Beer Reviews

Seeking out the best in malty, hoppy refreshment.

The Best Beers I Drank In Europe

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[Photographs: Mike Reis]

There are two types of vacationers in this world: the tourist and the experience junkie. I'm an experience junkie. I don't tend to go to a new city to see the sights, I go there to expose myself to the experiences unique to a given area—to feel something rather than to see something. And as a Serious Eater and a beer geek, I feel my way around most towns mouth first.

On a trip that began in the birthplace of my personal interest in beer (Rome) and ended in the birthplace of my favorite category of beer (lambic), I expected to drink a lot of beer. Let's just say my expectations were met.

My first beer of the journey was at the Roman classic pie house, Pizzeria Da Baffetto. It was a Nastro Azzuro, Peroni's "higher-end" lager that comes in a green bottle. Predictably, it was skunked. Unpredictably, it was warm. Either way, it was gross. But empowered with a full belly, the beer tourism began with nowhere to go but up.

Cantillon Gueuze on Cask

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My first stop was at the bar responsible for igniting my interest in beer: Trastevere's Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà. I was immediately drawn to their vintage beer menu, which boasted rarities such as Drie Fonteinen's Millennium Gueuze and Cantillon's Pinot d'Aunis. I was disappointed to learn that these were not available due to the fact that the bar's sister location, the equally excellent Bir e Fud, housed the bottles and was closed for the summer. I sought respite in a pint (yes, a pint) of hand-pulled Cantillon Gueuze. The cask presentation mellowed its acidity, allowing some of the more nuanced qualities of the beer to shine. It was excellent.

And while I drank several other great beers in Italy, the time in Belgium that followed was decadent enough to make Gambrinus jealous.

Van Steenberge Tripel de Garre

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The house beer at Bruges' Staminee de Garre, Van Steenberge's tripel deserves its status as an underground classic. Sweet for the style, the beer's formidable 11.5% ABV is well hidden, and its creamy head and pinpoint carbonation helps it go down easy. The beer pairs nicely with the included bowl of young gouda, with a peppery yeast character and a touch of bitterness to help cut the richness of the cheese.

2010 Rochefort 8

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At the original Moeder Lambic in Brussels, Belgium, there are dozens (hundreds?) of great beers to choose from. So why would I choose Rochefort 8, a beer commonly available in at least two dozen stores near my home in the San Francisco Bay Area? First of all, it's one of my favorite beers of all time. If you haven't had it in a while, it is 100% worthy of a revisit. Second of all, Moeder Lambic carries the beer in a very rare 750ml format, which alters the manner in which the beer ages (due to the diminished contact with potentially damaging air in the headspace and increasing exposure to active yeast). The beer was incredible. Notes of smoke, cocoa, dates and bread were contained within a medium-bodied, highly-carbonated force of a beer that showed very little of its 9+% ABV.

Fresh Orval

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Orval is known for its intense carbonation, unusually (among the Trappists, at least) hoppy flavor, and signature Brettanomyces-tinged finish. It's a gateway beer for many and a beer bar staple from coast to coast. Being in Belgium allowed for a unique opportunity to try the beer fresh. I've never seen the beer less than 6 months old on shelves stateside, but I easily found bottles as fresh as two months old in Belgium. Drunk in this state, the beer takes on an entirely different quality. Much more hop driven, classic noble hop spiciness dominates, and the Brettanomyces exists as merely a drying twinge at the back of your tongue. Fresh, the wild yeast hasn't had much time to develop.

Cantillon Rosé de Gambrinus on Cask

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While it might be cheap to include two beers from the geek-favorite Brasserie Cantillon, it would be impossible not to include the pour of Rose de Gambrinus I had from the cask at Moeder Lambic Fontainas among my favorite sips of the trip. Unlike the aforementioned Gueuze in Rome, the benefit of the cask presentation here lay in the beer's necessary freshness. Absolutely packed with ripe raspberry flavor, this is by far the best Rose de Gambrinus I've had. With just a touch of yeasty funk, this beer was all about the fruit flavor. Cantillon's signature lactic acidity served only to amplify the lush, natural aromatics, standing in stark contrast to the Lindeman's Framboise that so defines the Lambic category to many Americans.

I'm pretty certain I'll always remember these beery experiences. Have you sipped beer in Europe lately? Or have you had other favorite moments of beer-related tourism? Share your stories in the comments section below.

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