I set aside time this past weekend for some more very serious beer research. With Carrie slaving away on her thesis, I attended Julio’s Liquors Belgian Beer Fest with a group of beer enthusiasts. You may ask, as I did, what makes Belgian beers Belgian? I imagined there must be some unifying characteristic, as I’ve so often heard the term “Belgian beer” used as if I should understand exactly what it means.
Although I’d say vaguely that Belgians (the beers) tend to be sweeter and have higher alcohol content – I’ve heard them described as the bridge between wine and beer – they do not fall into any one defined category. In fact, Belgians (the people) have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages and now offer over 450 varieties of beer.
You may have heard of a few of these varieties. There’s the “Red Beer,” brewed from red barley, maize, and grits, which tastes sharp, sour and fruity. The Lambics, originally brewed in Belgian farmhouses, are brewed without cultured yeast and contain at least 30% unmalted wheat. The brew is exposed to the air during production so that wild yeasts bring about fermentation, producing an acidic, tart, dry beer. To balance the sourness of Lambics, some brewers add fruit. For example, “Kriekbiers” are made with cherries that stimulate secondary fermentation, and a “Framboise” includes raspberries. Additionally, White Beer, or “Witbier,” is a pale beer that includes malted barley and raw wheat, along with spices such as orange peel and coriander, producing a cloudy beer. Finally, many beer drinkers know about Trappist beers, which tend to be complex, strong, spicy, and top-fermented, with yeast added at the time of bottling for secondary fermentation. Technically “Trappist” may designate only beer brewed in six monasteries in Belgium, and “Abbey” applies to other commercial brewers producing beer in that style.
At Julio’s, I tried a variety of these styles. I tasted an IPA first, to get it over with because I don’t enjoy IPAs, but I was pleasantly surprised. The Duvel Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel started out sweet and fruity, but the intitial taste was quickly balanced by the IPA hoppy bitterness. To me, this IPA Tripel is the IPA for those who don’t exactly savor an IPA. Next I watched the St. Bernadus Abt. 12 fall into my glass; this beer was sweetly malty but balanced, rich, and robust. My friends and I rushed to get a taste of Black Damnation (recipe 1, batch 2), a Russian Imperial Stout with a whopping 13% alcohol content. Black Damnation poured smoothly and darkly, with coffee and chocolate aromas, but had a surprisingly thin mouth and seemed to have a dry astringent taste.
Next in line was the Duchesse de Bourgogne – a Flanders Red Ale. It smelled vinegary and cherry-like, and its sourness made me pucker, although crisp carbonation and fruitiness helped to balance it out. It you like sours, the Duchesse is a good one to try. Finally, I tried the Cuvee von Der Keizer Rood, a Belgian Strong Pale Ale, which boasted sweet malts, Belgian yeast, floral and citrus tones, and a touch of honey. At 10% abv, the alcohol makes its presence known in the taste.
Always one for sharing, I left Julio’s with a couple of 22oz bottles for tasting. Combining Belgian style brewing with our preference for featuring local beers, I bought some Haverhill Belgian-style IPA, and a Haverhill Belgian-style Tripel. We’ll see if we can figure out these Belgians once and for all.
To learn more about Belgian beer brewing, see