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Posts Tagged ‘belgian beer’

For my most recent tasting of various Belgian Tripels, I tried to think of some clever way to introduce it all in this post.  I wanted to come up with some sort of witty word play on triple, so I toyed with the idea of somehow referencing things like the triple play, Triple H, Triple Crown, triple lutz, and the Triple Entente.  It was all pretty lame.  This is understandable considering the creative and high reasoning center of my brain has slowly deteriorated over the last week due to near continuous exposure to music from Fisher-Price toys.  So, I decided to just put creativity and wit aside and jump right into the nitty-gritty.

In a recent post, I described my disappointment in one very famous Tripel.  I’m not sure if I had a bad batch or if the entire style just wasn’t my flavor.  But, Westmalle’s version just didn’t sit well with me.  It seemed so bland and monotone.  Considering the reputation that Westmalle has in the craft beer world, I figured I must had missed something.  I decided that I had to get to the bottom of this Tripel business, so I picked up a few more well-known examples in my recent shipment from the Bierzwerg.

It turns out that the story of the Belgian Tripel begins with the very same Westmalle brew that I found so uninspiring.  The term as we use it today has relatively recent origins.  In the mid-1930s, a Belgian brewery called Drie Linden first applied the term Tripel to a strong pale ale.  The head brewer also was connected with the Trappist brewery of Westmalle, and through this influence the monks released their own version of the brew under the name Superbier.  After World War II, Westmalle began tweaking their recipe by adding more hops which resulted in the Westmalle Tripel we know today.  Since then, countless other brewers in Belgian have taken up the term Tripel to describe their golden, hoppy, stong pale ales.

As far as its characteristics are concerned, the Tripel is a very interesting style.  Much like Pilsners, the Tripel should have a bright golden color with little to no haze.  Aromas should be mainly fruity including bananas, lemon, or other citrus, depending on the make.  There should be a fine malt-hop balance with a strong sweetness and corresponding bitterness in the finishing.  The typical ABV range for most Tripels is between 8% and 11%, which means that the brew can carry quite a bunch for such a pale beer.  Although the alcohol esters are certainly present, the best Tripels are able to balance and subdue their high alcohol content with their finely tuned malt bills.

My exposure to Belgian Tripels thus far has been very miniscule with only Westmalle’s and St. Bernardus’s versions counting toward my tasting experience.  With these two samplings, I couldn’t have found two greater extremes.  My opinion of the Westmalle was dubious at best, but I found the St. Bernardus offering to be a magnificent drinking experience.  To widen my horizons, I was able to acquire three new varieties: Tripel Karmeliet, Kasteel Tripel, and the Maredsous 10.

First up in the Tripel taste test was the brew from the Brouwerij Bosteels called the Tripel Karmeliet.  This beer has a tremendous reputation to say the least.  Both BeerAdvocate.com and RateBeer. com each have this monster in their list of top five Tripels with it hitting the number one spot in the latter.  The aroma was right in line with the typical profile for Tripels – strong fruit esters with an emphasis on citrus along with some nice spice notes.  The taste is what actually surprised me about this beer.  It can be best described as vinous almost like you were drinking a glass of wine.  There was also some of that citrus flavor, especially lemongrass, coming out as well.  On the whole though, I really wasn’t blown away by this take on the style.  It definitely didn’t live up to the hype that I perceived surrounding this beer.

The next victim in the Tripel sampler was the Kasteel Tripel from Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck.  This brew was probably the most disappointing from the bunch.  The appearance and aroma were right in line with what you’d expect – golden clear with a nose full of citrus, other fruits, and spice.  But, the taste left little to be desired.  For starters, this beer clocks in at 11% ABV making it one of the stronger Tripels out there.  Unfortunately, the brew didn’t do much to mask this high alcohol content, making the experience a little like drinking cough syrup.  Sure, you had the usual suspects present – decent fruit esters with a nice medium hop bitterness in the finishing.  But, the alcohol combined with a not so pleasant mouthfeel made this brew a chore to finish.

Finally, there’s the Maredsous 10 from the Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat.  Since this brew comes from one of the largest beer conglomerates in Belgian, I actually had slightly lower expectations going into it.  However, this beer proved to be a wonderful drinking experience and the winner of my mini Tripel taste test.  Again, the appearance and aromas were right in line with the style description we’re familiar with.  The taste is nice and complex with a wonderful balance of mild fruits including the typical citrus as well as grapes and a little banana.  The surprise was in the hop bitterness towards the finish, which was much more prevalent than any the other Tripel I’ve had.  It proved to add a very remarkable character to the beer.

