Dish of the Day: 5 Belgian Beers
In a country with a brewing culture as rich as Belgium’s, beer can be consistently surprising. Behind the icons are a wealth of lesser known brewers producing plenty of unknown treasures – all of which are waiting to be discovered. Here are 5 standout beers I encountered on a trip to Brussels earlier this year.
De Dolle Brouwers, Special Reserva (13% ABV), ordered at Beer Circus
Better than discovering a new beer is discovering a whole new style of beer, which is exactly what happened at the fantastic Beer Circus. Their beer menu was more of a detailed encyclopaedia of Belgian beer, cataloguing a near exhaustive list of different styles. A section labelled ‘Oud Bruins’ caught my attention, as these Flemish brown beers undergo a primary fermentation, before being loaded into oak barrels and aged for roughly 18 months. I went for Special Reserva by De Dolle Brouwers, which had a tart sourness in the initial hit before a heavy wave of alcohol and raisin-like dark fruits came in, ending with an enduring earthy oak flavour. I’m surprised these beers aren’t better known, and if the Special Reserva was anything to go by, they would sit well on the shelves of any specialist beer bar.
Den Tseut, Belle Cies (10% ABV), ordered at Beer circus
The flavour of Belgian beers are historically characterised by their flavoursome yeasts. As they ferment the beer they sing out with those flavours loosely described by non-experts like myself as ‘Belgian’. So you generally have to take any promise of a highly hopped Belgian beer with a pinch of salt; to get that intense hoppy bitterness neutrally flavoured yeast is required. Sometimes you can’t help but feel that Belgian brewers are itching to make a highly hopped ale, but one that is still Belgian at the core. Case in Point: Belle Cies from Den Tseut. This got my attention from the off: champagne yeast, 10% ABV, heavily hopped, then dry-hopped and, a first for me, a hop cone in every bottle (I wondered when I would find this, I knew it was coming). The beer itself, while delicious, bizarrely wasn’t overtly hoppy; instead the initial hit was like a wave of ripe sweet fruits, with floral flavours evident, before the champagne yeast and hops gave it a nice dry edge. The yeast flavours won out for me though, the hops giving a crisp delicate bitterness prickling away underneath. A hoppy beer that was Belgian at heart.
Viven, Imperial IPA (8.4% ABV), ordered at La Porte Noire
While some brewers may stay true to their national ideals, it seems others are looking to emulate other styles from around the world. Viven’s Imperial IPA is a straight up, no-nonsense, American Imperial IPA. You could tell as soon as it got near your nose – strong grapefruit and citrus from the Simcoe and Tomahawk hops. I don’t think I’m overstating it by saying this was up there with some of the best Imperial IPAs I have had. Who are Viven? Is their mission to make American style beers? Well, yes and no. This Flemish brewery started out with a more traditional Belgian line-up of a Blonde and a Brune. In 2009 though, owner Tony Traen and head brewer Dirk Naudts decided to expand the range through applying ‘the art and techniques of Flemish brewing to non-Flemish beers’. Thus, this big Imperial IPA, along with a Porter and an English Ale (brewed with Goldings hops), have been conceived. It was a real ‘anything you can do, we can do better’ kind of beer.
Cantillon, Iris (6%ABV), ordered at Brasserie Cantillon
Drinking traditional gueuzes and fruit beers is one of the best experiences you can have on a trip to Belgium, visiting the Cantillon brewery, even more so. Equally as good as the brewery tour, is the chance to drink their rarer beers at a fraction of the price they are over here. The stand out one for me was the Iris, as it represented the diversity of spontaneously fermented lambic beers. Unlike all the other beers they produce, Iris is made purely with pale malt, as opposed to the usual minimum 35% wheat. Also, where most lambics use aged hops, Iris uses fresh Saaz hops which change the profile of the beer. It was reminiscent of what an English bitter might taste like if it had been spontaneously fermented. Amber in colour, a lovely softer sourness gave way to smooth, lightly caramel flavour with a bitter edge. It was absolutely delicious and offered a whole new dimension to lambic beers.
Oud Beersel Lambic (5.7% ABV), ordered at La Fleur en Papier Doré
The chance to drink lambic out of the barrel, like a thirsty tourist trapped overnight in a cellar, is pretty hard to come by, even in Belgium. But at the wonderfully atmospheric ‘La Fleur en Papier Doré’, a past haunt of Belgian surrealist artists such as Rene Magritte, you can do just that. They serve the Oud Beersel Lambic almost out the barrel, although due to a quirky Belgian health and safety law, it must first go into a plastic jug and then your glass. I really enjoyed it, but everyone else in our group looked at me as if I had lost the plot. It was totally flat and big on the sourness, much more pronounced than in the blended gueuzes, but if you like that flavour then go for it – even to just understand how the gueuzes are developed through the blending process.
Follow Rory on Twitter @RoryElsome
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