It’s NOT “Belgian” or Even “Belgian-Style”

Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.

It is NOT Belgian.

Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.

Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.

Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”

As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.

Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”

“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.

So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.

EVERY Beer is Now an IPA

That’s it! Give up, people, because beer style no longer matters. In the wake of white IPAs, black IPAs, Belgian IPAs and session IPAs, we might as well accept it: All beers are now IPAs!

When you think about it, it works wonderfully. No more fussing with ales vs. lagers; now we just have warm-fermented and cold-fermented IPAs. Thirsty for a pilsner? Have this cold-fermented session IPA instead. Trappist ale? Nope, that’s a non-secular, high malt IPA. Kölsch Try cold-conditioned, low hop IPA.

Even Bud Light is now an IPA, except it’s a cold-fermented, low-flavour profile, ultra-session IPA.

Last Week in Las Vegas – 4 New Belgium Beers

In addition to having the great pleasure of hosting a terrific beer dinner at Fleur by Hubert Keller in the Mandalay Bay Casino and Resort and presenting a seminar on cider to a rapt audience at the VIBE Conference, last week’s Vegas jaunt afforded me the opportunity to sample a bunch of new New Belgium Brewing releases. Impressed? Damn right I was!

The tasting got off to a great start with the Lips of Faith Gruit, a golden and herbaceous brew with a nose of wet grass, jasmine, oily florals and elderflower cordial. Being someone not normally enamoured by gruits – I’ve had a few of these unhopped, herb-and-spice brews that were vaguely appealing, but can’t recall one I’d be inclined to reorder – I wasn’t expecting a lot from this beer, but boy, was I in for a surprise.

The start of NBB’s Gruit is soft and floral-accented, but leads to a wonderfully constructed mid-palate of spicy, earthy-minerally notes and gentle sweetness, accented by a hint of licorice emerging in the second half and a surprisingly dry finish which was, to me, faintly and surprisingly reminiscent of a good gin. Simply, this is the best gruit I’ve yet come across and sufficiently impressive that I held the remainder of the bottle in reserve and chose it as the beer I’d finish at the conclusion of my tasting.

Next up was the new year-rounder, Snapshot Wheat Beer, a sandy-gold ale with a dry, citrus-accented aroma and a light and lemony body with a slight herbal character emerging in the middle. The surprise here is what I later learned is a lactobacillus tarting up of part of the mash, which results in a quite dry and tangy, refreshing finish, something which made me note that Snapshot “tastes like what might happen if a Belgian decided to riff on the Berliner weisse style.”

Third in my tasting was a reinvention of the 2003 experiment, Transatlantique Kriek, which sees a New Belgium ale blended with cherry lambic from Frank Transatlantique KriekBoon. Vibrant red  and nutty with cherry pit and dry cocoa aromas, this most attractive brew segues from lightly sweet and cherry-ish to more a tart cherry and herbal body, finishing with a slight booziness – although nowhere close to its 8% alcohol strength – and a lingering bitter cherry taste. But for its formidable strength and the fact this was a mid-afternoon tasting, I would have hung around to finish this one, too.

The final beer was the latest in the brewery’s Hop Kitchen series – and honestly, is there another brewery around with this many beer divisions? The new RyePA is piney and resinous on the nose, as you might expect, but with a spicy kick of black pepper mixed with something bready and umami-ish. The body is full of hops, for certain, but restrained as well, in the tradition of NBB’s Ranger IPA – spicy orange with hints of tropical fruit giving way to a more profoundly fruity body, dry and spicy but with notes of kiwi and starfruit. With a finish that is both palate-cleansing and bitter, I was left with the impression that, despite its not inconsequential 7.5% alcohol strength, this would be an ideal brew for sipping alongside a medium-heat curry.

How Old Do YOU Think American Craft Brewing Is?

Whatever it is, unless you’re a rabid American beer historian or a Facebook friend of Anchor Brewing, you’re probably wrong.

Believe it or not — and subject to different appraisals of what craft beer might be – it began 47 years ago today. Because, as I learned from Anchor today, it was on this exact date in 1965 that Fritz Maytag acquired 51% of the ownership of the Anchor Brewing Company in San Francisco.

Fritz went on, of course, to buy the remaining 49% of the brewery in 1969, and proceeded from there to establish Anchor as one of the iconic brands of American beer. (That he had the audacity to launch Old Foghorn and what went on to become Liberty Ale in 1975 still amazes me.) So if you find yourself near an Anchor Steam Beer today, raise your glass to Fritz Maytag, a man of vision and the father of the modern American craft beer.