Now that I have a little more experience with the style, it’s amazing to me just how diverse the various offerings out there are.  In the few tastings I’ve had, I have had some exceptional brews and some not so noteworthy ones.  For a style that enjoys such high regard, it surprised me that there could be so much disparity in not only the character but the very quality of the beers that I tasted.  Disappointing beers included, I can say that the endeavor has been worthwhile.  I’m happy to say that through the likes of brewers such as Maredsous and St. Bernardus, my appreciate of the Tripel has been opened wide.

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According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, there are as many as ten Catholic saints with the name of Bernard.  My favorite is probably the abbot and scholar, Bernard of Clairveaux.  The saintly monk was known for establishing hundreds of monasteries across Europe and for being the private tutor to four different Popes.  Then there’s Bernard of Corleone.  This guy elevated the medieval tradition of self-flagellation to an art form.  And, let’s not forget Bernard of Menthon, the patron saint of mountaineers and skiers, who is probably most famous for having a dog named after him.

Which Bernard became the inspiration for St. Bernardus Brouwerij, I have yet to figure out.  I’m guessing it’s probably not the flagellation guy.  At any rate, the jolly old monk that graces each bottle of St. Bernardus beer is more than likely fictive.  The name of the brewery is actually derived from a location rather than a person.  The Refuge of Notre Dame de St. Bernard in the Flanders town of Waton was established in the 19th century by monks fleeing anti-clericalism in France.  Like many of their monastic cousins, the refuge became  known for their production of cheese and beer.  After the community returned to France in 1934, a local resident adopted the St. Bernardus name and developed a thriving cheese business.

The story of how this family of cheese makers moved into brewing involves another famous monastic community known for beer – namely, the St. Sixtus Abbey and their Westvleteren Trappist ales.  Prior to World War II, the Trappist Abbey of St. Sixtus practiced within their confines their centuries-old tradition of brewing beer.  This production was originally meant solely to supply the needs of the monastic community.  But, after the war, the abbey decided to expand their production and distribution making their Trappist ale available to a wider market.

The brewing of the beer, which was marketed under the name St. Sixtus, was licensed to an independent brewer who sold the it under the Trappist name.  The brewer who received this lucrative license was, you guessed it, the same family that ran the St. Bernardus fromagerie.  The original St. Sixtus Abt 12 was born.  As a part of this license, the St. Sixtus monks supplied their rent-a-brewer with their recipes and yeast strains making the St. Sixtus beer a faithful representation of the brew enjoyed by the monastic community.

The deal came to an end in 1992 when the Abbey of St. Sixtus joined the other Trappist brewing monasteries in forming a protective brand.  From that point on, only beers brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery could carry the name Trappist.  However, this was not the end of the brews from Watou.  The family was allowed to continue its operations under the resurrected name of St. Bernardus.

Since then, St. Bernardus has become world-renown for its amazing Belgian ales.  Using the traditional numbering system based on alcohol content, the main line-up of St. Bernardus features two Abbey Dubbels – the Pater 6 and Prior 8 – and a mind-blowing Quad, the Abt 12.  Over the years, the brewery has also added several other offerings, including two Abbey Tripels, a Witbier, and dark ale called Grottenbier.  For my tasting and your reading pleasure, I was able to procure the two Dubbels, their mainstay Tripel, and the delectable Quad.

So, what about the beer?  The story of the Pater 6 is one of subtlety.  The beer pours an opaque red-brown color with light head.  A light aroma of hay, Belgian yeast, and raisins fills the nose.  The taste of this brew is very subdued.  Fruity malts with only a mild sweetness make up a relatively narrow flavor profile.   There’s also a pronounced doughy yeast flavor along with some resin hops balancing it all out.  With a light to medium body and a soft carbonation, the beer has a very pleasant mouthfeel.  It’s not the best stand alone beer, but it would go really well with some appropriate food pairings.

