This weekend the annual Ommegang Brewery’s “Belgium comes to Cooperstown” festival kicks off, and what started out as a modest gathering in 1999 continues to grow. And it’s worth examining how the tastes of the American beer drinker is evolving.
Until the American craft beer revolution, Belgium beer culture produced the broadest range of beers known to one country. How many different types depends on who is doing the categorizing, but they vary broadly in style, flavor and intensity. While witbier, the citrusy wheat beer so popular in the US today, is probably the best-known Belgian style, that’s just the start. As events like “Belgium comes to Cooperstown” demonstrate - more than 50 international brewers bring their wares for 2,500+ guests to sample - there's a market for Belgian style beers, and many craft brewers are incorporating Belgian influences in contemporary American beers. Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery, for instance, recently took one of its popular pub experiments, Foray Belgian Style IPA, and bottled it for distribution.
Many brewers are toying with Abbey or Trappist ales, a range of beers originally created by monastic brewers, better known by their specific style names: dubbels, tripels and quadrupels. Dubbels are typically reddish brown ales characterized by a moderate bitterness, a robust body and a very fruity and malty palate, and are generally between six and eight percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Quadrupels are powered-up versions of dubbels - more potent, more intensely flavored, especially reminiscent of dried fruits and malt, darker and more powerful in every way.
Tripels are usually deep golden yellow, creamy on the palate and filled with apple, pear, floral, citrus and even a tropical banana fruitiness, slightly sweet but with a dry finish, and generally around 8-10% ABV. Farmhouse ales, also known as saisons, are generally highly-carbonated and very dry, defined by citrusy aromatics, a peppery character, and a floral, lively hoppiness.
It’s the sour beers that are lately getting the most attention from beer geekdom, perhaps the brewing equivalent of the cocktail world’s amaros, in that they can be intense, challenging and an acquired taste. Lambics are dry and bracingly tart, the result of spontaneous wild yeast fermentation. Gueuze beers are perhaps the most challenging, a blend of young and old lambics, dry and complex, with flavor descriptors that include cheesey, barnyardy and even horse-blankety. Fruited lambics have fruit and sweetener added during production to soften the blow, and are usually sweet and low in alcohol.
There are many other styles of beer produced in Belgium, and numerous American brewers have taken a fancy to some of the styles and have been making them here, some hewing closely to Belgian tradition, others using them as a jumping off point for further brewing experimentation. It’s the next craft brewing frontier, although numerous brewers like Brooklyn Brewery and New Belgium have been out there for years. No Belgian style brews in your portfolio? Don’t wait until everyone is carrying them.