Tasted!: Great Lakes (Canada) 25th Anniversary Belgian Saison

This is, I believe, the second is what I expect will be a series of special edition beers celebrating the Toronto-based Great Lakes Brewing Company‘s silver anniversary.

My first impression of this medium golden brew is that I wish they had chosen a different name for it. I have nothing against spices in a saison — although they are not at all necessary, are they Brasserie Dupont? — but neither do I think that the use of a yeast classified as a “classic Belgian Saison yeast” necessarily means that you’re making a beer of that style. There needs to be more, in my opinion, like dryness. Like hops.

The GLB Belgian Saison — and just to add a quibble, it’s not really Belgian, is it? I mean, they didn’t go to Belgium to brew it, right? — is a perfectly enjoyable beer, spritely and spicy and, even at 6.5% alcohol, quite quaffable. In fact, it reminds me more of the unspiced, unsaison Brugse Zot than it does any other saison I’ve tasted in Belgium, and I’ve been known to enjoy a few glasses of that beer at a session. But is it a saison? No, I don’t really think so.

First off, there’s the sweet character of the grains of paradise used to spice the beer. It’s in the nose and in the body, and while it’s offset a bit by the coriander and pepper also used, it still serves to keep things on the sweeter side of spicy. Then there is the dryness, or rather the lack thereof. Maybe it will dry out more in a year or so, but let’s face it, most people will be drinking this in the summer of 2012, not 2013. And while there is some hoppiness on the finish, it isn’t quite sufficient to erase the thin, cloying, honey-ish sweetness that lingers on the back of the tongue.

All that said, this is a beer I enjoy and would pair happily with some soft and stinky cheese. It just isn’t a saison.

Looking Back at the Brewer’s Plate

You might recall a while ago – long before my curmudgeonly rant of last week – I posted about an event called the Brewer’s Plate. If you’re on Twitter, you may have seen the tweets, as well. And you may have wondered what it was all about.

ImageWell, much like the upcoming, and sold out!, Savor event in Washington, DC, the annual, Toronto-based Brewer’s Plate is a beer and food partnering event, featuring local breweries and some of the top chefs in town. This was my third Plate, and I think the best thus far.

Note the “thus far,” part of that line above. Because as good as the Brewer’s Plate has become, it’s still not where I think it can be in terms of quality and effectiveness. Here’s why.

The Venue: No room for improvement here! Roy Thompson Hall is an ideal setting for events like the Brewer’s Plate – and the upcoming Spirit of Toronto – and should be held on to with an iron grip.

The Beer: The local angle is good, but limiting. There is now great beer available in Toronto from across Canada and around the world, in styles local brewers have not yet even attempted, much less mastered, and the inclusion of some out-of-province brands would surely benefit the scope of the Plate.

The Food: Here’s where I think the most work needs to be done. Not that any of the food I tasted was sub-par or even ordinary – all the dishes I sampled were at least good, sometimes very good and occasionally great – but more effort needs to go into matching beer and food, in my opinion. At too many of the stands was I told that “any of these beers” will pair well with the food, regardless of how disparate they may have been in style and taste, and too often I heard the tired old refrain that Dish X was cooked with Beer Y – usually in some innocuous way, such as using it to colour a sauce or braise a meat – and thus is also paired with Beer Y. That may have flown in the mid-1990s, but certainly we’re now sophisticated enough that we can and should expect more of a food and beer partnership.

The Organization and Service: Again, I thought everything was superbly managed, after the slight confusion at the door when the event first opened, and the service was first-rate.

So there you have it, Brewer’s Plate. Work on the food, perhaps add a bit more beer and I think you have the potential to lay claim to one of this country’s best beer events.

BoSox & ‘Gansett Cream Ale

I hear that this afternoon will mark the home opener for the Boston Red Sox. On Friday the 13th. Hmm, with condolences to Mr. McL and a certain former but fondly recalled editor of mine*, this might just be a portent for the season to come.

