Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Planet Belgium by Nick Anderson
It has been fun these past few weeks going over some of the basic styles and examples of those styles. I feel like it’s time to start exploring other parts of the world and maybe get a bit more specific when it comes to styles, beers, history, etc. The next few weeks of this column are going to be dedicated to exploring Belgian beers. There are many misconceptions and assumptions made by those unfamiliar with the beers of Belgium, and while I certainly won’t be able to clear ever one of them up I hope to at least clear a path for you to find an interest in what is historically the most interesting of the ‘big’ beer-producing nations.
Now don’t get me wrong: I swear by my belief that the United States has the most interesting and dramatically varied beer producing culture in the world. That said, it seems that most beer geeks I’ve met and known over the years (myself certainly included) have followed a path from intense hoppy American Pale Ales and IPAs to Belgian beers. It’s not an easy transition for everyone; it took me years to wrap my head and palate around the flavor profiles and archetypes traditional in Belgian beers that are truly foreign to us here in the States. I’ve said it many times to many people over the years: while traditional beers from the U.S., U.K., Germany and the like are different, they’re relatable under the umbrella of what we know here as “Ales” and “Lagers.” Belgium is akin to a completely different planet. On Planet Belgium we consider different styles to be their own countries, so rich and varied are their traditions.
Because of the very different and sometimes downright strange flavor profiles in Belgian beer, it’s easy for someone new to it to be put-off for a lack of preparedness. We’ll get into the details later on, but for now here are of basic rules to help you start your journey:
Free your mind and your palate will follow: If all you know of Belgian beer is Stella Artois and you’re looking to expand your knowledge, make this your mantra. Repeat it to yourself often. Never forget it. You will have to adjust to new ideas and accept a whole new paradigm of what beer is and what flavors make sense. The use of spices, sugars, fruit, and wild yeasts are par for the course depending on which beer is in your glass at any given time, creating brews that are unlike anything you’ve ever had. Keep a clear head about yourself and judge each beverage on its own merits, not by how “weird” it might be compared to what you may be used to. I cannot stress this enough.
Look before you leap: Never pass up advice or recommendations from people who know, and are able to relate to your experience. This is the one time I might advise not just picking something off a menu “just because” or grabbing a bottle off the shelf because it looks interesting. It is simply far too easy to stumble into something that you may not be “ready” for yet. I know how that sounds but hear me out: that 11.2% ABV bottle of Quadruple may be your favorite beer ever someday — but if you have it tonight it may be so drastically divergent from anything you’ve had before that it may sour you to strong Belgian beers in general. An extra few minutes to question a bartender, server, or beer guy can help open a whole new world to you.
Next week, we’ll start picking apart the major Belgian styles and recommending specific beers to try. Until then, happy drinking.