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What is Belgian Beer?

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  • March 30, 2020

Sandwiched between France, Germany, and the Netherlands is a country that gained its independence in 1831. It’s known in the brewing world for its idiosyncratic traditions just as much for the world-class beer its brewers produce. We’re talking about Belgium, of course—and the brewing tradition that has inspired us since the beginning.

If you were to ask two Belgian brewers for the defining characteristic of Belgian beer, they’d give you two different answers. Rather than being confusing, this is actually a key of Belgian brewing; independence is built into its foundation. Meaning, Belgian brewers love to follow their intuition and personal tastes rather than adhere to strict style guidelines.

Jean Van Roy, Brewmaster at Brasserie Cantillon, pours gueuze for a group of Allagash employees using a traditional “Lambic basket.”

That’s not to say that Belgian beer is impossible to categorize. There are aspects of Belgian beer that are generally universal. One fairly widespread theme is the focus on yeast.

Top-fermenting ale yeasts like those you’d find in a witbier, saison, or tripel, create esters and phenols galore: fruity flavors (citrus, passion fruit, mango, etc.) and more spicy flavors (clove, vanilla, white pepper, etc.) respectively. Another oft-used yeast in Belgian brewing is Brettanomyces, which is a wild yeast that can create intensely tropical aromas, in addition to a complex “barnyard-y” funkiness. Add to that the spontaneously fermented Lambic beers, where no yeast at all is added by the brewer. They simply let the unfermented wort sit out as it cools and gather yeast from the air, much like a baker does with sourdough bread. The array of funky, tart, and hard-to-define flavor created by that method is unmistakable—and incapable of being replicated any other way. Yeast is a versatile tool in the Belgian brewing arsenal, as much in creating flavor as it is in the search for balance.

Another Belgian classic: Saison Dupont.

Solid “blending” of flavors is another aspect consistent in many Belgian beers. The idea is that the beer contains a range of flavors, but they are all well blended so they work well together and no one flavor sticks out. One specific way we describe it inside our brewery is being able to perceive a flavor, but not being able to identify it. Our saison is a great example. It has a variety of fruity and spicy notes including: lychee, pineapple, some grapefruit, lemongrass, floral and peppery notes. Now, if you taste that beer, you’re not going to say, “this tastes like lychee!” However, you will notice a wide variety of pleasant fruit-forward notes, all deriving from the yeast strain we ferment it with.

Some other tendencies typical of traditional Belgian brewing:

  • Low residual sugar, leading to dry beer
  • Spices, like our use of coriander and Curacao orange peel in Allagash White
  • Bottle- or can-conditioning – where the beer is actually packaged with a small bit of extra yeast and sugar to bring the beer up to full carbonation inside the package.

The heart of Belgian brewing, however, really is the concept of individuality. Some of the most revered Belgian beers belong to no style at all. Take Orval, for example. Its flavor is somewhere between a blonde ale and a wild beer—partly because it’s refermented with Brettanomyces yeast. It’s an experience unlike so many other beers, and one that is essentially Belgian.

So get out there and track down a Dupont, Cantillon, Orval, or an Allagash beer (couldn’t resist), and experience the varied, complex, and balanced flavors that exemplify Belgian brewing.

Chris, of De Dolle Brouwers, shows off his coolship.

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