But never mind all that. If you are planning to watch the game at 2:05 today, you might want to do it with a generous supply of Narragansett Cream Ale at your side. This is a beer I received several weeks ago with no great enthusiasm, but which surprised me with its character and quaffability. Here are my verbatim notes:

Narragansett Cream Ale (5%): Not one of my favourite styles, but let’s have a look. Rich gold with a fragrant aroma of fresh apricot, icing sugar and grain, and perhaps the faintest hint of banana. The body starts on the sweet side with fruit cocktail notes before developing more of a round and lightly caramelly body supported by a pleasing bitterness. The finish is a bit sharp on the hoppiness, but off-dry and quenching. No one would confuse this with a lager, given its roundness and fruity qualities, but I imagine that would have held true for the original cream ales, as well, which makes this a successfully nostalgic brew, and a pretty good one, too.

*Whoops, my bad. Turns out I was mistaken and she’s a Yankees fan instead.

Tasted!: 4 Hoppy Ales, 20 Words Each

I’ve a backlog of beers to review – not a bad thing, I’ll admit, but one that occasionally requires an unconventional approach. As a long-time admirer of Jim Anderson’s “back in the day” haiku beer reviews, I thought it might be interesting to see how brief I could be while still expressing the essential characters of four very different, but similarly styled beers. Hence the following…

(Beers listed in order of alcohol content. New Glarus alcohol content based upon what is listed at and, and really New Glarus, why not list the strength of your beers?)

New Glarus Hearty Hop (6.1% abv; USA): A meticulously crafted IPA, expressive rather than aggressive, and so quite quaffable. Session beers CAN be over 4%!

De Molen Vuur & Vlam (6.2%; Netherlands): When the foam finally subsides, canned peaches and apricots give way to grapefruit and dry walnut. Lovely segue of flavours.

Cameron’s Rye Pale Ale (6.6%; Canada): Smelling almost like rye bread without the breadiness, the rye notes barely survive an onslaught of peppery, citrus peel hoppiness.

Yeastie Boys Digital IPA (7%; New Zealand): NZ hops are pineappley in nose and flavour, from tropical fruitiness to back end bitterness. Harmony in a digital age.

Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter

Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.

Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.

Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.

Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”

In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons?  Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.

Random Quotes From Today’s Beer Tasting

(All straight from this horse’s mouth. And yes, I do talk to myself when tasting alone.)

“This is what I think of when I imagine malty Scottish ales – plus vanilla and minus the thick molasses qualities of some, of course – full and satisfying, with just enough spicy hop character to keep it all interesting.” – Innis & Gunn Winter Beer 2011

“The nose is fragrant with burnt lemon zest – reminiscent of Dale DeGroff’s signature flaming twists – pine boughs and florals.” – New Belgium Snow Day

“The first thing you notice about this deep brown ale is that the nose actually evokes thoughts of Scottish whisky!” – St-Ambroise Scotch Ale

“In the middle, however, a surprising hoppiness arises – not nearly so much as, say, a Czech or German style pilsner, but certainly more than one would expect of a Mexican lager.” – Bohemia Clásica

“I’m used to talking about chocolaty flavours in dubbel-style ales, but this sets new standards!” – New Glarus Chocolate Abbey

Gift Idea #6: New Belgium’s “Glass That Gives”

Off all the proprietary glassware that has been developed by North American breweries, the New Belgium glass is one of my favourites. Stylish and shapely, it is well-suited to any number of different beer styles and delivers the aromatics of its contents most ably. Plus, you don’t look like a geek drinking from it.

It stands to figure, then, that I would highly recommend it as a Christmas gift, preferably in the 16 ounce format. But New Belgium has made it just that much better still.

Order a holiday gift-pack of two glasses, winterized for shipping, and New Belgium will donate a dollar to one of four charities. What’s more, you even get to select which charity you would like your contribution to benefit. You can’t get much fairer than that!

Gift Idea #3: Hops and Glory

Pete Brown’s story of transporting a keg of IPA from Burton-upon-Trent to India is not new. It’s coming up on three years old, in fact, which in the book publishing world makes it rather ancient. But I’m still going to tell you that if you know a beer aficionado who is even remotely literate, and they haven’t already read this book, then you should buy it for them, and they will love you for it.

Why? Simply because it is one of the most entertaining books ever written about beer, possibly THE most entertaining. And, as I noted in this review two and a half years ago, it’s not even really a “beer book” per se.

I won’t rehash my embarrassingly glowing review here, since I’m sure you’re capable of clicking the link if you so desire. And I’m not going to repeat my caveat about Pete (and his lovely wife Liz) being friends. I’ll just tell you again that it’s a damn fine read, and so you should buy it for someone close to you, and then get a second copy for yourself.