A Belgian Beer Cheat Sheet
Belgium makes an astounding variety of beers, not to mention some of the world’s best. Any respectable beer list in town has at least a few Belgians, but ordering one you’re likely to enjoy can injure the head as much as your fourth Abbey Tripel of the night. The crack team at Lush Wine & Spirits on West Chicago Avenue has put together a crash course and tasting on the subject, which we attended this past weekend. It was both illuminating and inebriating - two of our favorite atings! To help clear up any confusion, we’re sharing some selected bits of their wisdom here:
- You can tell a Belgian by its smell. The yeast commonly gives off big, fruity, spicy odors. Because many Belgian beers are bottle-conditioned, you might notice some dear departed yeast at the bottom of your bottle. R.I.P.
- Unlike the Germans, Belgians are freewheeling brewers—almost chef-like in their approach. If you taste orange peels and coriander in your next Witbier, some orange peels and coriander probably went into the tun to brew with the rest of the ingredients.
- Belgium makes ales in at least a dozen varieties. (Stella Artois, a lager, is the famous exception). Belgian Pale Ale is typically hoppy and pairs best with lighter foods. Light, dry, peppery Saison, or “season” beer, was like Gatorade for harvesting farmers centuries ago; it’s refreshing, drinkable, usually low in alcohol and goes with practically all foods. Oud Bruin is an acidic, sweet-and-sour beer blended from old and new productions. It complements meat and fried food. Contrary to popular belief, Lambics are not all fruity, though you can safely expect tartness. They’re known for being “spontaneously fermented,” as in the raw ingredients are left up in brewery attics to, you know, become beer. Very scientific.
- Only seven official Trappist breweries exist. Cloistered Trappist monks must either brew a beer themselves or closely oversee its production for it to earn the designation of “Official Trappist Product.” Chimay, the best-known Trappist brand in the U.S., also makes cheeses. Westvleteren is the most reclusive and secretive of the Trappist breweries. (And we’re talking about monasteries here, so that’s saying something.) Its beer is only sold at the brewery. The monks produce such limited quantities that avid drinkers must reserve cases in advance. So don’t expect this legendary brew to land at Hopleaf or the Publican any time soon.
Not to worry, there are plenty of excellent, locally-available alternatives. Of the 10 or so beers we sampled at Lush, we highly recommend Trappist Achel Bruin 8, Picobrowerij Alvinne Melchior and Goose Island Fleur. Because, as we also learned, great Belgian beers don’t always come from Belgium.
By Roger Kamholz