The next step up is their Prior 8, which is in essence a beefed up version of the Pater 6.  The brew pours a rich opaque brown color with two fingers of head that has some gorgeous lacing.  Aroma is sweet with dried fruits especially plum and raisin, and yeast.  The taste is complimentary with a prominent dried fruit flavors, along with spice, doughy yeast, and alcohol esters.   It’s very smooth on the palate, medium-bodied, and has a sweet-bitter balanced aftertaste.  This is what I think of when I hear the word Dubbel.

The grande dame of the bunch is their Quad, the Abt 12.  This beauty is dark brown, almost black in appearance.  The aroma is extravagant – heavily floral with distinct notes of yeast, dried fruit, and citrus. The taste is dominated by the malt flavors, mostly yeast and raisins, but also a touch of banana.  But, the beer doesn’t stop there.  These flavors also bleed into a very firm base of citrusy hop bitterness that carries over into the finish.  What I found out later was that the Abt 12 is using the same Westvleteren yeast strain that the brewery acquired under its license agreement almost 60 years ago.  So, if you’re having trouble getting your hands on a Westy 12, this brew is not far off.

Considering my limited but disappointing history with Tripels, I was looking forward to giving St. Bernardus’s variety a spin.  This version pours a nice opaque golden orange color with a significant amount of dense head. The aroma is citrus, rose-water, floral, and spice.  There’s a corresponding taste of citrus, sweet malts, with a hint of cinnamon.  The brew also has a very mild bitterness – almost like orange peel – towards the end that merges into a lightly bitter finishing.  St. Bernardus has succeeded in getting me excited about the Tripel.

As much as I love Trappist beers, St. Bernardus just proves that quality is not necessarily in a name.  I would gladly stack any beer from this family brewery against any of those monk ales.  Because of their enduring commitment to quality and tradition, St. Bernardus has earned its place in the pantheon of beer greats right alongside the likes of Westvleteren.

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Today I received a new shipment of beer from the Bierzwerg!  So, I’m really looking forward to some of the posts that I have planned in the coming weeks.  It also means that I have a lot of beer to drink as well.  But, before I get into the new batch, I thought I’d throw out another Mash Tun.  This post deals with a curious sign in my neighborhood as well as two classic brews that I recently sampled.

Star of Brewing
Just down the street from our apartment, there is a traditional Kölsch tavern called Em Golde Kappes.  With a history going back to the 1910s, this brewhouse is a fixture in the cultural of my neighborhood in Cologne.  Along with Kölsch and great bratwurst, this biergarten has some very interesting symbols, images, and emblems that harken back to the city’s brewing history.  One such symbol is hanging above the main entrance in front of the brewhouse.  Suspended from an awning above the door, there is a large gilded cabbage (Em Golde Kappes means “At the Golden Cabbage”) above which is, what appears to be, the Star of David.

Ever since we moved into this neighborhood, I have wondered what the origins were of this curious symbol.  What, if anything, does a Kölsch tavern have to do with Judaism?  I decided recently to do a little research surrounding this symbol, through which I found out that it has nothing to do with the Jewish Star of David at all.

It turns out that the six-pointed star, or hexagram, is one of the oldest symbols of a brewing guild.  In medieval Germany, local aristocrats would issue licenses (for a small fee, of course) to brewers granting them the right to brew and serve beer.  In order to notify customers that a licensed brewer was operating, taverns would post so-called tapping signs at their entrances.  The hexagram became one of many tapping signs common throughout Germany.  For more information, I highly recommend a great article discussing the history and significance of these signs.

It’s Wheat, It’s Bock…It’s Delicious!
G. Schneider & Sohn is quickly becoming one of my favorite German breweries.  Wheat beer is the name of the game for these guys.  This exclusively wheat beer brewery, which is the oldest in Munich*, has one of the best Weizen line-ups in the world.  Awhile back I got to sampled their classic Hefeweizen, which got me curious to delve more into their beer offerings.  Much to my joy, I found in a local supermarket a few bottles of perhaps their most famous brew – the Aventinus Weizenbock.

I find the whole idea of the Weizenbock just plain awesome.  This beer definitely delivers with a beautiful marriage between the fruit and spice flavors of the Weizen and the caramel and bready goodness of the Doppelbock.  The beer pours a rich, opaque dark brown color with a light, effervescent head.  The aroma of caramel and yeast if evident but not overpowering.  With the taste you get a whole range of flavors.  The front end is dominated by the banana and clove typical for a Weissbier which is then followed by the powerful caramel and cereal flavors.  Robust and full-bodied, this brew is a real heavy hitter.  I love this beer.

