A wonderland of beer

Though complex, enjoying Belgian
beer doesn’t have to be

Photo: Little Fish Brewery’s Belgian saison ‘Saison du Poisson’

By David Nilsen


Among esteemed   European beer cultures, perhaps no country’s brews hold more mystique than Belgium’s. A quarter of the size of Ohio with about the same population, Belgium’s beer reputation far exceeds the nation’s diminutive size.

My wife and I have been to Belgium twice in pursuit of great beer, and the country really is a wonderland. When you step out of a storied beer bar late at night in one of Belgium’s medieval cities, and walk down a cobblestone street, crossing bridges over glass-smooth canals that may or may not have a swan or two gliding silently along the surface, and you don’t see another living soul the entire walk home, you can easily believe this place and its beers exist only for you.

Fortunately, you’ll be wrong. Belgian beer is for everyone, and a bounty of it is available at any good bottle shop in Dayton.

Belgium’s tumultuous history has seen its land governed at different times by several of the countries around it, and it’s only been an independent nation since 1830. Those diverse influences have led to an eclectic brewing culture. Belgium’s beers are varied, complex, and sometimes just plain weird.

While American craft beer drinkers are used to organized style guidelines that help us know what to expect when we order a new beer, Belgian brewers tend to more or less ignore these strictures and brew whatever they want without really worrying about what exact style of beer it is. This leads to a blurring of lines between styles. Despite this loose approach to style organization, there are some consistent characteristics that make Belgian beers unique.

In no other beer culture does the brewing yeast contribute such pronounced flavors and aromas as Belgium’s. While the specific strain of yeast a brewer uses is important in any beer and has an impact on the beer’s profile, Belgian yeast expresses itself assertively with fruity and spicy notes that make up a significant part of the beer’s flavor and aroma.

Additionally, Belgian brewers have no qualms about using spices and adjuncts (any source of fermentable sugar besides malted grains) to make their beers just right. Even some of the most esteemed Belgian brewers employ candy sugar syrup to alter color and increase alcohol strength without making the beer too heavy. While such additions are often looked down upon by American craft beer aficionados, Belgian brewers see no reason to hate on these ingredients when used judiciously.

Among the most beloved Belgian beers are abbey ales. While many abbey ales are connected to a monastery in name only, beers designated as Authentic Trappist Products are brewed within the walls of Trappist monasteries, sometimes by the monks themselves. Many drinkers are familiar with Chimay and their distinctive red (dubbel), white (tripel), and blue (Belgian dark strong ale) bottles, and those three styles are the ones most commonly associated with abbey brewing. High in alcohol with expressive Belgian yeast characteristics, these refined beers are definite treats. Look for excellent but easy-to-find examples by Trappist breweries Westmalle and Rochefort.

Many American breweries are now brewing “farmhouse ales,” and most of these beers are based on the Belgian saison style. While the popular history of saison—like that of many Old World styles—is sprinkled with a fair amount of apocryphal lore, the accepted story is that saisons were originally brewed by farmsteads in 18th and 19th century Belgium for seasonal farm workers to consume while working. Whether that’s true or not, there’s no arguing how delicious a well-made saison can be. Characterized by moderate hopping, a dry finish, and peppery notes from a unique yeast strain that prefers an unusually high fermentation temperature, saison is among the most versatile food pairing beers in the world. Saison Dupont is the global standard for the style.

If you go to many breweries, you’ve undoubtedly run across sour beer styles. These acidic beers are enjoying a rush of popularity today, and many of them owe their heritage to Belgium. Styles like lambic, gueuze, and Flanders red or brown ale might take some getting used to with their funky flavors and mouth-puckering tartness, but once you’ve acquired the taste, there’s nothing quite like them. Check out Rodenbach Grand Cru for a Flanders example, and Girardin 1882 or Boon Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait for a good gueuze.

A new wave of Belgian craft brewers are pushing the boundaries of Belgian beer, combining tradition with American-influenced innovation. Beers by De Dolle are weird and wonderful, as are those by troublemakers Brasserie de la Senne and others. Hops are seeing more generous use by these brewers, and the interplay between American hops and Belgian yeast is yielding delicious results. While Belgium is a land of beer history, the future there is just as bright.

Conveying the diversity of Belgian beer in the space of this column is an impossible task. Use this as a guide if you’re just getting started, but do some exploring on your own. Grab a few bottles and a few good friends and open the wonder of Belgian beer.

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David Nilsen
David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at DavidNilsenBeer.com and reach him at DavidNilsen@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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