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Belgian Beer

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It’s typical that The Economist would spend a bunch of space in its story on how Belgium came to dominate the world beer market on the worst beer to come out of that country (Stella Artois, though I hope I didn’t have to tell you that), but it’s still an interesting read.

I’m not so sure the future of world beer (and maybe the present) is in the United States, but per capita, there’s no question the Belgians are the kings.

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  • Estragon

    “There’s no question the Belgians are the kings”

    You misspelled “Czechs”.

    • Um, no.

      • Estragon

        Sorry, wasn’t trying to troll. I’ve only ever had a handful of Belgians (excluding Stella, but including here Chimay, Leffe, and a few others) and was never terribly impressed. What’d you recommend?

        • I’m not really an expert on Belgian beer, though I am trying to work on that. Others here can probably give you better recommendations. I just don’t think Czech beer is very good. Solid and crisp, sure. Complex, no.

          • Murc

            Complex /= good.

            Well, complex doesn’t NECESSARILY equal good, at any rate.

            • Certainly, but that’s not to deny that a complex beer that is also good is probably better than a less complex beer that is well-made but limited in what it can offer.

              • Start with Delerium and Chouffe. Ommegang in Cooperstown makes a first-rate American style Belgian.

                • Yeah, I love Delerium and Ommegang. I haven’t had Chouffe.

              • Njorl

                Anything that is a matter of individual taste is good if it has broad appeal due to inherent quality (rather than price) over a long period of time.

                The opinions of experts are not valuable because they contrast to the opinions of the masses, but rather because they are a good predictor of the opinions of the masses.

                • mpowell

                  Well, people are heavily influenced by advertising. I agree with your point in theory, but there are still issues with it.

          • Downpuppy

            Urquell in a glass on my porch is wonderful. At a dumpy restaurant on the road to Slovakia, it isn’t quite as good as a draft in Munich – but is much cheaper.

        • Ronnie P

          Leffe isn’t anything special, but Chimay is. There are three different Chimays, so its not clear what you tried.

          However, with the exception of Stella, Bavik and the other lagers, all Belgians get their flavor primarily from yeast, not from hops or malt. It’s possible not to like them.

          Hoegarden (good in spring/summer)? St. Bernardus 12 (my fave)? Duchesse de Bourgogne (sour, yum)? So many choices.

    • Malaclypse

      Nobody who believes beer ferments from the bottom up gets a vote.

    • Marek

      “Per capita” means the Czechs win, unless statistics have changed drastically.

      Now, I prefer Belgian and Belgian-style beer (two words: Omme Gang) to imported Czech beer, but respect to the real drinkers on the continent.

  • Kurzleg

    Worst of Belgium, perhaps, but far from worst.

  • Seitz

    I think the Belgians really advanced the field, at least once everyone woke up to it. That said, I’m not sure the actual Belgians still do it the best across the board. I could drink beer for a really long time and be really happy never drinking anything that was brewed more than 500 miles from Chicago. Heck, I’d probably be fine limiting that to 50 miles. Or even 5. And that includes a lot of Belgian styles.

  • Ronnie P

    The Czechs just don’t have enough tricks up their sleeves.

    In addition to beer, the US is also a player in the wine and whiskey markets. And if you tossed out all our Believers, our per capita alcohol stats look much better.

  • Screw “world beer.”

    Buy local beer.

    • This is much harder if you live in Texas and want to drink good beer.

      • MAJeff

        Or North Dakota, where they think that having Stella on a menu means they have a “Belgian selection.”

      • David W.

        True, but I live in Wisconsin. To be fair, twenty years ago it wasn’t so great up here when it comes to local beer compared to the present. So maybe Texas will be better in twenty years too. In the meantime, consider New Glarus as a possible destination for a visit, the beer really is worth the trip.

        • jmack

          Now that you have mentioned New Glarus, I will now give my obligatory lament that I can get Fat Squirrel but once a year.

      • Nik

        Are Saint Arnold, 512, Jester King, Real Ale, Southern Star, Live Oak, and The Armadillo Ale Works all out of stock all at the same time? Texas is no Colorado, California, or even Wisconsin when it comes to good breweries, but it doesn’t mean you’re completely out of options.

        • I drank a good bit of Real Ale when I was in Texas (I moved in 2010), the rest were between somewhat difficult to impossible to get. I’ve never even heard of Armadillo Ale Works.

      • Anderson

        Not a Shiner fan, I infer.

    • Malaclypse

      While the good folks in Ipswich make a damn fine beer, and throw good parties, and have a damn fine baseball team, this does not change the fact that Chimay is the finest beer ever brewed.

