Belgium’s biggest resurgence since Tintin: Destination Moon
Thursday, 04 February 2010 10:00

The tiny kingdom of Belgium has for centuries produced many memorable, distinctive and often unique beer styles.  One of the very last nations to succumb to the ubiquitous allure of lagers, Belgian beer has always been a bit special.   Their artisan brewers feel free to use ancient techniques long abandoned by other producers, never hesitate to throw in ingredients which would petrify mainstream brewers and think nothing of lifting the strength of their beers by a couple of percent.

 

In February, Malthouse welcomes or welcomes back a range of fine Belgian brews to the shelves and, in one instance, onto the taps.  The global recession seemed to hit Belgian beer exports particularly hard with a number of established and much beloved brands hard to find in recent months.  There is no doubt Kiwis have a taste for Belgian beers.  We apparently drink as much Chimay as Australia – not just more per capita but more by total volume which is particularly impressive given the substantial population differential.

 

Foremost in the returning Belgian vanguard (Captain Haddock perhaps) is Orval, a Trappist ale rightly lauded as one of the best beers in the world.  As a young beer neophyte, I would read books – surprisingly common activity in those pre-easy internet days – in which various great and good  beer writers described Orval has having a distinct aroma of “sweaty horse blanket.”  The concept seemed ludicrous.  Surely even the most ostentatious wine scribe would hesitate to use such a descriptor, particularly if they wanted readers to actually try the beverage.

 

One exploratory sniff of my first Orval demonstrated that not only did it smell exactly like a heavy cloth which had been extensively worn by a perspiring example of the genus equine, but that it was absolutely delicious in doing so.  The use of semi-wild yeast provides the trademark funk though brewing sugar and, unusually, hop extract is also used.

 

The result is a fruity, sharp and, frankly, horse blanket nose hovering over a dark copper beer throwing a rocky head.  It is piquant, peppery and spicy with just a hint of pear – a combination which, along with the horse blanket nose (Snowy after a swim maybe), makes Orval unmistakable.

 

Westmalle Tripel is brewed at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart monastery north of Antwerp and can also rightly claim world classic status.  The largest of the Trappist brewers, Westmalle produces both a Dubbel and a Tripel.  Westmalle was the first brewery to use the these designations, with Tripels first appearing as late as the 1940s.  They tend to be pale, hoppy, yeasty and are usually the strongest beer in a monastic range though several other breweries produce massive, dark, decadent Quadruples. 

 

Pouring a slightly misty gold, this beer has a huge, pillowed head (like Professor Calculus).  The nose is dry - both peppery and almost salty at the same time.  It has an iodine note reminiscent of the finest Islay whiskies.  Like Orval, Westmalle Tripel really stands out as a distinctive and delicious drop.

New on tap for Malthouse is the very big Maredsous Tripel.  This is a secular, non-monastic brewery’s interpretation of the classic Tripel style though they claim it is based on an old monastic recipe from the Maredsous monastery in the Ardennes .  In this case, the secular brewery has considerable heritage.  Duvel Moortgart is a family brewery founded in 1871 and is best known for the iconic Duvel brew.

Their website says the beer is “redolent with festive sparkle, creamy body and a luscious head.”  More specifically, Westmalle Tripel is a hazy dark golden beer with a rolling nose of yeast, ground pepper and sweet fresh bread.  In the glass, the beer is deceptively light (for 10%) with orange, pepper, yeast and alcohol evident.  For a relatively sweet beer, the finish is quite dry.  This Belgian heavy hitter (Captain “Blistering Barnacles” Haddock perhaps?) should be enjoyed in moderation.

 

Making their debuts in new packaging, the much beloved gnomish beers of the Achouffe brewery are now available in more affordable small bottles.  Both the pale Belgian La Chouffe and the crepuscular Scotch-style McChouffe are in the fridge.

 

Just like Tintin: Destination Moon, the Belgians are back and back in force - promising signs still six months from Belgium’s national day.

 

* Alert readers and anyone with a working knowledge of Google cache will notice this post has replaced one which was very similar but Asterix themed.   Asterix is – as one alert reader quicklypointed out – French rather than Belgian.  This is hinted at in, say, Asterix The Gaul.  Unforgivably, we mixed up our favourite Low Country cartoon heroes and for that, apologies.  The silver lining is that the alert reader’s doctorate in ludicrously advanced logic has finally proved useful in the real world.

 

Cheers

 

 

Beer Writer

Real Beer New Zealand

Beer and Brewer Magazine

 

Links

Orval – http://www.orval.be

Westmalle – http://www.trappistwestmalle.be

Maredsous – http://www.duvel.be

Chouffe – http://www.achouffe.be/en/ 

Malthouse Facebook Group - http://www.facebook.com/pages/Wellington/Malthouse/7084276173

Real Beer – http://www.realbeer.co.nz/blog/blog.html

Beer and Brewer Magazine - http://www.beerandbrewer.com/