Beer and pubs play a role in Belgium very much like that played by espresso and caffes in Italy, so it's no wonder that on a recent trip I went from pub to pub, sampling the brews on offer. Men and women from all walks of life meet at all times of day in Brussels pubs—well-lighted, if smoky, places where you can strike up a conversation with the people at your communal table, and sit for as long as you like; the drinking speed seems to be one and a half beers an hour. Beer taps are maintained with the loving care given espresso machines in Italy. Belgium, especially Brussels, is famous for its Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and the styles are by turns sinuously and angularly apparent in chromed spigots.
My notion of Belgian food involved Eurocrats tucking into big helpings of mussels and french fries, ending with the world's best chocolates, and fortifying themselves with snacks of waffles and spice cookies in between. I found all this. I also found a culture just as attuned to food as the French but less showy about it—as Belgians seem to be about nearly everything. (Any generality about Belgium must take into account the ever more hostile division between French-speaking Wallonia, in the south, and Flemish-speaking Flanders, in the north. Nonetheless, the two parts share the Latin appreciation of food and wine—in contrast to Belgium's neighbors Germany and the Netherlands.) This quietly obsessive interest in food, described in Ruth Van Waerebeek's lovely Everybody Eats Well in Belgium Cookbook, naturally extends to beermaking, given that Belgium lies north of the grape-growing belt.
I quickly narrowed my search to dark Trappist and abbey-style ales—unusual even in the rapidly expanding and novelty-crazed world of specialty beers, and startlingly different from any of the beers I knew. Sweet and creamy, abbey-style ales are so deep and full-flavored that each time I drink them—as I now often do at home, since they are easy to find in this country—I feel as if someone had turned up the reverb knob all the way.
Anyone interested in coffee roasting or sourdough bread will find beer a natural subject of fascination. The color of beer depends chiefly on how long its component grains are roasted. As with coffee, dark roasts create the sweet, toasty flavors of caramel, and dark beers are frequently described as tasting like coffee. (Roasting decreases the amount of sugar in the grain available to be fermented, so despite their strong-looking color, dark beers are not necessarily higher in alcohol than light ones.) Dark-roasted barley, the base for dark beer, is even a traditional surrogate for coffee.
The yeast that converts the sugars in roasted grain to alcohol—Belgians sometimes include wheat or corn with the barley, and other brewers sometimes add oats, rye, or rice—is crucial to the final flavor, just as it is in sourdough bread. Belgian brewers keep their yeast strains under lock and key. They also take rigorous precautions to preserve a copy lest a brewing accident wipe out the yeast. Without the right strain they would never be able to recapture a particular beer's flavor.
Trappist ales and their many imitators, called abbey-style ales, represent just one of many Belgian beer styles, some of them curious indeed. Of Belgium's approximately 100 breweries, producing about 650 beers (an astonishing figure given the country's population of 10 million), about 70 percent make dull lagers. The remaining 30 percent make "specialty beers," which can be as golden as pilsener or as black as stout. Some are an acquired taste, such as cherry-flavored beer ripened in oak barrels (the red Flanders ales of Rodenbach are revered) and funky, sour-fruit-spiked "lambic" ales, which ferment spontaneously—that is, with airborne yeasts that happen to settle on the open tanks, rather than with selected, added yeasts. Only six Trappist abbeys in the world still make beer, five of them in Belgium and one in Holland. This is at odds with the dozens of labels that picture monks or stained-glass windows or quaint churches. Some commercial brewers have licensed abbey names and, occasionally, abbey recipes. Others simply trade on the reputation that Trappist brothers worked centuries to gain. Last fall the six abbeys moved to adopt a hexagonal symbol to put on their own bottles as a mark of authenticity.
Orval, in the valley of the Ardennes in the southeastern corner of Belgium, is almost too beautiful to be true. Its seeming late-medieval perfection is in fact a creation of the mid-1920s, when the largely destroyed abbey was redesigned and rebuilt, in what became something of a national project: the complex was pictured on stamps, and the abbey is still a popular tourist site for Belgians. Today only fifty monks remain, and they use revenues from the beer, cheese, and bread they produce to help keep the monastery operating (additional profits are donated to charity); lay workers staff the brewery. The first official I saw there, however, was a monk, racing down the stairs from a platform that held a gorgeous copper tank sprouting swan's-neck spigots and wheel-shaped handles and huge chromed bolts, like a Jules Verne bathysphere. Suspended at the front of his sash was a leather holster for his beeper.
What makes Trappist and abbey-style ales stand apart is multiple fermentations with different strains of yeast, at both low and high temperatures, and a final addition of yeast so that the beer will ferment again in the bottle. This is precisely the method that champagne producers use, to add depth and new flavors. Also as with méthode champenoise wines, the beer's light carbonation results mainly from the fermentation in the bottle, which can go on for weeks, in expensively climate-controlled storerooms. Other beermakers simply inject beer with carbon dioxide as it is bottled.
The gentle bubbles mean that the beer is less thirst-quenching: carbonic acid serves to sweep the palate, which is why soda water can double as a mouthwash and Coca-Cola straight out of the bottle isn't unbearably sweet, as flat Coke is. These ales are meant to be sipped rather than chugged. The ideal serving temperature is close to the one at which they ferment—about 50°F.
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.
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.
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.