Trappists add something else to ensure that unusual strength: plain sugar. A German purity law instituted in 1516 still forbids this or any other adulteration. The only ingredients permitted in German beer are malted grain, water, hops, and yeast. Nearly all specialty Belgian beer, however, has a higher alcohol level than does standard beer: six, seven, even 12 to 14 percent, as high as the level in wine (four or five percent is standard for American pilsener-style lagers). The level is comparable to those in English barley wine and Scottish strong ale—both of them named for their high alcohol content, and both coming back into fashion. More alcohol means a stronger aroma, a heavier body, and a creamier texture.
The brewery at Orval makes just one kind of beer, another reason I prize it. Almost every other maker, including some of the Trappist abbeys, produces two or three or four different ales; although each kind has its reasons for being, the choice is confusing. Also, I'm extremely happy with Orval's ale, and not just for its cheerful topaz color, the confident fat 1930s lettering on the label, and the shapely bowling-pin bottle, which is said to help keep yeast sediment from getting into the glass. Orval beer is drier than other Belgian beers that can boast anything like its depth, and not bitter despite the high hops content. Hops, the herbal flowers that act as a preservative, give beer its balancing bitterness when they are boiled with the initial sweet liquid. At Orval big sacks of hops, like man-sized tea bags, infuse in the cooled beer as it ferments, giving spiciness rather than bitterness.
Orval ale undergoes three separate fermentations over ten weeks; a typical American lager goes through one fermentation and is immediately carbonated and bottled. Even ten weeks isn't enough for some fans. Many people wait a year or longer to drink "bottle-conditioned" beer, preferring the mellow, toasty flavors that develop. Others prefer the fresher, livelier flavor of the beer as soon as it is ready. Champagne buyers divide into similar camps.
Most other Trappist and abbey-style ales are much sweeter than Orval—a characteristic of "double" and "triple" ales, terms that imply high alcohol levels resulting from the addition of sugar. Chimay, the best-known and most widely distributed genuine Trappist ale in both Belgium and the United States, comes in three strengths, each with a different-colored label; all three are darker and sweeter than Orval, and to my mind marginally less enticing (buy Chimay's Grande Reserve if you have the choice). Harder to find but superlative are the three Rochefort ales, called simply Rochefort 6, 8, and 10, for their alcohol levels. These have deep chocolate notes and hefty body that practically roars across your mouth. Also superb, and better-distributed, is Affligem, a marvelously smooth abbey-style ale with tastes of honey and chocolate and a pronounced bitterness from hops. Each flavor remains in check, displaying what American imitators still need to learn from the Belgian originals: the secret of balance.
I'm skipping over the many colors and strengths and flavors of other Belgian beers. If you find yourself in Brussels and in the mood (as you should be) for a pub crawl, you can sample them in situ: a comprehensive and idiosyncratic guide to Belgian pubs, by Stephen D'Arcy, is available from CAMRA Brussels; the E-mail address is Stephen.D'Arcy@dg1.cec.be. Michael Jackson's Beer Essentials is a good introduction to beer in general; and a few Web sites are also helpful, for instance >worldofbeer.com.
Belgian specialty beers are available here with surprising readiness. I found exotic lambics at two liquor stores on my own street. You can call Vanberg & DeWulf, distributors of Affligem and many other specialty beers, and also the distributors of Jackson's book, at 800-656-1212, or Merchant du Vin, the distributors of Orval, at 206-322-5022.
I should mention one supreme oddity that in just twenty-five years has become Belgium's leading specialty beer. Duvel, from the Dutch word for "devil," is fermented in stages as controlled as those for any Trappist ale (the minimum production time is eleven weeks). Its flavor is nearly as deep and is markedly sweet, with prominent citrus notes. The bubbles are as tiny and perfect as those of the best champagne: they look almost artificial when the beer is poured into a sort of trick glass with a rough patch at the bottom to catch the bubbles and release them steadily upward. (Belgian breweries produce hundreds of special glasses for their beers.) What's odd about Duvel? The brewery uses heavy lacings of sugar and light-roasted barley to make a beer as high in alcohol—8.5 percent—and as hard-hitting in body and flavor as any double, but as light in color as any pretty pilsener. "The Marilyn Monroe of beers," Wendy Littlefield, half of the husband-and-wife team that imports Duvel into the United States, calls it.
Belgian beers are replacing British and German ones as the models for American brewers. Nine years ago Pierre Celis, who in Belgium revived the tradition of yeasty spiced white beers (made from wheat and light-roasted barley), sold his business and bought land in Texas, where he makes the much-lauded Celis White. Other Belgians have started brewing for small American companies. Unfortunately, the dropoff in complexity among some abbey-style ales, especially those made here, is marked: body is thin and the flavor one-note, be it sweet, sour, or bitter.
After more than fifteen years of importing specialty Belgian beers and making Americans aware of their virtues, Wendy Littlefield and Don Feinberg, her husband, have joined forces with two of the companies whose beers they sell to build a beautiful brewery in a long farmhouse in Cooperstown, New York. They call it Ommegang, for a colorful Renaissance Belgian festival. Guided by Bert DeWit, a recently transplanted Belgian brewer, Ommegang will produce three styles of ale, using specially, and locally, cultivated yeasts. In the step that the couple claims will differentiate them from other American brewers following Belgian styles, the beers will be bottle-conditioned for at least a month; the flagship brew, also called Ommegang, just arriving in stores, is a beautiful garnet-colored abbey-style ale.
If it seems odd that independent Belgian brewers would willingly go into competition with their own products, just think of champagne. Twenty years ago the big French names opened wineries in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, in order to protect the American franchise of the best real champagne. With any luck the same thing will work for its malted equivalent.