Belgium is very unique in many ways. This culturally diverse country has three languages, 150 breweries making thousands of unusual beers and an especially excellent way with fries.
Just as Wisconsin has its cheese heads, Belgians have potato heads. Indeed, Belgium’s annual per capita frites consumption far surpasses America’s French fry consumption. There are frites stands galore on the streets of Bruges. They are so dedicated to the dish; they even have created a frites museum.
The secret of Belgian’s world’s best fries is like its beers, a special recipe. The trick is to fry the potatoes twice each time at a different temperature and serve with the usual condiment –flavored mayonnaise.
And of course, you’ll want to wash the potatoes down with a tasty beer. Which Belgium has – in spades. The beers from this culturally rich country are diverse and distinctive. Tripels, Dubbels, Quadrupel, Saisons, Wits, Faro, Oud Bruin, Flemish Red, Gueuze, Pale, Strong Dark, Strong Pale and Lambics are the many styles of beer made.
There is also a huge range of Belgian beer glasses for each style of beer. Chalices, goblets, tulips, flutes and snifters are preferred because their shape impacts head development and retention.
Head is the foam created when you pour your beer into a proper glass. It acts as a cap for all the lovely aromas, such as hop oils, fruit, herbs, all kinds of fermentation by products like alcohol, fusels and esters, spices or even wood.
The history of their beer making goes back centuries. Julius Caesar, leading his thirsty Roman legions through the land, made note that the natives produced a variety of beers.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries, as a matter of health, began brewing the unusual brews. This liquid bread was usually a Dubbel or Tripel with a few Wits here and there. The monks found that drinking a brew was healthier than the local water.
The monastic brewing tradition continues to this day. Although to make a true Trappist beer, you must be a sanctioned monastery. The eleven genuine Trappist monasteries — six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy and United States produce about 25 labels in very small quantities.
The rest of Belgium presents a treasure trove of exotic ales. Just like the frites, the recipe for each of these beers is unique. With Belgium beer, mashing matters. Belgian brewers do multi-step mashes. Again, they cook it twice each at a different temperature. The result is better head retention and more body.
Other exotics could be introduced at some point in the brewing process. Fresh fruit, barley sugar, herbs, wild yeasts, spices and/ or aged hops are all part of the Belgian way with beer.
The effect of this huge range of flavors has sent beer geeks off into the wide world of wine speak in an attempt to describe the sheer complexity of Belgium beers.
Take the humble beginnings of Saison. Saison is French for season. In the countryside, agriculture naturally attracts a ton of seasonal workers, called saisonniers in Belgium. They would harvest the crops and brew ales with leftovers. Saisons were beers made to be consumed by the workers as part of their pay. How cool is that?
Saisons tend to have a distinct hop flavor, with bright, fruity aromas, a crisp of tartness and dry finish. Saison Dupont is pretty much the gold standard for Saisons. This special beer originated before refrigeration as a beer to be brewed in winter for summer consumption.
The style required a beer sturdy enough to age six months in the bottle but refreshing enough to be enjoyed in warm weather. They generally have a big, fruity bouquet and dense head. The flavors are fruity at the start but end crisp with a light, refreshing body.
One other highly unusual style of beer is the Lambic and Gueze. This style of beer is made with fruit, raspberries, peaches, cassis, apples or cherries. And there is a two step process of fermenting this beer in addition to a wily yeast strain.
Conventional beers are fermented with carefully cultivated strains of yeasts, right? Well, this is where Lambics take a 180. They’re produced by spontaneous fermentation. The wort is set up in the attics, the windows are opened and it is exposed to the wild yeasts and bacteria native to the area. Over eighty microorganisms have been identified in Lambic beer, so it’s got to be good for you.
Another important feature of Lambic is that it is usually a blend of at least two different beers; many “producers” are really just blenders who buy finished product from other brewers, and blend two or more together before bottling. A Gueuze may have occupied space in several different cellars over six years or more.
Witbier, also known as Belgian White, is a style of wheat beers that are pale with a crisp wheat character and refreshing citrus notes from the orange peel and coriander. A great summer quaffer that’s perfect with creamy cheeses and shellfish. Highly recommend Hoegaarden or the Blanche de Chambly.
Where can you taste all these exotic beers? Why at the Belgian Beer Fest in Seattle! But don’t hesitate, it sells out quickly.
The Washington Beer Commission’s 7th Annual Belgian Fest at Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center will highlight 100+ Belgian-style beers crafted by almost 50 Washington breweries. Featured beer styles include Tripels, Dubbels, Saisons, Wits, Abbeys and Lambics.
Saturday, January 30th at the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. There are two separate sessions, one from 12-4pm and the other from 5:30-9:30 pm.
Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the door. Admission includes a tasting glass and 10 tasting tokens. Each taste is 4 oz. Santé!