Lambic at Hanssens
A tasting of lambic straight from the barrel at Hanssens. Flat and served at room temperature, this is the base blending ingredient for many other local sour beers, such as kriek, framboise and gueuze. Hanssens doesn't actually brew beer—they buy base lambics from other brewers and blend them to create their own offerings. Hanssens feels like its from another time—modernity is held outside its doors. There's no stainless steel to be seen amongst their cobweb-covered barrels.
Kriek at De Ranke
De Ranke Brewmaster Nino Bacelle pours a glass of his Kriek. The beer is brewed and aged on cherries for six months before being blended with tart lambic. The blend is then bottle conditioned for another year before being released. The result is a bone-dry tart ale full of deep cherry flavor. It's a perfect example of what I love about classic Belgian fruit beers: bursting with fruit flavor, but without any of the sugar. It's an almost savory cherry flavor that lends itself to pairing to a main course.
Brewmaster Armand Debelder of Drie Fountaine tasting a sip of his Armand 4, a seasonally blended Gueze blended from one, two, and three year old lambics brewed onsite. It's a bright, acidic beer with a farmhouse aroma, lemon peel mid-palate and a complex finish of tobacco and earth. Armand's passion for making his sour beers the old fashioned way—with no shortcuts or changes to tradition—shows through in every beer he makes.
Big Barrels at Boon
The giant oak barrels of Boon. Most of these barrels are filled with lambic, which is made the traditional way using spontaneous fermentation. After the beer is brewed, it is cooled in a large shallow pool called a Coolship in a room with open windows which allows local wild yeast to start fermentation on the beer. It's then aged for 1 to 3 years in these oak casks. The scale of the operation—especially considering how long these beers are aged—is breathtaking.
Brewmaster Robbie Defraeye of Gulden Spoor pours a sample of Druivenbier, a tart sour ale brewed with grapes. It's a dry, fruity ale with a tart finish. Gulden Spoor is tiny—they would be considered a nanobrewery in the US. Many of the new breweries popping up in Belgium are passion projects that don't even support the brewers. These folks rrun the brewery part time on nights and weekends, still holding down a day job to make ends meet.
Brewed by the hop farm Brewery De Plukker, Kieikoppen Bier uses only hops grown onsite on the surrounding hop farm. It's an ode to local Belgian hops (brewed in Poperinge, the hop capital of Belgium) with a light yeast character, firm bitterness and spicy and floral hop aroma—a beer that evokes a true sense of place. If it was imported to the US, it surely would be a shadow of its hoppy self by time it arrived.
A Whisky-Inspired Brew
DijkWaert Brewery's "Mc Thals" is a strong golden ale brewed with peated malt to emulate the flavors of Scotch whisky. Balanced sweetness against fruity Belgian yeast character and a strong smoke character create a very unique beer. I didn't like it at first blush, but as it warmed more complex flavors emerged till the bottom of the glass.
A pour of Westvleteren 12, a Belgian Strong Ale that is often cited as the best beer in the world. Part of its appeal is its scarcity—the Trappist monastery strictly limits how much is sold to the public. It's a rich, boozy beer with exceptional complexity and aging potential. The "best" of anything is a dubious claim, but it's certainly a world class beer. At the brewery, we paired it with a ham, cheese, and pineapple sandwich (which no one argues is the best in the world).
Base Beer at Rodenbach
Rodenbach is the gold standard of the Flanders Red style of beer, a brown sour native to West Flanders. Here is a glass of the unblended base sour red. It's bone dry with a slight vinegar character that's traditional to the style. It's then blended with younger, sweeter beer to make the final bottling. That's too bad—this pure unblended "fodder beer" might be my favorite thing I've had from Rodenbach.
The giant oak vats of Rodenbach
In the cellar underneath the brewery at Rodenbach, a seeming lyendless number of oak vats (ok, it's 296 vats) aging the brown ale quietly wait. The vats are built and maintained onsite by a fulltime staff. Brewmaster Rudi Ghequire describes the oak casks as "the soul of the brewery." Wandering among the casks feels otherworldly, knowing that the beer is quietly resting in each one, aging, evolving.
When in Belgium it's difficult to avoid a glass of Jupiler—the incredibly popular everyday macro pilsner of choice all over the country. It's sweet and stale tasting: pretty awful stuff. Avoid at all costs.