Beer often gets discounted as being pedestrian, not very flavor-rich, and generally inferior to wine, spirits, and cocktails. But I’m here to rectify the misconception. Only in the last twenty or thirty years have beers other than macro-production, adjunct lager (Bud, Miller, Coors, and the like) been readily available in the United States. Since Prohibition, that is what we’ve been stuck with.
Europe, though, has a rich, millennia-old tradition of crafting fine ales, often with specific regional flavors, ingredients, and production methods. So this is the first of a few articles meant to expand the horizons of what you may think of when you hear the word “beer.” I’ve stuck to three styles I think are perfect for this time of year, but expect articles in the future highlighting specific regions, ingredients, and flavors.
Today’s Three “Belgian” Beers
The three styles I’ve chosen for today, although unique in many ways, all share a few traits. All three hail originally from Belgium, but only one of them is actually made there. All three are lighter in color and have medium-high carbonation levels, but the alcohol levels vary drastically.
Just like with wine or whisky, you want to drink your beer from the proper glassware. For these styles I recommend either going with a short-stemmed tulip (Pilsner) glass or a tall flute-goblet hybrid like I’ve chosen here. Additionally, beers of this quality often come in various bottle formats, ranging from the 12oz (11.2oz or 330mL if from Europe), to the 22oz “bomber”, to the 750mL wine-bottle size.
Gueuze – Lindemans “Cuvée René ” Beer (5% abv)
Before diving into Lindemans Cuvée René, a quick primer on what Lambics and Gueuze are. Lambics are spontaneously fermented beers, originating in the Belgian countryside. The wild yeast and bacterias living in the area are allowed to inoculate and ferment the open wood tanks of wort, producing tart, funky flavors in a completely natural process. The resulting beers are called Lambics, and a blend of various-aged Lambics is called a Gueuze. They are almost always low in alcohol and are intended to be served on the colder side to maintain their thirst-quenching characteristics.
With a fairly vigorous pour, Cuvée René gives you a light, fluffy head, releasing aromas of over-ripe apples and what can only be described as a lemon grove after a heavy rain. The color is rich-gold and there are lots of small bubbles fizzing up from the bottom. If all you’ve ever had is fizzy adjunct lager, this will be a revelation. From the first sip, it’s crisp, citrusy, and mouthwateringly sour. You might pucker at first, but I promise you’ll dive right back in for another sip.
While the Cuvée René is a great introductory example, Brasserie Cantillon makes some of the best examples right in the heart of Brussels. They’re extreme, and increasingly difficult to find on this side of the pond. But if you can get their Iris, Grand Cru Bruocsella (an unblended lambic) or their Organic Gueuze, I highly recommend it.
Saison – Pretty Things “Jack D’Or” Beer (6.4% abv)
Saison, also called farmhouse ale, is another refreshing style of beer, originally brewed for Flemish farmhands to drink during the summer months. Unlike the Gueuze though, they are a little more mellow and approachable. They shine at a cool temperature, but you don’t want them too cold, so pull the bottle from the fridge about 10-15 minutes before serving. When the weather gets warm, this is my go-to style.
While some of the best examples are still made in Belgium, there are fantastic Saisons being made all over the world. This one, Jack d’Or is from Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, which is a husband and wife team in Cambridge, MA who do almost everything themselves (including drawing the labels). The level of craft and care really comes through.
Jack d’Or is what is called “bottle conditioned,” which is a fancy way of saying it is re-fermented in the bottle like sparkling wine. The yeast and sediment gives the beer its carbonation and contributes to the development of flavor as the beer sits in the bottle. Some people like to leave this in the bottle, and others like the extra-bready flavors it can lend to the beer. It’s really up to your taste.
Jack d’Or pours a medium-pale yellow color and is effervescent, true to style. The aroma is grassy, citrusy, a little spicy, and has a slight sourdough bread note contributing the tartness. Nothing like the sourness of a Gueuze, the sourness here is refreshing and mild. The flavor starts with lemon-rind, spices like coriander and clove, and then the sourness expands on the palate, before finishing with a crisp, slightly malty taste. Very good, with a strong hop-presence for a Saison.
Again, the classics come from Belgium. Saison Dupont is considered the gold standard, and is very easy to get, while the slightly harder to find Fantôme Saison is often held up as the pinnacle of the style.
Abbey Tripel- Unibroue “La Fin Du Monde” Beer (9% abv)
Now, on to the biggest of the beers. Clocking in at 9% alcohol by volume, this is the almost-undisputed champion of the Belgian Abbey Tripel style, even though it’s made by Unibroue in Quebec. The style originated in Belgian monasteries (a subject I’ll cover more in depth later), and is typically a creamy, fruity, slightly boozy concoction. They can be served cool or cold, but I think they really shine closer to room temperature. Pull them about 30 minutes before serving.
With La Fin Du Monde, you again have a bottle conditioned beer, but Unibroue heavily encourages you to up-end the bottle (gently to avoid overflow) before opening to mix the yeast back into the beer. Most breweries tell you just the opposite. Here, I would heavily advise following their lead. You get a creamy, orange-yellow color, with a thick pillowy head. Unlike the other two beers, the head sticks around for a while, and is mostly small, dense bubbles. The smells are
rich spices, lemon-creme, ripe apple, and biscuit, and on the palate these open up into creamy white-raisin pudding, banana, and dry spice, with a yeasty finish. The mouthfeel is incredible, and must be experienced to be believed.
If you’ve never had a Tripel, I can’t emphasize strongly enough how much I recommend starting here. But, if you want options, the Tripel Karmeliet and St. Bernardus Tripel (both Belgian) are the other heavy-hitters.
I hope this has been helpful, and that you’ll look past the marketing and almost 100 years of beer poverty in the United States. If you’re willing to open your mind and your palate, I promise you won’t regret it.