The 4 steps to becoming a Belgian beer expert
Belgium is experiencing its biggest surge in popularity since Bloodsport first hit big screens... at least on the beer scene. Brewers all over the US are popping out their interpretations of saisons, farmhouse ales, wits, sours, and lambics, elevating the palates of drinkers all over. But how do you go from a fizzy-beer fanatic to a Belgian beer aficionado?
To find out, I went to Belgium for a crash-course in beer with an expert. Specifically, Blue Moon founder Keith Villa, the man behind America's most popular Belgian-inspired beer, which for many serves as an approachable gateway brew to the world of Belgian-style creations. Instead of souvenirs, I returned with this easy(ish) guide to leveling up your Belgian beer game.
Prologue: listen to the expert
In an effort to get a better handle on Belgian beers, I followed Villa and his crew around Belgium as they researched new styles for their upcoming 20th anniversary brew, tagging along to breweries, ancient bars, canals, and landmarks with a belly full of beer and frites. A very, very big belly.
Keith knows his stuff: He earned a PhD in brewing at the University of Brussells. And you'll want to keep his advice in mind when thinking about Belgian beer:
"Belgians rarely stay within the guardrails of specific beer styles. That’s one of the things that makes the Belgian brewing process so great -- they create the beer, then decide what style it is. This could be part of the reason why you see so much variety and variances between each beer made in Belgium. So although hard to categorize, there are still some specific beers and styles to take note of for each craft beer drinking level."
Level 1: Beginner
While some folks storm the castle and go full monk, for the casual drinker, it's unlikely they're going to simply decide they want to get into Belgian beer. But piquing your -- or your friends' -- tastes is as easy as rolling into your local craft bar and ordering whatever Belgian-inspired beer the locals are playing with. Or, you know, hitting the grocery store. Blue Moon and its myriad Belgian-inspired brews -- Farmhouse, pale, and Abbey ale among them -- are widely available, while fellow Colorado native New Belgium pops out a regular rotation of Belgian tripels, saisons, and others. Plus, you can score real Belgians like Hoegaarden, Leffe, and Stella Artois everywhere... which is to say, even the most pro-domestic drinker's probably gone Belgian (or Belgian-style) at least once or twice.
Keith says: "Some other styles I’d recommend to beginners include Belgian pilsners -- which can be found just about everywhere as a nice introductory style -- and Belgian tafel beer, or “table beer”, because of its light, delicate flavor, making it a good alternative to the Belgian-style wit."
Level 2: Intermediate
Now that your taste has been piqued, it's time to level-up to less familiar flavors. Luckily, it's extremely easy to seek out craft beer makers playing with complex Belgian styles. Your local breweries are likely pumping out saisons -- which are heavier and pack more fruit and spice -- and fruit sours, which straddle a line between wine and beer and pack enormous flavor. Those are the beers your hipster friend won't shut up about, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding them.
You can also level-up by hitting the import section a little harder and seeking out stars like Delirium Tremens (golden ale), Duchesse de Bourgogne (Flanders red, it refers to a region of the country, not Ned), and Kriek lambics.
Keith says: "Here is where I think we can start getting into more complex or unexpected flavor profiles. Some other styles I’d recommend to intermediates include Belgian fruit sours. Specifically, Framboise -- it’s sour with sweetness and filled with raspberry flavor -- and Kriek, which is sour with sweetness with cherry flavor. Also, the Belgian pale ale, similar to Blue Moon Rounder because of its complex, malty flavor with balancing hops."
Level 3: Pro
Time to go full JCVD: you're at the point where you've developed a more refined taste, where you can discern the differences between yeast strands and styles, and sometimes speak condescendingly to other drinkers for no reason. Stop doing that. Start exploring the import section with extreme prejudice. Become your local bottle shop's most quizzical customer. Figure out who your favorite monks are. Identify a region of Belgium that you think does everything the best. And make sure that whenever you see a new bottle with unfamiliar words on it, you nab it for your cellar... which you obviously have, because you're a pro.
Keith says: "The pro category is also an area where I can see true Belgian breweries come into the mix. Here I’d recommend a beer called St. Stefanus, brewed by my friend and fellow brewer, Jef Versele. St. Stefanus is sold here in the States and is a Belgian abbey beer brewed and then bottle conditioned for at least three months before being sold. It is offered in both the blonde and grand cru varieties.
Some other styles I’d recommend to pros include Belgian sours. Specifically, Geuze -- an aged version of lambic beers, aged for typically around three years. Also, lambic styles, which are freshly fermented. We can also get into doubles -- darker with caramel character -- and tripels -- golden-colored and very complex with spicy flavors and aromas and a high ABV. And finally, saisons -- the strong farmhouse beers, usually made with spices and specialty yeasts."
Level 4: Honorary Trappist Monk
Put your money (and your passport) where your mouth is: head to Belgium. At the airport, celebrate by drinking a giant blonde for the price of a happy-hour beer in New York. Visit ancient breweries and medieval pubs where each beer has an assigned drinking vessel and its own rules (to get the above giant beer, I had to sacrifice a shoe as a deposit). Ask the locals what they're drinking. Gaze groggily at the architecture. Write a list of everything you drank, scribbled in increasingly indiscernible writing. Visit different regions, chat with monks, and never drink the same beer twice. And don't fall in the canal. That's such an American thing to do.
Keith says: "I would highly encourage any level of craft beer drinkers interested in Belgian beers to visit Belgium and experience them firsthand. The masters could appreciate something along the lines of Gulden Draak. Again, brewed by our friends at Brewery Van Steenberge, this beer is offered as a true dark tripel or quadruple. The taste sensation is very rich and complex and enjoyed by advanced beer drinkers. Coming in at 10.5% ABV, it’s best to sip and savor these strong beers.
"Some other styles I’d recommend to masters include Belgian IPAs, sour reds and sour browns, Trappist singles, and Belgian seasonal beers. Belgian IPAs -- IPAs with a Belgian twist -- typically are fermented with a Belgian yeast, resulting in a spicy yeast character. These can be found at artisanal breweries around Belgium.
"Sour reds and sour browns can be found in the Flanders region of Belgium. They have intense sour flavors balanced by rich, malty flavors. Trappist singles are generally found only in Trappist breweries, but small amounts are known to be sold to the public. These have a lower amount of alcohol (around 5% ABV) and are made for the monks. Belgium is a Catholic country so you will find Christmas and Easter beers as part of the Belgian seasonal mix. These styles are stronger and filled with seasonal spices that pair well with holiday food and are widely available in Belgium."