What makes Belgian beers so Belgiany?

Whenever we serve a Belgian-style beer at Venture Cafe, I very helpfully use the term “Belgiany” to respond to inquires regarding the taste of the offering.  While my descriptor is often met with skeptical (or annoyed) expressions, invariably guests will smile after that first sip, cock their heads to the side with a purse of the lips, and agree, “Yeah, that is Belgiany.”

This oft-repeated exchange raises the question: what makes a Belgian beer Belgiany?  It’s a tough question, because there are so many types of Belgian beer, and no one style in which Belgian beer is brewed. Compared to their peers, Belgian beers tend to have higher alcohol content, and are more often bottle-conditioned, or re-fermented in the bottle, which results in an almost champagne-like effervescence when the beer is poured.  However, these characteristics are not what create that signature “Belgiany” taste.

The credit for the unique taste of Belgian beers goes to the wild card of beer ingredients: the yeast.  Yeast are the micro-organisms that transform sugar (the malt) into alcohol and carbon dioxide.  They also create phenols and esters, chemical compounds that produce the flavors and aromas that contribute to the character of a beer.  While yeasts for some beer styles, like lagers, are cultivated to reduce these phenol and ester by-products, ale yeasts are often selected for their characteristic output.  Esters commonly have a fruity aroma (like berry, banana, or orange), while phenols produce more spicy elements (like pepper, cloves, or herbs).  Brewers choose specific strains of yeast for their aroma and flavor offerings, and even highlight them by raising fermentation temperatures.  One popular strain of yeast for Belgian brewers is called Brettanomyces bruxellensis, which may lend hints of fruitiness, spiciness, or earthiness to a beer depending on conditions.

To understand this particular quality in beer, try some Allagash White this week at the Cafe.  It’s a wheat beer, spiced with orange and coriander, with a refreshing finish … but if you ask, I will just tell you that it’s “Belgiany.”

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