      • I’m partial to Wachusett from my time in Fitchburg.

        My first government job, I just barely earned enough money to live in Fitchburg.

  • calling all toasters

    Stella is the only Belgian beer that doesn’t remind me on NyQuil. Not that there’s anything wrong with NyQuil….

  • encephalopath

    Stella is beer for people who don’t acutally like beer.

    • Malaclypse

      To be fair, you’re thinking of Bud Light. Stella is for pretentious hipsters who don’t like beer.

      • DrDick

        To be fair, you’re thinking of Bud Coors Light.

        Fixed that for greater accuracy. Coors lite is what you get when you strain Bud Lite through a horse’s kidneys.

        • Anonymous

          Please do not click the link

    • N W Barcus

      Stella is a good choice when you’re wanting to maintain your level of inebriation but don’t want to drink water.

      Surprised no one’s mentioned Rodenbach’s Grand Cru (perhaps the best sour brown outside of PDX), Kasteel’s kriek (matched worldwide only by the New Glarus entry), anything by Cantillon…

      For more mainstream tastes Maredsous and Cooperstown’s Ommegang make many fine Belgian-style brews. And don’t overlook Quebec’s Unibroue, quite excellent.

      • Marek

        +1 for Unibrow.

        • Bill Murray

          It used to be Zweibrow until they plucked the upper one out

  • bobbyp

    Hey, I do stella. Also a great Marlon Brando impersonation. I’ve consumed enough Budweiser to raise all boats.

    Raspberry flavored beer (to take just one example)? Seriously? What’s with you guys?

    • Halloween Jack

      What’s your thesis there, chum? That Framboise lambic can’t be good beer because any drink that features fruit flavors is inherently girly, or something? That’s sad.

      • Anderson

        Sad — but true!

  • Nik

    Notes from a brewer: The article says nothing about the fact that domestic consumption of Belgian Beer has dropped more than 30% in the last decade in Belgium, and increased export to American consumers is a huge reason that the total production of beer hasn’t decreased in Belgium, or that even more of its prized small breweries haven’t gone out of business as more and more Belgians drink only Stella, and not something with actual quality.

    Also the article says that Belgian has a larger range of beer than anywhere else, and gives a number 1,131, without saying what that number actually represents. Is it breweries? (The US has more than 1800 and the Germans have more than 1200) Is it lables? (Obviously, even if the US or German brewers only had one lable per brewery, it would still be more). Types of beer? (This would make a bit more sense, but would essentially be claiming that almost every beer in Belgium is sui generis because of the local terroir. This would be like claiming every single bottle of Merlot in the world as a different type of wine, even though they all have the same grape in them.)

    Okay, nits picked.

    • Ronnie P

      Yeah, Belgium doesn’t really have anything close to 1,100 styles. No one does, even assuming pretty broad definitions.

    • Why has the domestic consumption of beer fallen so rapidly in Belgium?

      • Marek

        Don’t you know what the queers are doing to the soil?

      • Bill Murray

        As its consumption of Belgian beer in Belgium, probably more going to export. I think the WTO is involved here some how

      • mpowell

        I wonder if the government has made it really expensive. Various Europeans have complained about this thing from time to time. The thing is, substantial alcohol consumption is not really a good thing.

        • Marek

          Fie!

      • PF

        It’s because there is simply more choice and Belgians are diversifying: Wine for dinner, cava for special occasions, jenevers at city festivals, cocktails at open air festivals, bacardi breezers at night clubs, malted wine at winter markets… beer is no longer the first and only choice when going out nowadays.

        • I was afraid they were drinking less. Greater choice makes me feel better.

    • PF

      It would likely be 1,131 labels, and each with its own glass of course. :)
      But yes, in sheer numbers, the US has more brewers and beer labels than Belgium. But when you look at it per capita, it gives you a completely different picture of how ingrained the beer culture is.

      This is because the Belgian population is only a fraction of the US (Ten million compared to three hundred million).
      To put it in another way: if Belgium had the same population size as the US, it would roughly translate to having 33,900 different labels.

      And that is nothing if you take the figures from 1907. Belgium had the equivalent of around 142,000 breweries (3,400 actual breweries for a population of 7 million back then). Today, Belgium has the US equivalent of about 3000 breweries.

      And I would say that in Belgium, the most popular pils is actually Jupiler, not Stella. And from anecdotal evidence, I am under the impression that Belgians are sampling more and more other beers rather than traditionally stikking to the pilsner. It’s just that they are generally drinking less beer overal. Especially the younger generations.

  • eli

    Belgian beers are special primarily because of their peculiar yeast strains.
    People may not be into the specific flavors, that’s a matter of taste. But the craft of the belgians can’t be denied.

