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.

The NY Times recently ran a worthwhile if imperfect review about some Belgian and Belgian-style “blondes” they recently tasted.

I say “blondes” because of the inherent taxonomical issue the reviewers faced when comparing beers as different to each other as Brugse Zot and XX Bitter. You’ll likely be intrigued, or appalled, to learn that a US-brewed Belgian-style blonde took home the top ranking. Alas, Duvel couldn’t even crack the top ten.

As the article discusses, categorization of their product is a challenge that Belgian brewers have faced as they have exported their beer far and wide, particularly in the US market.

In a country with as rich and diverse a brewing tradition as Belgium, categories can vary from region to region, even from village to village. But most beer lovers in Belgium, when they happen on a beer they’ve never tasted before, can normally rely on the educated insight of the bartender, shop owner or their nearby drinking partner. It seems, in Belgium, that the waiter at the corner brasserie can describe to you the difference between two locally brewed beers, let alone broad categories of beer.

They’ll often give you a similar description to what you might hear at a Hollywood pitch meeting: “You know Lucifer, right? Well it’s kind of a somewhat hoppy version of that with the finish you’d find from a Gulden Draak.”

However, in North America, and a lesser extent the UK, chances are these comparisons aren’t as easy to come by without similar access to, and familiarity with, such rich diversity.  You’re left to trust the answer of your bartender or shopkeeper, or to buy one and just hope for the best.

When selling your beer in a less-established market, you must be able to answer this simple question: What is it? What does it taste like? How does it compare to “Well-known Brand X”? You wouldn’t go to a Honda dealership if you wanted to buy a Ferrari, would you? But if you just landed from Mars, the difference between those brands may have escaped you.

Successful brewers, importers and distributors are happy to educate about how their beer should be categorized and compared. It makes the beer a lot more accessible in a new market.

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Made a visit to the classic Brussels beer bar Poechenellekelder last weekend with some friends. Despite the fact that it is a short stone’s throw from Brussels’ most famous (or infamous or kitsch, depending on who you ask) monument, Mannekin Pis, What’s unique about Poechenellekelder is that it’s the rare combination of a “must-visit” for tourists, but still largely full of locals.

The interior is decked out with puppets and costumes for Mannekin Pis (Poechenellekelder is Dutch for puppet cellar) and a seemingly infinite set of beer paraphenalia, posters and accoutrements. The bar staff is knowledgeable, friendly and multi-lingual, even willing to assist those who would mistake a La Chouffe for La Trappe.

After all, it’s the beer list that keeps the locals coming back. They have an excellent cast of regulars with more than a few seasonal or beers of the month to choose from. On that visit, I enjoyed an Ara Bier, from De Dolle brewers, makers of the better-known Oerbier and Stille Nacht. I love Ara Bier! It is a dry, foamy-headed Belgian strong blonde with a memorable, salty-dry finish that leaves you wanting more. It’s a must try.