On a tour of Europe you can pass through Belgium without necessarily knowing that you were there. Pretty in its own slightly-unique way, smallish and largely a non-player in the scheme of international intrigue, Belgium has become a geographic center of the brewing universe. Like the French monks who cultivated the science of winemaking, monks in the barley-and-hops climate of Belgium spend practically a millennium cultivating the art of beer. Unlike the Germans Belgian brewers had a free hand to experiment, resulting in a distinct style of strong, often unfiltered beer with a protein/yeast ‘haze’ that clouds the glass and lends a uniquely rich, often sweeter flavor. ‘Double’ ales are made by adding yeast twice during the brewing process and ‘triple’ ales take three separate shots of yeast to make, resulting in an impenetrably-sedimented and miles-deep beer. The challenge of correctly managing a triple fermentation process limits this style to breweries that have the patience and the experience to do it right.
Commercial brewers have reproduced the ‘abbey’ style with varying success (thumbs up for Leffe, thumbs down for Stella Artois) but if the old style is what you’re after check out the seven remaining breweries run by practising trappist monks:
Regular readers already know what I think of Rochefort. Heaven in a bottle. In general you won’t do wrong with any bottle that carries the Authentic Trappist logo.
Breweries across the US and Canada have taken on the challenge of a Belgian trappist ale, also with mixed results. While I’ll gladly drink anything that New Belgium brews, their Abbey ale comes across as sweet and rich, but without enough balancing acidity. I haven’t sampled their Trippel but word on the street is positive. Brewed in Dowingtown, PA, Victory’s Golden Monkey has an ideal balance but its general thinness compared with European siblings comes across as a smallish head which departs too rapidly.
One of the great players in Flemish-accented American brewing, Allagash brews exclusively in teh Belgian style from their mothership in Portland, ME. I’ve only tried one of the over-a-dozen varieties made by Allagash, a tasty-but-thin dubbel, so it’s highly likely that I missed their best work. As always, read what the pros say here.
North of the border the overachievers at Unibroue have a characteristically superb line of brews made in the Belgian style. I’ll say again that you can’t go wrong with a single thing made by Unibroue.
I’ll cap off my far-from-authoritative survey with a pleasant surprise. After sampling a decent number of American Belges (including an especially weak effort by Coors) I pretty much figured that only the Flemish, and maybe Unibroue on a good day, knew how to make a sufficiently rich, satisfyingly chewy ale in which you could practically stand a spoon. Then I met Stoudt’s. All I can say about Stoudt’s Trippel ale is, where’ve you been? Stoudt’s poors dark amber, with a medium head that sticks around (with lacing, although that might have been my imagination) and a healthy dollop of suspended protein. It’s big, balanced and constitutes as good an argument for specialized glassware as you’ll find in the States.
On a related note, I finally picked up a four-pack of the Midas Touch that I mentioned back in the mists of ’05. An interesting experience, plummy and effervescent, like something between beer and champagne. Not necessarily a strong dinner beer (side-by-side with another Dogfish Head 4-pack, 90 Minute IPA, my wife and I finished the IPAs first) but it might go perfectly with hors d’ouevres or a royal funeral.