*Note of Correction:  The G. Schneider & Sohn brewery is no longer located in Munich.  From 1872 to 1945, the brewery was indeed the largest and oldest wheat beer brewer in the city.  However, an Allied bombing raid in 1944 completely destroyed their production and brewing facilities.  After the war, the brewery relocated to Kelheim, Germany where it still operates today.

Westmalle
Ever since my trip to Belgium, I’ve had it as a goal of mine to sample every Trappist beer out there to enjoy.  The seven official Trappist brewers produce, by my count, 25 individual beers.  So far, I have gotten my mitts on 7 of them including brews from Westvleteren, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay.  This past week I added Westmalle to my list.

Specifically, I was able to sample Westmalle’s Tripel.  Now, this was my very first forray into the world of Tripels, so I was going on minimal experience in my tasting.  But, I must admit that I was somewhat disappointed in this beer.  I was expecting a complex brew with a range of fruit flavors and a good malt-hop balance.  What I got instead was a one-sided flavor profile with some malt sweetness and fruit notes along with very little hop character.  I’m not sure if I got a bum batch or if it just went over my head, but I found this beer no match to either an Orval or Rochefort.  However, with the outstanding reputation that Westmalle has in the beer world, it’s very likely that I simply didn’t get it.  In any case, I’m planning more samplings in the Tripel style, so hopefully I’ll be able to get more of a grasp on it.

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Driving through southwest Belgium, one is easily enchanted by the rolling hills, dense forests, and small quaint villages dotting the landscape.  This rugged region is known as the Ardennes.  Nestled in this magical landscape is a valley called Vallée des Fées or “Valley of Fairies”, and within this valley is a small town named Achouffe.  This fantastical locale is the home of and inspiration for a relatively young brewery on the Belgian beer scene – Brassiere d’Achouffe.

The Ardennes is a place that in many ways has escaped the touch of time.  While the consequences of modernity are, of course, ever-present, the people continue to hold on to the values and traditions that have marked this land for centuries.  Folklore still grips the hearts of those who live here – tales of fairies, dwarves, and gnomes flavor the local imagination.  In this milieu of fantasy, inspiration for a distinctive local take on the Belgian brewing tradition emerged.

In 1982, two local brothers-in-law set out to make their mark on the Belgian beer world.  They founded the small, independent Brassiere d’Achouffe naming it after their beloved hometown.  Naturally, the face of their new brewery drew from these same fairy tales and folklore that stamped their cultural surroundings.  It wasn’t that far of a leap either – Achouffe is very similar to the local word for gnome, which is chouffe.  The gnome became the symbol of the fledgling brand.

It is inspiring that this small brewery could make an impact on the beer scene so quickly.  To put it mildly, Belgian craft brewing is an intensely competitive market.  It surely wasn’t easy developing new and original ideas among perhaps the most sophisticated beer-drinking public in the world.  They carved out their niche by developing unique brews that combined the best of the Belgian tradition with ideas borrowed from beer offerings from around the world.

Their aggressive expansion beyond Belgium also helped their cause.  Today they are an anomaly in their home country having over 60% of their production destined for foreign consumption.  Achouffe is the only Belgium brewery that actually has more sales in the Netherlands than in Belgium itself.

In 2006, the two brothers-in-law sold their interest in the brewery to the Belgian beverage conglomerate, Moortgat.  It was disappointed learning that this traditional, family brewery had some time ago fallen into the corrupting influence of big business.  That suspicion was quickly allayed when I realized that Moortgat is the same company that controls Duvel and Maredsous.  The brothers still continue the day-to-day operation of the brewery ensuring the continuation of their exceptional craft.

So, what about the beer?  All of the offerings from Achouffe are firmly in the Belgian brewing tradition – top fermented ales that are unpasteurized and bottle conditioned.  However, this brassiere also has found inspiration from other brewing styles from around the world that they have incorporated into their beers, creating some original and innovative brews.

The flagship beer of Brassiere d’Achouffe is their La Chouffe, a Strong Belgian Pale Ale consisting of a classic Belgian pilsner malt with Tomahawk and Saaz hops spiced with coriander.  The brew pours a lush orange-yellow color with a light, foamy head.  What stood out immediately in the taste was tropical citrus like pineapple.  There was a definite herbal hop flavor in the middle which is where you get a sense of the coriander.  The taste then moves into a strong grassy hop finish.  The brew is a complex beer and a strong contributor to the Belgian ale style.

