Thursday, 17 March 2011

Learning to love the Belgians

It would be fair to say that I have never really been a fan of Belgian beer, I never really 'got them'. I always felt that a strong Belgian beer tasted like it was strong. It's possible that I was just drinking the least well balanced, least well made Belgian beers, but I rather suspect there is a different reason.

My first experience of reaonably high abv beers came in Seattle 6 years ago. I remember drinking an Imperial IPA 'for a laugh' and being surprised that I actually liked it (it was at this time that I discovered that not all US beers were Bud and Coors).

I had always been a 'beer drinker' rather than a lager drinker. I had my dalliances with Stella and Grolsh, a stage most men in the UK go through, but I always ended up back on the ale. I was brought up in Suffolk, and in Suffolk you drink Adnams (and now Green Jack too) and many a country pub is built on real ale. For that reason I most definitely had an affiliation for drinking 'something else'. Moving to Cumbria, where lager is a new style of beer, in 2000 also helped cement my love of independently brewed beer.

Fast forward a few years, to 2008/9 and the 'craft beer revolution' was beginning to take shape in the UK. More overseas beers were becoming available, and significantly more American beers. To me these beers held their alcohol better than the Belgian stuff I had tried, balanced the booze with the hops in an IPA or the sugars in an Imperial Stout. They worked and I totally 'got them'.

However, much in the same way that new world wines have slowly introduced a new wave of drinkers to old world wines because of their more 'obvious' flavours I can see the same happening with beers.

Belgian beers generally are far more subtle in character and style than US beers, they are less 'obvious'... The Belgians don't really do big hop fronted IPA's or deep, rich, sweet imperial stouts. Some of the more progressive breweries such as De Dolle and De Struisse are creating some really incredible experimental beers, but still their own style. The only brewery in Belgium I have come across mimicking US style IPA's is Viven. What the Belgians do, and this is something that I learned to appreciate by sitting in some great Belgian beer bars drinking great Belgian beers, is make big beers with subtle flavours, beers with lots of depth and slowly emerging characters. Orval, a beer I was a long way from being in love with before I left, is a perfect example of this. In some beer bars you get the choice of different ages of Orval, because the characteristics of the beer evolve. This isn't a new concept, bottle conditioned beers age in the bottle (whether they all age well or not is another matter) but what you find when you drink these beers is that their is no instant hit, you have to get to know your beer and find all its hidden secrets.

My mission however, was to conquer lambic beers. I love beer and the fact that I just couldn't love lambic's made me feel like I had failed. How could everyone else think these are so special and I thought they tasted like off yogurt? I remember being sat at a table with Watt, Dickie and Caddon a few months ago. Three people who know a bit about beer. Caddon was introducing a few beers, Old Chimneys GKHR and Cantillon something, Rose De Gambrinus or the Kriek....I can't remember which.

The Cad reached the bottle of Cantillon and I said 'I already know I don't like this, I don't like lambic beers'. Now imagine you have been invited to an interview and been asked to wait in reception and when the person interviewing you comes to reception to walk you through they find you standing on the desk, urinating on the receptionist. That is the look I got when I announced that I 'don't like lambic beers'.

I figured I had one choice, go to the home of Lambic beers, Cantillon, and learn to love this complex and challenging beer.I was lucky enough to be met by Jean, the Head brewer and we sat and chatted about how the beer is made and aged (70% of Cantillon is exported, its not actually very easy to find in Belgium, relatively speaking). Tomme Arthur of Port Brewing was with us and Jean kindly opened a succession of aged gueuze beers, from 30 down to 10 yr old, plus various ages of krieks.

Now, as Tomme and I discussed, it could have been the environment we were in and the fact that we were being given the huge honour of trying some vintage Cantillon, but the beers were amazing. So amazing I bought 18 75cl bottles. If you get a chance to visit do, its an incredible brewery, a working museum run by lovely people.

I can say with absolute certainty that I am a convert to Belgian beer. I fear I shall never say the same about French wine however


  1. I want to try more good Belgian stuff. I've loved a lot of what I've tried (Orval, Rochefort 10, La Chouffe, Maredsous, Kwak, even some of the fruit beers too). A trip over there is high on the agenda, although I fear the decimation my bank account would suffer as a result.

    And as for French wine, we'll have to educate your ill-equipped palate Chris! They make pretty much every style of wine going, and most of them to a higher standard than anywhere else. Most of the 'New World' wine makers take their inspiration from the French classics.

  2. Ben, Fritz Maytag took inspiration from Timothy Taylor and I can assure you I'd rather drink an Anchor Steam than a Landlord. Good to see you yesterday by the way

  3. I know exactly where you are coming from. I need to give Lambic another go.

    Interestingly French wine has improved dramatically over the last 10 years after the kicking they got from the new world stuff.

  4. An excellent post, I'm like the old-you in that they frighten the hell out of me, I just don't get them.

    @BGRTRob shared a bottle of kriek at at the Manchester #twissup and it was the most sour horrid thing I've ever tasted.

    There is a reason why I only appear to 'baron rate' English & US ales - I just don't know how to appreciate the rest!

    I'm hoping my taste buds will develop to understand these other styles but for now just hand me a nice dry-hopped IPA will you?