Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Exploring Belgian beers

B_Bier 1On warm summer evenings, I’m more of a café person than a pub person.  It’s wonderful to sit along the river in worn wicker chairs, watching the clouds turn colors and the bicycles drift by, a steady red lamp on the back, a flickering white on the front.  There’s a tranquility akin to having an aquarium, schools of bikes against the river.

Maastricht, close against the Belgian border, benefits from it’s proximity to Belgian brewers.  The Bier Kaart can be as long as a wine menu, and just as confusing in names, styles, and prices.  A good way to start is to pick up a “Top 20 list” and dip into a varied sampler (Café’s also offer flights of beers, but these usually are in a ‘single-double-triple’ order that escalates alcohol and density rather than balancing flavors).  A good one comes from Rough Guides, with half of the suggestions easily available in local bars and the other half that may take a bit of looking. (I tend to favor getting served in a café over buying bottles in the store – the experience just isn’t the same).

When I go with a good friend, we each get something different so that we can compare.  I tend towards the darker, thicker end of the spectrum, which is nicely balanced by friends liking the light blond varieties.  Usually specialty beers will be in the 6-9% alcohol range, although they can go up over 11%, really fortified by American standards.

The presentation is unique for each beer: they will have their own glass, unique in shape and style, and a preferred serving temperature.B_Bier 2  The hourglass-shaped Kwak glass is always a hit with visitors (moreso than the beer), but I prefer the flat goblet of Orval or snifter of Le Chouffe.

Tasting is a lot like tasting wine: a little bit, swirled, and held for 30 seconds.  The swirl is to get a feel for where the beer sits on your tongue: a fruity beer like Kriek will hit the sweet and sour spots, while a molasses beer like Rochefort 10 settles towards the back.  The pause sounds pretentious, but you’ll be surprised how the aftertaste lands.  Westvleteren, for example, has a sudden hit like a late firework burst after the initial flavors die out; a lighter D. Tremens settles like a warm blanket and floats up your nose.

Anyway, you get the idea (and a good hit of 10% does wonders for everyone’s descriptive abilities).  For me, it’s one or two to taste, shared with a voluble companion, against the backdrop of a Maastricht evening.  ‘and substitute sailboats or cricket for bicycles if you prefer watching a different sort of aquarium.

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