The great mystery of the bunch was their Mc Chouffe.  The mystery was, namely, what exactly is it?  RateBeer.com lists Mc Chouffe as a Scotch Ale whereas BeerAdvocate.com has it down as a simple Strong Belgian Ale.  According to the story, the brewers at Achouffe were inspired by a Scottish friend of theirs to bring a Scotch Ale flair to a traditional Belgian ale.  The result was the brown ale called Mc Chouffe.  Dried fruits, caramel, and earthy hops dominate the flavor of this beer.  Although it has a robust 8% ABV, you hardly notice any alcohol, which makes it one of the easiest beers from Achouffe to drink.  Think of this one as a Scotch Ale with a spicy Belgian take on it.

You wouldn’t be a Belgian brewer if you didn’t have a seasonal winter ale, now would you?  Achouffe, therefore, gave us their brew N’Ice Chouffe.  In this one, you find all of the usual suspects: nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon.  This spicy profile is supplement to a malt flavor centered around notes of dried fruit and caramel.  I’m usually not a big fan of Christmas beers, but this one was nice.

For me, the All-Star of the lineup from Brassiere d’Achouffe is their Houblon Dobbelen IPA Tripel.  The idea behind this beer was to combine a strong American style Imperial IPA with the Belgian Tripel.  With this beer, the story is the hops.  The brew has an amazing hop profile which is achieved mainly through their use of the American Amarillo variety, which passes on a very strong aroma and bitter flavor character.  This beer has it all.  Right out of the bottle there is a fresh aroma of floral hops and orange citrus.  The taste has the big malt body found in the best Tripels which then shockingly moves to a pronounced hop bitterness leading into a dry finish.  This brew is easily one of my top 5 favorites of all time.

When you’re talking about Belgian beer, it’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the vast amount of quality brews that come out of that small country.  Although Brassiere d’Achouffe only has 5 offerings (their fifth beer, Chouffe Bok 6666, is only sold in the Netherlands), they consistently produce amazing beers that are hard to match.  They have honed their craft well.  I hope someday to make my way over to the Ardennes to visit the small town and its brewery.  Until then, I’ll just have to rely on Deutsche Post to bring me bottles from this magical maker of beer.

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During the first half of our day in Belgium, we scored some really nice weather.  We were graced at Orval with warm sun and blue sky.  But, as we drove into Brussels that evening, that distinctive northern European drizzle started rolling through.  Because of poor planning on my part, we ended up hitting the outskirts of the city right when rush hour traffic picked up.  Sitting in traffic is not the best way to start your evening.  After a good bit of stop-and-go, we finally reached the city center, where we made our way to our first planned stop – the famous brewer of Lambic beers, Cantillon.  Well, our initial disappointment with Brussels continued as we found out when we arrived that we had missed the brewery’s visiting hours by a half an hour.  Nuts.  So, after an hour in Belgium’s capital, it was already Brussels 3, Visitors 0.

Well, Cantillon would have to wait for another day.  We made our way through the rain-soaked streets to the historic center of town where we parked our car and proceeded on foot.  Our goal was the world-renowned bar and beer mecca, the Delirium Cafe.  However, the moment we stepped out of the garage in which we parked, the light northern European drizzle turned into southeast Asian monsoon forcing us to flee for cover under the nearest awning.  It seemed that our time this city would end in futility.  But, whenever you think things are at their worst, something always seems to come along to shine light on a dreary situation.  For it just so happened that the awning under which we took cover belonged to a quaint little store called Beer Planet!  Things were looking up!

Beer Planet would have to wait though for soon the rain let up enough to allow us to continue on to Delirium.  Delirium is known around the world as the bar with the most available beers for sale – totalling over 2,000!  The bar is located in a narrow side alley a mere few hundred meters away from the extravagant Grand Place.  The inside would remind you of just about every other bar you’ve been in before – worn down wooden bar stools, antique tin signs on the walls, young people sitting around chatting while drinking and smoking.  But, the real treasure of the place is not in the decor but in the beer offerings.  First off, there is no menu per se that you use to select a beer you want.  You actually have to spend 5€ to purchase a magazine-like catalog with a list of all of the beers available.  Once you figure out how to procure that, then the real challenge begins.

