that is Belgian beers, it isn't even a speck of "gist" as the Flemish might say. After my first month or so living in Belgium, rarely did a Hoegaarden pass my lips. Why would it?! It's rarely warm enough for a blanche and there are so many more interesting choices.

And here, in the interest of full disclosure, is the real kicker: before I lived among les Belges, I also would have said that I love Hoegaarden! I remember paying $9-10 a six-pack for it. That's right. In fact I used to love Hoegaarden, Leffe, Stella and Duvel -- the four legs that comprise the barstool of accessible Belgian imports to the U.S. I still gladly drink Duvel, mind you, but only resort to the other three in when they're free or there's nothing more interesting around.

But back to our Steve. The point is that if Americans are willing to pay premium prices for the mass-produced AmBev's (Stella, Leffe, Hoegaarden) and, to a lesser extent, Duvel's of the world, how much would they plunk down for a really good artisanal Belgian blonde, trappist or dubbel?

I dare say there is still room to grow in this market, but it needs a lot more exposure. The 'Steve's' of the world love Hoegaarden because it's so hard for them to regularly find the more obscure, complex Belgian brew, and little information about these beers available to Americans. AmBev has a massive advertising and distribution network, so their Belgian brands are accessible.

Incidentally, when I got back to Belgium, I emailed 'Steve' a Belgian beer drinking assignment, based on diversity, accessibility, excellence and Wow factor -- that 'holy shit, that was good' feeling you get when you taste your first out-of-this-world Belgian, like a Westmalle Tripel, etc.

Here are the beers that comprised that assignment along with my commentary:

  • Judas (similar to Duvel but more devilish)
  • Triple Karmeliet (a slightly sweet blonde but well balanced. I love this beer).
  • Le Chouffe (may be hard to find in NYC but very good Waloon beer, blonde or brown)
  • St. Feuillen (they have a blonde and brown and both are excellent)
  • Brugse Zot blonde
  • Gulden Draak triple (10% ABV but you won't notice until it's too late)
  • Westmalle triple (a trappist and maybe not easily found in US. I didn't see it when I was in NYC. But among my favorites. The dubbel - brown - is growing on me too)
  • Rochefort 8 or 10. The numbers refer to the ABV. All are decent. There is also a 6.
  • Maredsous 10 Tripel (may be hard to find). A bit sweet for my tastes.
  • La Cuvee des Trolls (decent, lemony blonde)
  • Grimbergen Tripel (not excellent but they have good distribution, so may be available).

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