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Confession: I'm a wine geek posing as a beer writer. Growing up, the only beer I ever saw or smelled was the Schlitz my family drank, or the ubiquitous Rolling Rock at high school parties. So as an adult, I gravitated toward wine with a kind of desperation to find beverages with more nuance and soul.
Things change, of course. As part of my job as a food writer in Vermont—a craft brewing epicenter—I've had to learn the sudsy ropes: how beer is made, how to taste it, and why some brewers devote their lives to it. And over time, my vinous shell began to crack. After a few years, I've actually begun ordering a beer instead of a glass of wine, especially if something sour, funky or ultra-dark is on offer.
Maybe it was inevitable that I found Belgium. This summer, I had a 'Belgium moment' at a beer cocktails seminar in New Orleans. It came in the form of a sip of Hop-Ruiter, a Belgian blond ale imported by Vanberg & DeWulf, and when I was back home, I scoured shelves for more like it. Though our northern climes don't get the same wealth of imports as in other states, over the ensuing weeks I managed to gather a few bottles that are still newish to the U.S. scene, and have deepened my infatuation.
Here are 4 brews that will tempt any wine lover to come over to the malty side.
Mikkeller It's Alive
Yes, it is alive, this bright amber brew that spills into the glass with a lacy head and hazy body. Once the foam dissipates, you're left with a creamy beer with brett-induced funkiness and wine-barrel-induced hints of tropical fruit. This Belgian strong ale was aged in white wine barrels at De Proefbrouwerij. At first what seems like a strange mélange of flavors—orange peel, molasses, and even some pine—begins to seem intensely layered, as if you could never get a full picture of this beer but only catch its changing moods. Even though the hops are gentle, they brush the sides of the mouth in all kinds of welcome ways.
Oude Gueuze Tilquin A l'Ancienne, 2011-2012
I feel exhausted just reading about this gueuze's path to life: it's a blend of three different, spontaneously-fermented lambics, which is then refermented in bottle and unfiltered before it reaches the glass. But that's really a whole lot of non-doing, in a way, and it makes for a beguiling, hazy brew that teases the nose with yeasty, citrusy and sour aromas. It also tastes so unlike anything else, anywhere, ever: almost like a crisp lager shot through with vinegar and tart apples, lemons, and even saffron, and the slightest phantom of maple syrup smack at the end. It messes with the senses, but in a memorable way.
Vicaris Generaal from Brouwerij Dilewyns
A few weeks ago, I briefly profiled three female brewers, and 25-year-old Anne-Catherine Dilewyn was among them. This gorgeous dubbel comes in something akin to a Champagne bottle, and once you pop the cork, its mahoghany-hued body has fig, chocolate, prune and caramel flavors that render this beer a meal in and of itself. Yes, it's malty, but there's enough of a vein of bitterness that keeps each sip lively. I swirled and sniffed as much as I sipped, and the fun, fluffy head stuck around almost the entire time.
Hop-Ruiter from Schelde Brouwerij
Hop-Ruiter has been in the country for nearly two years, but it earns an honorary place as a beer that sparked my Belgian crush. Dry-hopped with American varieties, it's a study in balance from its foamy, lager-like head down to its tingling, peppery feet. Hop-Ruiter tastes elegant and powerful but also somehow fragile, with hints of banana and eucalyptus nestled in amidst its yeasty tang. Its zestiness cuts through fat like a scythe—think pork belly or sandwiches with fried eggs broken across the top.
Are there any brews you've used to help friends discover the beauty of beer?