This is the first installment in a series of articles dealing with beer basics, and since beer is to Belgium what wine is to Italy or France, it seems appropriate to start there. Belgians take their brewing very seriously, treating it with a reverence that is unparalleled. And while Germany and England are best known for two or three trademark styles, Belgium is home to an incredibly wide range of very different beers. Belgian brewing is more akin to winemaking than it is in any other country, and the result is both marvelous in flavor and teeming with complexity. So obsessed are they that most every brew has its own unique serving glass. Here are three selections representing three different Belgian styles, each of which first set the standard for the category:
Duvel Golden Ale
Duvel is Flemish for devil, a name particularly well-suited for this beguiling brew. Fermented three times, twice in the brewery, once in the bottle, this hazy golden ale is topped by the most luxurious froth I've ever encountered, something like stiffly whisked egg whites. Up front, it's clean and refreshing like a good Pilsner, not surprising given its Pilsner malt and Bohemian hops. But then the Belgian kicks in. It has been called the champagne of beers, and given the lush fruit core, crisp acidity and amazingly smooth finish, the title seems on target. Available in small bottles, but like bubbly, it just tastes better in the larger format.
The recipe for this brew goes back to 1445 when local monks first created it. At one time, there were some 30 small breweries scattered around the town of Hoegaarden (pronounced "who-garden"). The last closed in 1957, but nine years later, Pierre Celis resurrected Belgian white beer. The formula calls for wheat and malted barley with an added touch of coriander and orange peel. It pours a hazy, lemon-tinged ivory with spicy wheat and orange-laced aromas. The sweet malt flavors are well balanced by tangy citrus and creamy fruit. The finish, backed by light spice, is clean and dry with a nice persistence. The original is definitely still worthy.
The Trappist monks of Belgium have developed a classic style that has a fanatical following. The abbey at Westmalle in the province of Antwerp was one of the first to brew, but only for local consumption. They didn't produce on a commercial scale until the 1920s. Westmalle monks coined the term tripel, using it to describe their strongest ale. This golden nectar throws a thick, long-lived head. Rich and complex, deliciously creamy, it has a fruity citrus and apricot backbone that's backed by caramel, apple, anise, fig and spicy hops. Doesn't get much better than this.