"It's clear that the truly great wines blow away the truly great beers."
Not long ago, I spent some time with one of America's top sommeliers, who recited the above statement. Interestingly, she recently has developed a liking for beers and has conducted a series of classes dealing with the appreciation of that beverage.
Needless to say, as one who critiques beers for a living, I take exception to her supposition. In the last decade, I probably have tasted hundreds of different beers, the majority of which were well made, but only a select few were exceptional. My basic rule of thumb is elementary: I ask myself if I'd enjoy another bottle (or glass).
Although there are a small number of recognizable styles of beer as defined by organizations such as the Association of Brewers and the Beer Judge Certification Program, there is no shortage of subdivisions within each grouping. Factor in the knowledge that each brewer puts his or her own signature on each recipe and it's clear that virtually no two beers are identical.
Recently, I had the pleasure of sampling five diverse beers imported to the U.S. from Belgium. The first, Wittekerke, is a Wit beer, meaning it is unfiltered (cloudy) and is made with at least 25% wheat malt. Wits are light, refreshing, and thirst-quenching. Another noteworthy characteristic is the thick, white layer of foam that graces the glass into which it is poured.
I like this beer well chilled, and at 5% alcohol by volume (abv), Wits are a good choice if you favor more than one serving.
There's an interesting story behind the word Wittekerke, named for an imaginary Flemish town, where many villages have a designation ending with kerke, or church. Wittemeans white in English, making the translation, White Church.
I drank my Wittekerke with a mixed greens salad followed by a fresh poultry dish. Past experience with Wits has confirmed that they hold nicely with white fish, scallops, or an omelet.
Poperings Hommel Ale is unique among Belgian beers in that it is one of the hoppiest (bitter) beers produced in that country, a fact that is noteworthy because Hommel Ale is brewed in the heart of the Belgian hops region. Hommel is the local word used to identify hops, possibly a derivation of the Latin word, humulus, also a reference to the flowering plant.
In July 1999, legendary British beer expert Michael Jackson, named Poperings Hommel Ale as his beer of the month, calling it "very refreshing and cleansing when served lightly chilled. Try it before a meal."
The alcohol content is 7.5% abv, although it is masked well by the citrus/spice dryness.
Unlike Wittekerke, Poperings Hommel Ale should be served as Mr. Jackson suggests: chilly, but not too cold (a subjective designation). Compromising on the temperature will allow both the aroma and taste to open.
Hoppy beers stimulate the appetite and Poperings Hommel Ale is no exception. You'll bring out the best for your meal and beverage by opting for poultry, game, or white fish entrees, depending on the sauces. Also, the beer's bitterness efficiently compensates for certain sweet dishes.
Augustijn Abbey Ale is a classic. First brewed by monks in 1295, it is known as a living beer, meaning live yeast is added during the bottling and kegging process. This begins a secondary fermentation, causing the beer to develop slowly over time. It's not peculiar for bottle conditioned beers to remain vibrant for years. The concept of refermentation goes back to a time prior to refrigeration.
Because the number of monks has declined over recent years, abbeys have farmed out the brewing of their beers to commercial breweries, who have remained faithful to original recipes. The Van Steenberge brewery, where Augustijn Abbey Ale is crafted, uses original yeast strains, which, when combined with modern technology, makes this beer better than ever.
Augustijn Abbey Ale is a full-bodied amber colored brew that delivers a wallop of spices and fruits, balanced by a subtle hop bitterness. I enjoyed it with a thick grilled filet mignon, making for a delectable meal.
You'll get great results by teaming this beer with a plethora of spicy foods, including Cajun, Mexican, or Oriental, as all become "cooled down" by the undertones of this drink.
At a production of 80,000 barrels annually, the Brewery Bavik is the largest independent brewery in West Flanders.
With due respect to my wine friend mentioned at the beginning of this article, Bavik's Petrus Old Brown Ale looks and tastes like a red wine. Evolved from a style referred to as "Burgundy of Flanders," this is a marvelous drink, as waves of sweet and sour are stabilized by the hop bitterness. Although I refrigerated this beer, my first sip led me to realize that allowing it to warm somewhat would bring out the aromatics and oaken flavors coming from its aging in large oak casks for over two years.
More goes into the production of this beer than simply brewing and transferring it into wooden vessels. During its maturation, lactic acids form, importing a sourness to the taste. The brewer regularly tastes a small amount of the liquid and ultimately decides when it is ready to come out of the barrels to be blended with newly brewed beer, which then is bottled.
As you probably can tell, the making of this beer is labor intensive. Most breweries that choose to make a Belgian Old Brown ale age their beer in traditional steel casks, supplemented by the infusion of oak chips. Brewery Bavik is one of two Belgian breweries still using the time-honored oak casks (the other being Rodenbach).
I found Petrus Old Brown Ale, coming in at 5.5% abv, to be reminiscent of a finely made Port wine. I had success in combining it with a pasta dish, as the acidity of the beverage rounded out the sauces sweetness adequately. Petrus should make a decent marinade for meat or fish.
In the world of big (meaning full-bodied, flavorful) beers, the terms double and triple may be used. The differences are based on the quantity of malt used in the brew. Generally speaking, a double has twice the norm of malt; in a triple, three times the amount is added. More malt ultimately leads to a higher alcohol content after fermentation.
Years ago, single beers were for commoners, doubles were for monks, and triples were served to Bishops and Abbots. In simplistic terms, those designations refer to alcohol content.
Belgian beers that fall between 6.5% and 8% abv collectively are doubles, whereas triples exceed 8%.
The history of the style goes back to the time when beer was given to keep sailors in good health as they attempted to survive life at sea. The drinking water was contaminated, but the strong beer remained potable for months.
Piraat Ale, at 10.5% abv, was voted Best Amber Beer in the California Microbrew Beer Festival in 1995. Upon pouring some into a glass, youll be amazed by the thick cover of foam that lasts throughout the entire drink.
The aroma is mildly sweet, coming from the malt and candi sugar used to pump up the recipe. Piraat is sweet, although there is a bread dough and hop presence that keeps it from being cloying. The alcohol warmth is unmistakable. This is a beer that works well by itself or with most grilled meat or fish dishes. Last year, I placed a couple of bottles of Piraat in storage as I feel Piraat will age well.
There is an anonymous quote about wine that deserves to be attributed to beer. I'll revise it be saying, Water separates the people of the world, beer unites them. Look for Wittekerke, Poperings Hommel ale, Augustijn Abbey ale, Petrus Old Brown ale, and Piraat Triple throughout many of these United States.
All are imported by the Global Beer Network, P.O. Box 2069, Santa Barbara, CA 93120-2069. Telephone: 805-967-8111 or 800-442-3379. Website: www.globalbeer.com