Caught by the River

Pint by the River: Belgium

2nd May 2012

by Roger Clapham

Stella Artois recently ran an ad campaign boldly claiming they had been brewing beer in Belgium before it was even known as Belgium. Whilst this may be true, the Stella we can get in this country is not a good advert for Belgian beer – in fact its almost an insult, considering it’s brewed in the UK and has now been reduced to a paltry 5.0% (due to “consumer demand” apparently – or more likely a cynical tax reduction for the brewer). However, it’s a very different story for much of the beer produced in Belgium (including the Stella brewery in Leuven), with over 500 varieties originating there and a range in most bars that’s verging on the ridiculous. From traditional golden ales and Trappist offerings brewed by monks to fruit beers and all points in between, the Belgians produce some of the best beers in Europe. With that in mind, and considering the influence traditional Belgian styles are having on craft brewers in the US and UK, it’s high time this column strayed from the traditional British real ale appreciation we usually trade in, and venture fearlessly across the cold and grey expanse of the North Sea into Europe.

Here are three Belgian beers you can get hold of fairly easily in the UK (although you may have more trouble getting the specifically shaped glass the Belgians would have you drink each one from):

First up is Grimbergen blond ale, a fairly typical Belgian beer. Officially the Grimbergen range is what’s known as “abbey beer” – not actually produced by monks but by a secular brewer on behalf of the abbey. However the fact is that brewery is the enormous Kronenbourg facility near Strasbourg – in France! – so I’m not quite sure how to really categorize it. Geo-economic brewing pedantry aside though, it’s a good beer, and coming in at 6.7% it’s one that packs a fairly weighty alcoholic punch (a common theme with Belgian beers). You can taste that strength in the sweetness of the beer, however it is smooth, with a slightly honeyed taste and a thick feel, and it’s not too carbonated either. Very tasty in fact, and it reminds me of many of those strong foreign beers thrown down your neck whilst cast adrift on the continent for the weekend.

Tripel Karmeliet, our second offering, is a different beast however. Brewed in Buggenhout (that’s not a Yorkshire profanity but a town between Ghent and Antwerp) it’s a beauty of a beer – pale gold in colour and a whopping 8.4% strength, although you don’t detect that strength in the taste which is very smooth with some fruit flavours. It’s far more rounded than the Grimbergen blonde, as it includes wheat and oats with the traditional barley in the malt used, creating a much fuller, more sophisticated flavour. I would drink this on a permanent basis if my constitution could take it, which frankly it can’t – two bottles and my motor skills were being challenged…

Finally, a bottle of Chimay Blue – a genuine Trappist beer, made by the monks of the Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey, the profits from it’s sale going to social aid projects of the monastery’s choosing. It’s the connoisseur’s choice and is a beer to savour, rather than guzzle down with a post-work thirst. It’s not for the faint-hearted mind, as it’s a preposterous 9% which you can taste, but not in an unpleasant way. Dark brown with a thin white head you could mistake it for a pint of mild, however the first taste would soon put you right. There’s all sorts of fruit flavours in there, a bit of Christmas cake, and a hit of alcohol alongside a big thick mouthful of malt. Genuinely brilliant, and probably one of the best strong beers I’ve tasted – but try it yourself, you’ll never think the Belgians are boring again.