CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The idea to publish a short series of columns to simplify the seemingly complex world of Belgian beer came to me under anesthesia; well OK, it was local anesthesia while having some very minor surgery.The good doctor and I were having a pre-op conversation about beer in general. Alas, the subject of Belgian beer came up just about the time I was staring into the blinding white lights of the operating room. A nurse asked, "So what's the difference between Belgian beer and any other beer?"Obviously, I was at a clear disadvantage to field the question so I listened as the doc attempted to answer. All in all, he did a decent job of hitting the salient points. It was the combination of the directness of the question and the doctor's roundabout answer that led me to the conclusion that this was a subject that should be tackled and simplified in a series of columns.I am only going to say this once and only in this first column of the series. Belgium is the original Disneyland of beer. I say "original" because U.S. craft brewers are giving the Belgians a run for their money in many ways, but we cannot diminish the importance of Belgium in shaping beer culture.
Belgium is a perfect mix of French whimsy and Flemish (Dutch) precision. This mix of diverse characteristics makes for a place where offbeat and crazy beers can be created and well-crafted. It is truly a place where the brewer's art meets practical science and a bit of luck.Belgium is a small country (about the size of Maryland), yet it is home to more than 150 unique artisanal breweries. In Belgium, and most of north-central Europe, beer was not a luxury, but a necessity in the Middle Ages. Beer was the only safe method of hydration because the water supply was polluted, and wine was not to be found in the colder non-fruit-growing climate.Historically, the Catholic Church has acknowledged the importance of beer to the survival of the region by granting sainthood to those who preached the "drink beer, not water" message, St. Arnoldus being the most notable. Beer was considered a divine gift revered by the people as well as the many Benedictine and Trappist monasteries in the region.One of the many rules of St. Benedict is to be hospitable to all, so many monasteries and abbeys also served as travelers' inns along trade routes throughout Europe. Beer was certainly on every menu at that time. Abbeys and monasteries brewed beer as sustenance as did just about every farmhouse and home. All Benedictine monks, including Trappists, follow a strict tradition of fasting during Lent so stronger and more-filling beers were brewed for nutrition during the fast. Yes, folks, beer is food, and there are many historical paintings of fat and jolly beer-drinking monks making that point.In more recent years, many monasteries and abbeys in Europe, and especially in Belgium, have used their brewing talents as a way to pay for the day-to-day expenses of living in meditation and praise to God.This leads me to the first lesson of Belgian beer label interpretation: A beer that is labeled as an abbey beer or refers to an operating abbey in its name can be brewed by any large or small brewery. There is no legal requirement that such a beer be affiliated with an actual abbey (though some are) and may even assume a fictitious name for marketing purposes. This may seem a bit shady, but many of these beers are very well crafted. It's just a Belgian thing.Abbey beers vary in style and strength but typically follow a very simple designation of blond, amber or brown. Some designate beers as dubbel and tripel, originally based on a taxable strength designation. This has become more of a style designator with dubbel being dark and malty, and tripel being light in color but strong and spicy. Complex malt flavor is the goal here along with some complex esters and phenolics produced by specific Belgian yeast strains during fermentation. I recommend beers by St. Feuillien and St. Bernardus in this category.Trappist beers are brewed specifically by monastery breweries operated by the Trappist order. Of the seven operating Trappist breweries, six are in Belgium. The word "Trappist" cannot appear on the label or in the description of a beer unless it is actually brewed under control of the Trappist order. Authentic Trappist beers bear the Trappist shield trademark.Another feature denoting some Trappist beers is a raised ring around the neck of the bottle. The only non-Trappist brewer to ever gain a license to use such trade dress is New Belgium Brewing, based in Fort Collins, Colo. Brooklyn Brewing Co. was asked to stop its use of a double ring on some of its Belgian-style bottles.The majority of Trappist brewers follow a similar range of styles to their abbey counterparts with each having something a little different to stand out from the crowd. Chimay denotes its style range by label color (red, white and blue), while Abbey Rochefort uses a progressive numbering system (6, 8 and 10) to denote relative strength and complexity.Orval (brewed by Abbey Notre Dame D'Orval) is the most unique in both packaging and flavor. Orval is available in one style (gold cap) and size (33 centiliters). The beer is about 6 percent abv and is akin to hoppy English ale that has been slightly soured by brettanomyces yeast, making the beer highly carbonated, dry, extremely frothy and delicious as it pours from a unique bowling pin-shaped bottle. It's one of my favorite beers.
Orval is readily available in Charleston along with Trappist brands Rochefort, Chimay and Westmalle. I also recommend Westmalle's dubbel and tripel and also Rochefort's 10.For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.