I was something of a latecomer to beer; my poison was always (and still is, to be fair) good old gin, though to my shame I’ve run the gamut of bad booze in my time, and it took me a while to catch up to beer. Anyway, there’s none so zealous as a convert, and since being converted, I’ve more than made up for my ill-advised proto-lush years, swapping the bad cider for some very good ale indeed As much as I will happily champion British beer, and may even do so on these pages in future, I have acquired a real fondness for Belgian beer in the past few years. This is partly because it is so easy to acquire a massive range of excellent beers here in York, but Belgium’s pedigree as a beer-producing nation is of course second to none. They haven’t wasted any time perfecting their cuisine, to be fair, but you can’t have everything, and drink enough of their fine beverages and you wouldn’t care that there were only fries on the menu. In fact, I’m starting to understand…
But where to start? Belgium exports a large range of beers to the UK, and the agony of choice can be quick to set in. Obviously, any list of recommendations is just going to be a snapshot in time, and I’d be happy to correct the following if a new beer came along or if I got to try something else which worked for me, let alone the fact that I’m fully aware I’m leaving some sterling examples of the craft off this list but for now – here are five Belgian beers which I consider absolutely mandatory.
Typical bloody woman, eh? Given free rein, but she goes and picks a fruit beer. I’d defend Belgium’s lambic beers to the death,though, as although the versions we get over here would probably send the purists into conniptions, they still taste nothing like so many of the artificially-sweetened, mass-produced alcopops which we Brits often associate with fruit-flavoured anything alcoholic, and as such getting a lambic-based beer on tap was a new experience. Timmermans was a real gateway drug, combining the proper depth of flavour expected of beer with just a note of fruit, perfectly balanced with neither feeling like an afterthought. Lambics are originally fermented in open-air casks, exposed to wild yeasts rather than manufactured ones, and the end result is a unique, slightly sharp, rich flavour.
Duchesse de Bourgogne
Duchesse is a very unusual beer; it has a lot in common with the lambics, but due to the nature of the brewing process it winds up being the product of an older and a younger beer, with a lengthy fermentation time overall. It’s oddly crisp considering this, maintaining the sour sharpness of a lambic but with some rather woody, mellow notes in the mix too. An attractive Flemish red ale in an unusual bottle (you don’t get many medieval duchesses on your labels, now do you?) it’s another of those beers which could appeal to established beer fans or those seeking a little novelty. If I may, it tastes a bit like those sour cola bottles you used to get in pic ‘n’ mix. It’s not an observation that’ll get me into the Good Beer Guide, but I can’t help but think it every time.
Back when we were still lucky enough to have York’s best-kept secret, La Place Verte, still open on the banks of the Ouse (permitting you to get accidentally quite drunk when the fatal Saturday afternoon idea, ‘Let’s just stop off for one’ could see you sat in the sun with an array of Belgian beers being brought to you by a waiter), I first encountered this gorgeous beer. Barbar is a pale ale, which in itself makes it an unusual choice for me, as I tend to prefer much darker beers. However, it passes muster for the way it combines its fearsome clout (a subduing 8%) with a surprisingly light feel on the palate, no doubt partly because this is a beer sweetened with honey, and the results are very good indeed, with lots of honey and spices in the aroma. It’s quite a lively beer, but smooth enough to be perhaps a bit too easy to drink…
…And so we come to the last two items on my list, which could well be grouped together under the heading ‘Handle with Care’. But then, I couldn’t look myself in the face if I didn’t include at least one Trappist beer on this list, just as I’d be hard-pressed to look myself in the face after one of these. Trappist beers have a long pedigree in Belgium; some of these date all the way back to the late Medieval period, although the brewery which brings us Chimay in all its glorious varieties dates back to the relatively recent 19th Century. It always surprises me, although I’m grateful of course, that men of God are happy to produce rocket fuel like this (9%) and in the UK other marvels like Buckfast, which is known to incapacitate whole regions of Scotland, and yet they feel that by donating a share of the proceeds, they’re not in fact doing any harm (which in the case of a beer like Chimay would be much easier to argue – but Buckie? Wreck Tha Hoose Joose?) Anyway, I digress. Chimay Blue is an accomplished beer, has immense depth, can change on your palate as you get through it, and is a weighty, bitter-tasting beer, quite lively out of the bottle.
Last, but certainly not least is Duvel (yep, which translates for blissfully good reason as ‘Devil’). A cautionary tale: early of a morning, when you’ve run out of things to drink, if you find one of these in the fridge and decide one more can’t hurt, it can. Duvel is also an incredibly lively beer, taking little encouragement to flow over the top of your glass if you’re not careful with it, sometimes soaking your clothes, bedside table, bare feet, and cat. Although, that may just be me. Another strong pale ale, warm gold in colour, Duvel is crisp and hoppy in flavour, but its strength gives it a depth which overrides the initial hoppiness to an extent, adding malt and lots of layers of scent, some spicy, some quite earthy. It’s a fine example of Belgian beer-making and the brewery responsible (Moortgat) boast such successes in this country with this and their other fine products for damn good reason. As a beer which is widely available on the British high street these days (Tesco now stock it in a lot of their branches) it’s definitely worthwhile, interesting enough to have plenty to offer the seasoned beer drinker and the novice alike, but both should use caution: like so many of the tastiest beers, this is also one of the pokiest, at a whopping 8.5%.