King of Beers
I'd tap that!
When you were born and raised in Belgium, like I was, love of beer is a given. Make that a birth right. A requirement, even. So imagine my parents' dismay when I announced at the age of 18 that I did not care for beer. They cried. They yelled. They threatened to disown me. They tried to make me see a shrink. All to no avail. I could not understand for the life of me why anyone would love to drink fermented barley juice. What's the fun in that, when you can have a Mojito instead? Or a PiÃ±a Colada? Beer, to me, was just a foul-tasting beverage that I would only consider if I'd been stuck in the Mojave desert for three weeks straight. And only if the beer was ice cold.
So for years, I was the butt of the joke every time my friends took me drinking. While they were having beers with exotic names like Westmalle, Chimay and Herkenrode Triple, I was ordering chocolate milk. On the rocks. With a straw, please. Hilarity ensued.
In my late 20's, I met a Canadian couple living in Brussels. They loved Belgian beers, being particularly fond of trappists and abbey beers. I didn't get it. Weren't those beers for people with senior cards?
After hearing them rant and rave about my country's biggest export product after chocolate (topic of another lens, I'm sure), my curiosity got the better of me. I went out and bought one bottle of every beer I'd ever seen them drink and took them home. Over the next two weeks or so, I sampled. I vowed to keep an open mind. And honesty compels me to admit that I was pleasantly surprised more often than not.
Without further ado, allow me to introduce to you, some of Belgian's finest.
The first on the list is a trappist beer. Currently there are only 8 trappist beers in the world, 6 of which are Belgian. This one was an acquired taste for me, probably due to its complex flavor. At bottling, brettanomyces yeast (a local wild yeast) is added, which, along with the dry-hopping method, gives this beer its unique flavor. I found it to be unusually crisp for a trappist, but it may take several sampling sessions for you to come to the same conclusion. Persistance is key, I assure you that you will not be disappointed.
As with all trappist and some abbey beers, the Orval monastery only keeps part of the proceeds to ensure their survival, the rest of the money goes to charity. (Next time your wife complains about you going out drinking with your buddies too often, you can honestly say, "But honey... it's for charity!")
All that it's hyped up to be?
Another trappist beer, this beer was named "Best Beer in the World" by RateBeer.com and a slew of other beer related websites.
I'm not sure I agree.
Don't get me wrong, this beer is nothing short of amazing, but the lack of availability is a bit of a party pooper for me. You see, this beer isn't available in any stores. Naah, that would be too easy. The monks at the Saint Sixtus monastery do not give money to charity, like Orval does. They only want to brew and sell enough beer to get by. As a result, their beer can only be bought by calling the beer hotline (I kid you not). You provide your license plate and arrange a date and time on which you can pick up your brewskis.
I can hear you thinking, no big deal, I'll just order a few cases. Wrong. You can only order one case a month. If you're lucky, you can sometimes order two, depending on the kind of beer and depending on how busy the monks have been doing other trivial things, like praying and stuff. Plus, when it comes to communication, the Saint Sixtus abbey hasn't quite made it into the 21st century just yet. No email, no cell phones, no Blackberries. They only have one phone line and, to add insult to injury, no call waiting. When I called them to get a case, I had to try a staggering 159 times before I didn't get the busy signal and got through.
(For a while, there was talk of the monastery commercializing their beer and making it available in one of Belgium's biggest grocery store chains. The monks were in dire need of money for the renovation of several of their buildings. Unfortunately the deal fell through.)
No wonder then that Westvleteren beers are a hot commodity on eBay. I've seen people ask as much as $200 for a 6-pack. Insanity. Especially in light of what I'm about to tell you about the next beer in the list.
Spot the difference
Shortly after WWII ended, the monks at the Saint Sixtus monastery decided to outsource the brewing of their Westvleteren beer to another brewery down the road. For nearly 46 years, the Saint Bernardus brewery brewed what was then known as St Sixtus beer, following the original Westvleteren recipe. In 1992 this agreement ended because of the decision by the trappist breweries that a beer could only be sold as a "trappist" if it was brewed within the walls of the monastery.
Since the agreement ended, the St Bernardus brewery has continued to make their own beer, which is virtually identical to Westvleteren. Both breweries use a different strand of yeast, which results in a subtle taste difference, only noticeable to the most trained of palates.
The good news? This beer is available in stores all over the country. That is, if you're lucky enough to live in Belgium.
Lambic is a type of beer with an old tradition, going back to the 16th century. Unlike most other beers which are fermented by adding yeast, lambic is the product of natural fermentation. It is exposed to a type of bacteria that is only found in a particular area around Brussels. Lambic has a very distinctive flavor and aftertaste, which can be quite sour.
Lambic comes in many types: the unblended kind, Geuze and Faro (which is much sweeter because of the added brown sugar). It is also used as the base for many fruit-flavored beers such as Kriek (with cherries), Framboise (with raspberries), PÃªche (with peach) and many others. Often, these fruit-flavored beers are referred to as "girly beers".
Approach with caution.
Duvel is Flemish slang for the Dutch word "duivel", meaning devil. Make no mistake about it, this ale is definitely worthy of its name. I've seen grown men cry after consuming 4 of these.
The trouble with Duvel is that it's deceptively easy to drink. It goes down the hatch like water but with an alcohol content of 8.5%, this beer isn't to be taken lightly. Don't let that be a reason not to try this intense, aromatic beer though, as it's quite delightful.
(Just don't say I didn't warn you.)
I've added this beer to the list mainly because of its original glass, rather than its taste. Legend has it that the glass and its holder were designed back in the 19th century by Paulus Kwak, the brewer and owner of a tavern, called De Hoorn (The Horn). The tavern was frequented by coach men who weren't allowed to leave coach and horse behind, so Kwak designed the holder so it could be hung from the coach.
If you ask me, the real story behind the name of this beer and glass is the sound the beer makes when someone, who is not carefully drinking from the glass when it's nearly empty, gets the last of the beer in his face. Just my two cents.
And for those of you who don't like beer, there's always...
Chocolate milk, Belgian-style!