Looking back it was probably a good thing, but I didn’t really know enough about Belgian beer to make the massive selection terribly overwhelming.  I knew that I would choose my first beer based on a recommendation from a friend who lived in Belgium.  At the bar, I picked myself up a bottle of the Trappist Rochefort 8.  This Belgian Strong Ale poured a beautiful dark brown color with a medium head.  The aroma was rich with dried fruits and dark sugars.  The taste was complimentary with a strong raisin flavor combined with alcohol making it almost rummy.  But, this fruitiness wasn’t overpowering, and it didn’t remain – the light hop finishing balanced out the malty sweetness.  This was a worthy follow-up to the other Trappist delight we experience that afternoon.

Being in Belgium and knowing we had missed out on Cantillon, I thought it almost a duty that I try at least one Lambic beer.  So, beer #2 on the hit list ended up being Oud Beersel‘s Oude Kriek.  Now, I must say, I’ve never been a fan of Lambic beers.  I never quite developed a taste for that funky sourness that marks the style.  But, I figured that this trip was all about being open-minded, so I gave it a whirl.  Poured into a nice sniffer glass, the brew looked attractive enough – a nice deep red color like cherry wine.  The beer, however, didn’t quite do it for me.  The cherry-like sourness combined with a sort of beer-esque hoppiness is probably acquired taste.  But, it was an interesting enough taste experience that I wouldn’t consider it a waste.

On our way to our final beer destination of the evening, we made a pit stop at our former rain sanctuary, Beer Planet, to shop for a few bottles of take-away beers.  This place had within its tiny confines essentially every Belgian beer out there for sale.  It was a convenient place to pick up a few souvenirs.  However, there was one particular brew that Beer Planet could not offer us.  The Trappist monastery of St. Sixtus in western Belgium produces what many consider to be the most coveted beer in the world – Westvleteren 12.  This beer is even more difficult to find than its six other Trappist brothers owing to the fact that the monastery only sells it by reservation at their location in Westvleteren.  But, fortunately for us, we found out about a pub in Brussels that served this rare brew.

But, it turned out finding the Best Beer in the World would be a bit more challenging than we had expected.  We ended up wandering around the streets of Brussels for a good hour trying to find the locale.  We finally stumbled upon it in a dimly lit back alley not far from the Grand Place.  Walking into this pub was like being transported back 100 years to the time of aristocrats and robber barons.  The place looked like one of these swanky old establishments that have been around for centuries catering to Brussel’s upper class residents – genuine wood-paneled walls, brass bar rails, old gentlemen sitting in the corner booth smoking pipes.  My friends and I definitely de-classed this joint a few rungs simply by walking in.  But, if you tried to imagine the bar the served the Holy Grail of beer, you figure it might look something like this.

We would not be intimidated though.  We found a nice quiet corner to sit down and flipped open a drink menu where we found spread out on one entire page in large type: “Westvleteren 12 – ‘The Best Beer in the World’ – 10€”.  The deep dark brown brew came to us served in a typical Belgian goblet.  The aroma was nice enough – spicy and caramel smell with a nice dried fruit sweetness.  But, honestly, I was a bit disappointed when I took my first sip.  The taste was a lot more mild than I figured it would be.  I guess it was a problem of expectations.  When you anticipate drinking the greatest beer on earth, you might expect the first sip to send you into immediate convulsions of rapture.  Perhaps we were expecting too much.  But, in the end the beer did indeed satisfy.  As I took more sips, the real complexity and subtlety of the beer began to emerge.  By the end of glass, we knew we had experienced something special.

By the time we left the place, we knew the hour had come to make our way back home.  After walking around the city center in order to work off some of the lingering effects of the night’s consumption, we climbed in our car and hit the road back to Cologne.  After a full day of Belgian beer exploration, I was struck by a few things.  First, I realized that I had seriously misjudged the Belgian brewing tradition.  There was a whole world of beer here that I had never taken seriously but was now open to me.  Secondly, my foray into Belgian beer had expanded my appreciate for beer in general.  After experiencing Belgian brewing, German beer in my eyes was not any less wonderful.  On the contrary, the Belgians gave me an even greater love for the unique and beautiful aspects of the German art.  In the end, it was this trip that led to the creation of this blog and my desire to know more about beer.  Each beer style and culture has something to offer – whether it is German, English, American, or Belgian.  Our joy as the consumer is that we get to find out what that is.

