My Love is Belgian

[23 March 2005]

By Rino Breebaart

I am a man of many affairs; a series of seductions that began in my student days and continue to fascinate and lay me low today. These are loves that I have attempted to follow around the globe, when I feel lonely and dry, or when they have come back to me, their return visitations are like welcome draughts of manna from the skies. Quite simply, mine are affairs with the fantastic range of beers that come from Belgium. Indeed, almost every occidental tourist will have had a run-in with the suave seductions of such beers. We are but mortal and weak of flesh.

Mine isn’t an ordinary obsession with a single temptress — some countries gain a name for one or two beers, like Holland has Heineken and Ireland its Guinness — but tiny little Belgium produces something close to a thousand different and seductively unique beers, each a testament of beer-craft and love of taste. In the small time that I have been sampling these beers (so far, only the ones that are easy to get in Belgian bars or corner stores), I’ve barely scraped at the frothy iceberg that is Belgian beer. I admit that a careful study or a detailed novel of all its beers would be the work and love of a lifetime, a task demanding the strictest discrimination and cultivation of taste, as well as a near-superhuman stamina which the high grades of alcohol demand. Even if you’re not fan of beer, bear in mind that Belgium has a beer for everyone, and the quest to find that one uniquely resonant flavour is well and truly worth the effort.

The problem is where to begin. Some of the special styles of beer produced in Belgium include Trappist beers (made by real Trappist monks) which are double or even triple fermented and deliciously smooth. There are Lambic beers which are light, bubbly and often sweetly fermented with real fruit flavours, or Abbey beers like Leffe which adopt the name of a famous abbey (and hence an association with real monk-brewers). There are white beers or witbier in Flemish, which are perfect for hot summer afternoons on the café terrace; and there’s a host of blonde or golden beers which are richly fermented to unique tastes. The names of the beers are also good indicators of what’s to come: Duvel (with a taste made by the devil, they say), Delirium Tremens (which, with an alcohol content of nine percent I’ve heard euphemistically called a ‘light beer’ — the pink elephants on the label should be viewed as a warning), the Forbidden Fruit, Mort Subite (‘Instant Death’), Guillotine, and one, a rather strong number at 12 percent is Bush, which for reasons of stamina and political coincidence I am avoiding at the moment: a certain President is only 30 kilometres away in Brussels at the time of writing.

Now, add to this the fact that almost every brand of beer comes with its own unique glass, and that in some beer cafés you can choose from several hundred varieties according to vintage and bottling, and you’ll come to realise that the adventure of Belgian beer is to devote oneself to a series of flings that demand many years of your life. Welcome to my affairs.

To be honest, it’s an unattainable quest. The brave writer who undertakes to know every Belgian beer will wind up either broke or sick and severely unhealthy. It’s unwise to sample any more than three different Belgian beers of an evening; mixing too many different types leads directly to the conditions mentioned above. I’ve found that devoting a session to only one (or possibly a second of similar vintage) leads to a much clearer morning: your body will still respect you the next day. Get to know a beer well. Give it due time and consideration. If you get on well together and the feeling is still mutual in the morning, then you’ve found a new friend for the favourites list. There will always be more beer than you can consume, so it’s best to stay humble.

Further, I’ve experienced trouble keeping track of all these beers, and I haven’t even begun to sample the specialist beers made by various small breweries around the country. Leffe comes in four varieties and Chimay in three colours (each deliciously different and successively stronger); there’s a stable of ‘kriek’ lambics and diverse white beers that all blur into a lazy haze of malty hops and foam. I’ve a stack of scribbled coasters with notes, stars, and underlinings of various names but very few criticisms and memories; and there’ve been a few times already that I’ll walk into a supermarket or bottle shop and recognise a label or two, like someone who looks vaguely familiar, like I might have had a deep and intimate discussion with the night before but now cannot match to a name. It’s embarrassing for all concerned. The coaster might say ‘hallelujah, I’ve found my brand’ and I might have dragged all my friends to the bar to meet and greet it, but a week or so later I’m not so sure any more. Another beer has come between us.

I suspect that part of the problem lies in the difficulty of writing about beer. The world of wine has its own literary fetishists and reviewers, the artists of the fruit-bomb-description and the wildly associative analogy; wine has its descriptive rankings and an industry of savants to service it. Beer, on the other hand, despite the work of some highly specialised critics who use an obtuse language of rusty hops and malty fizz, seems to shun all arty talk and intellectual guff. Despite the complex gestation and richness of Belgian beers, it’s not likely that many people will simply appreciate its taste and colour and then spit it out again like wine tasters do. In addition to which is the difficulty of actually writing anything coherent after two or three solid Trappist beers. The mellow buzz of Belgian beers precludes much serious mental effort.

But I sincerely want to do these beautiful beers written justice. Let me introduce you to an old friend, Mister Duvel. I’m sitting in a warm café at the foot of the St. Pieterskerk of Leuven, an edifice sadly stunted and incomplete without its planned 170 meter tower (begun in the 15th century but never completed due to bad subsoil). Outside, snow is falling and collecting in lazy drifts as the Duvel arrives in its own wide and curved glass, a glass you could put a candle in and walk from room to room with to light your way. The head on the beer is strong and the golden liquid below well-carbonated (if the beer has been poured right, it should stay bubbly all the way down). The first sip is a yeasty surprise of mild bitterness and sweetness combined without overt competition. There’s a peculiar maturity to the taste, the fermented effect of beer taken to another level but with sufficient original beery taste to leave no doubt as to its nature. It’s a taste that’s beguilingly consistent all the way to the bottom of the glass.

In the meantime, the café house-dog has come and sniffed me out. It’s a white bitch with grey patches over its eyes and ears; it checks everyone and then goes back behind the bar. The owner occasionally addresses its sad looks with questions proclaiming his innocence in the matter of feeding it.

Duvel, like many other Belgian beers, doesn’t give you the bloated and bleary feeling other beers tend to do. It’s a very friendly and social imbibing, a gentle feeling spreading through your body like warm water. It’s also a suspiciously healthy feeling, as though the beer is giving you a devilish little wink and saying that everything’s all right, now, you’ll be friends well into the night. Its delicious double-fermentation makes you want to bless this tiny European nation that invented it as a victory drink after World War 1. It almost seems too complexly tasteful for one beer, too rich for a single measure; but for a country that also invented the saxophone and the bread vending machine, this is only an average to good beer, a single achievement in a veritable universe of beery surprises and secrets. The chill on my face as I leave the café is met by my indifferent and cheery grin. Such a friendly beer, that Duvel.

The next step in my lifelong study is to begin visiting the small breweries that specialise in their own exotic brews; it has taken me four trips to Belgium just to sample the range of beers stocked by the average supermarket. And again, here I’ve only focused on the extra-fermented beers; there’s a range of lagers like Maes and Jupiler which I’ve only given a cursory glance, because frankly, they pale in comparison to your basic double-fermented Abbey beer. After a Chimay Bleu, every other beer seems like insultingly tasteless dishwater.

If alcoholic revelation is what you’re after — a revelation along the lines of ‘I never knew beer could taste this good’ or if you want to get an impression of what it’s like to live in a country where delicious beer is a normal part of life, I suggest looking up a Kasteel bier, a Westmalle Trippel, Chimay Blanc, Bleu or Rouge, Leffe Blonde, Hoegaarden, or Duvel for starters. Be warned: you could fall in love, over and over again.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/breebaart050323/