    I agree that Chimay is an excellent place to start. Premiere, their first recipe, is along the lines of a belgian single (they used to mark cases with 1, 2. or 3 x’s), while Cinq Cent is basically a Dubbel, and Grand Reserve what we would call a Triple. Meaning they can be shared at warmer temperatures. They grow in complexity and maltiness. (the caramel flavor, especially, grows with temperature).

    You should also be able to get ahold of a Westmalle (the inventor of the Triple), Duvel, La Trappe (not made in Belgium- but in the Netherlands- but still certified Trappiste).

    St. Bernardus also makes an excellent series of Belgian brews. Their Tripel being iconic.

    Try ’em out if you like flavor with your beer. But, if you decide “they suck”, you should assume a difference in taste… since 400 years or so of other folks tasting them lean the other way.

  • eli

    Oh, and Scott is right about Ommegang… Delerium can be hard to get (esp. in backward states [i live in ok]). Chouffe is excellent.

  • leo from Chicago

    I’d sooner go for a Peroni — or even Schultheiss.

    • Marek

      Troll.

  • ResumeMan

    The breadth of beers available in Belgium is absolutely staggering. The article only gives a passing mention to lambics, which is sort of a shorthand for a slew of naturally-fermented beers that taste like no other beer in the world. Personally I can’t stand those, but I certainly respect the adventurous spirit they represent.

    The trappist beers especially have some of the most subtle, complex, and sublime characters of any beer in the world. Truly, Belgium is an amazing place to experience beer.

    That said, I really am pretty much completely convinced that the US represents the future of beer, and entirely in a good way. Tiny breweries all across the country are aggressively experimenting with new ways to think about beer (sometimes with brilliant successes and sometimes with horrible failures). America is absolutely the bleeding edge of beer, and in 20 years I think there will be at least a dozen new styles of beer that nobody’s ever thought of today, that will be widely consumed.

    Of course, most people who want to drink “beer” will stick with the yellow fizzy alcoholic soft drink, probably forever. But there are plenty of people who want something more, and it’s here that the newest creations are coming together.

  • SeanH

    It was very culture-shock-y to come to the States and see Stella – aka ‘wifebeater’ – listed among the premium beers. Same with Newkie Brown*, and I’ve seen Magners on a premium cider list complete with verbose descriptions of traditional Irish craft…

    *although to compare the Broon with Stella is very unfair, as Broon is perfectly drinkable.

    • Halloween Jack

      *shrug* I still hear occasionally of American mass-produced beers like Budweiser, or American fast food, being considered something special in other countries where the franchises are relatively rare. Conversely, foreign junk food like Pocky or Tim-Tams have a sort of cult following here, despite being no better than domestic sugary crap.

      • Froley

        Don’t you shit on Pocky! I love Pocky. (wipes away tears)

        My favorite Belgian beer is Trappistes Rochefort 10. Unfortunately you can’t get it here in Texas, but I make sure to grab a few when I visit my brother in Wisconsin.

  • SeanH

    Also, amazingly flippant final paragraph:

    Though its brewers have much to celebrate, Belgium as a whole is troubled. Among the most pressing problems is the bitter Wallonian-Flemish political divide that left the country without a permanent government for much for 2010 and 2011. A dissolution of the nation no longer looks impossible. Still, Belgians intending to drown their sorrows at least have an excellent variety of beers with which to do the job.

    What, is it illegal or something to talk about Belgium without rehashing Walloon v. Flemish?

    • Halloween Jack

      There’s an old Kids in the Hall sketch that’s actually just Scott Thompson doing a Buddy Cole monologue; in the middle of Buddy going on about whatever, he looks right into the camera, gets this real serious look on his face, and says solemnly, “And yet the fighting continued.”

  • Njorl

    Forget the beer. You can now get Callebaut chocolate in something smaller than a ten pound bar!

  • R Johnston

    A good friend has a roommate who is a flight attendant working primarily U.S./European routes and whose boyfriend lives in Belgium. This results in a nice supply of Westvleteren 12 appearing on the shelf. That’s a really good roommate to have.

  • Anonymous

    “Drink local” seems a bit myopic to me. Instead, I recommend religiously avoiding mega-corp brewers regardless of country of origin.

    Personally, I prefer the small Belgian breweries, but its soooo pricey in North America. My european-born colleague says Belgians take offense to how loosely American beer culture now uses the word “Belgian”.

    Americans have aggressively and successfully emulated Belgian beer during the past decade, but seem ready to over-reach capacity by adding 700+ more breweries during 2012.

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