One of my absolute favorite poets, Edgar Allan Poe, wrote once about a topic I never thought the dark depths of his soul ever would – beer. “Fill with mingled cream and amber, I will drain that glass again. Such hilarious visions clamber through the chambers of my brain. Quaintest thoughts, queerest fancies, come to life and fade away. What care I how time advances? I am drinking ale today.” Unlike Poe, I don’t tend to name one particular beer or beer style as a favorite. However, I recently refueled my love of Belgian Ales as I had a dizzy reconnaissance with a bottle of Delirium Tremens Strong Ale. And really what’s not to love, with its gorgeous aromas of citrus candy and creamy banana whirled into a coriander-spiced floral yeastiness? Even with its higher 9% abv (alcohol by volume), its superb sip-ability makes it no surprise that it ranked as Beer of the World in 1998. And who doesn’t enjoy a beer that bears a label covered in pink elephants?
Now granted, Belgium is a very small country yet it boasts probably about 400 different ales, each with a very distinctive personality and profile. But what’s in an ale? On the technical front, these are beers that use yeasts that ferment at the top of the fermentation vessel at higher than average temperatures than lagers (about 60°-75°F) which make quicker 7 to 8 day fermentation periods. On the profile front, because of the esters produced by ale yeasts, the profile of these beers tends to be more floral and fruity in nature. Belgian ales, perhaps to the horror of more puritanical beer producers such as the United States or Germany, have a time-honored tradition of using wild yeasts in the brews. Candi, a type of sugar produced by crystallizing concentrated sucrose solution on cotton threads, is extensively used by Belgian brewers in these unique brews. Because it is easily dissolved and fermented because of its purity, candi is believed to enhance head retention, produce very distinctive flavors and also lightens the beer’s body in order to better produce the stronger Belgian profiles.
There are a few categories of note for Belgian beers. Trappist beers came about from the five monasteries around Belgium: Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle & Westvletteren. Much like French wine districts, these beers are classified as an appellation controlée, or controlled designation, of beers by the Belgian government. Using the traditions of the winemaking monasteries in the southern lands, the monks in these grape-less lands established breweries and out of these came two relatively constant styles of trippel and dubbel beers. Trippel style Trappist beers are the strongest at about 9% abv, and relatively pale compared to the amber dubbels, which fall at around 7% abv. Chimay, one of the best known Trappist ales, makes a range of three brown beers that have the wild yeast characters of Belgian ales but vary in their alcohol content and resulting flavor profiles. Orval Abbey beer is a very distinctive flavored ale that I happen to greatly enjoy. It’s not particularly strong because of its 5% abv, but it’s hoppy nose and three malts in a trippel makes it absolutely delicious and unlike any of the other Trappist offerings.
Belgian Abbey beers fall in line in a similar style of Trappist ales but typically are brewed by commercial brewers either taking the name of the local abbey or working in conjunction with them. Saison beers tend to encompass the quotidian Belgian experience, as it were, with this beer style being not overly strong or overly flavored, being the standard (and delicious) fare of the general populace. Beers that don’t fit the particular profile of the more famous varieties drop into being classified simply as specialty beers. They can range anywhere from pale gold to dark malt and have profiles of rich, soft flavors to sparkly and dry. One of the most famous of these specialty beers is Duvel (meaning ‘devil’) out of the Moortgat brewery. If you haven’t tried this beer, it’s absolutely crazy in its profile. Wild and blond, with a silky smooth citrus and apple flavor, this beer is deceptive in that it is crisp and refreshing but packs a punch at 8.5% abv.
Adding to the distinction of Belgian beers is the fact that each one is typically served in its own special glass, from goblets to thistle-or-tulip shaped glasses. I am actually quite proud of my goblet-shaped Duvel glass, and it definitely lives up to the hype of making a huge difference in how the beer itself presents both with head retention and releasing aromatics. Not to mention the fact that it makes an easy and classy gift, pairing a beer with its own glass always presents well on any occasion. For those of you who know beer lovers, nothing says “I know you have awesome taste, have a beer” more than “Here is also a glass to put it in!”
So Belgian ales look pretty in a glass, and have some history. Does this make Belgian beer worth the purchase over your average brew? Granted, Belgian ales like Chimay tend to come in a corked 750 mL bottle, which may or may not be intimidating to someone unfamiliar with this beer class, but some are also in a smaller and possibly more spendy vessel. I think it is worth noting that Beer Advocate, a top notch community of beer enthusiasts and industry professionals, have consistently rated many a Belgian ale in their Top 100 Beers on Planet Earth every single year. You have to have faith in a resourceful group whose motto is “Respect Beer” and whose sole purpose is a commitment to “waking the masses to better beer options.” There is a reason that this small country keeps making an appearance on the Top 100 list- they simply make exceptional, exotic and wholly original beers.
Are you ready to jump into these Belgian specialties? Fear not, the hunt for Belgian ales and even the corresponding glassware is not a fruitless one. Liquid Planet has not only many of Beer Advocate’s top Belgian beers, but also a fine selection of many of the Top 100 beers in general. It also boasts a great selection of the various goblets and tulip glasses that perfectly complement each beer style. You will be absolutely spoiled for choice, and they couldn’t make it easier to shop for all of those people on your gift lists, whether it is for the holidays or any other occasion.
It seems appropriate around this season to take a pause like our friend Edgar, and enjoy the cream and amber of beautiful Belgian ales. And as always, please drink responsibly.