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I am a complete Germanophile.  I absolutely love anything having to do with Germany – the culture, its language, and the people.  This bias toward all things German was also prevalent from very early on in my love affair with beer.  After all, I reasoned, Germany is the land of beer!  It just seemed to confirm my suspicion that German was the greatest living culture on earth.  As I learned more about beer though, it became evident that there were competing claims to beer supremacy.  In particular, I was confronted with those who touted Belgian brewing tradition as the vastly superior example of fermented goodness.  No, thank you, I said.

One of the things I’ve always loved about German brewing is the tradition going back centuries.  Specifically, I loved how the oldest statute in German law is the so-called Reinheitsgebot of 1516, which declared it illegal to brew beer with anything other than malted barley, hops, and water (yeast was added to the list in the 19th century).  This absolute commitment to purity in brewing appealed to me – especially when most large American commercial brewers supplement their barley with cheaper grains like rice and corn.

When I first learned about Belgian brewing, I could do nothing but scoff.  How could those Belgians dirty up their beer with things like fruit, spices, and other ridiculous things.  Spontaneous fermentation, indeed.  Belgians were like your crazy, coked-up cousin who likes to set things on fire.  German beer, on the other hand, represented order and purity.

Well, I’m writing today to declare that I have eaten my words.  A few weeks ago, while some friends were visiting from the States, we drove to Belgium to do a little sightseeing.  Included in the trip was a few visits to beer producing locales around the country.  The experience would challenge my deeply held Belgian beer bigotry.

Fortunately, Belgium is a pretty small country.  Since Cologne is only a mere 80 km from the Belgian border, it makes quick jaunts into the country rather easy.  We set off early in the morning for our first stop in southern Belgium near the border with France – the Trappist abbey of Orval.  As one of only seven brewery/monasteries allowed to carry the name Trappist, we figured that this community of brewing monks would know a thing or two about beer.

Incidentally, I don’t think I had much of a concept at that point of how significant the Trappist brewing tradition actually was.  These monks, drawing on centuries of brewing wisdom, produce their special brews – not for commercial profit – but as a means of sustaining their charities and insular monastic communities.  Most of these monasteries brew only a limited amount of beer each year making their offerings highly prized and sought after.  The monks themselves generally shy away from outside attention.  They are simply content to live their lives of solitude and prayer while at the same time brewing their amazing beer.

Like most of the Trappist monasteries, Orval does have a small visitors center attached to but isolated from the main monastery, which handles the numerous beer pilgrims attracted to the place each year.  But, Orval is unique because it allows visitors to tour the ruins of the original 13th century monastery that was destroyed by the French in 1793.  The tour of the ruins provides a really interesting insight into monastic life and community.  And, it’s an absolutely beautiful place to boot.

Along with the beautiful sights, the visitor’s portion also includes a nice gift shop where you can purchase Orval ale as well as their various cheeses which the monks also produce at the monastery.  However, if you actually want to sample their tasty beverage, you have to make your way to the welcoming restaurant just off the monastery grounds.  Here you can sit outside in the sun enjoying a few glasses of Orval and some of their amazing cheese.

So what about the beer?  Well, I can say that Orval changed forever my perception of Belgian brewing.  The beer itself is a Belgian Pale Ale that is bottle fermented.  Served in a traditional Belgian goblet, the beer pours to a nice golden brown-yellow color with a rather dense head.  What sold me immediately about this beer was the aroma.  Wow!  Waves of citrus, spices, and wheaty hoppiness fill your nose, and you know at that point this is going to be a good beer.  The taste is nice and complex with lemon citrus and wheat hay flavor on the front end and nice clean hop bite to finish.  I had been converted.

We left southern Belgium a few hours later with new excitement.  What else does the rest of Belgium have to offer the eager beer palate?  Unfortunately, the various Trappist breweries are spread all over Belgium (with one in the Netherlands), so further visits to these remote beer hideouts would have to wait.  However, we were soon to find out that Belgium is no one-hit wonder.  The brewing arts run deep in this small country.  So, we decided that the most appropriate place for a concentrated sampling of this multifaceted beer culture would be the capital.  Therefore, we set out on the 3 hour drive north for our next stop – the city of Brussels.

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