Beer in Belgium is closer to something like a religion, or at least a cult, than just a beverage. While beer drinking in the U.S. continues to undergo changes troubling to the big brewers, many large and small beer makers have turned to the Belgian approach for inspiration.
Think not? Then where do you think the ideas behind Shock Top and Blue Moon (the two major success stories in craft-style beer coming from the big brewers) came from? Witbier – light, fruity, fresh and citrusy – is Belgian through and through.
So it was a good place to experience both the past and the future of brewing earlier this month in upstate New York, outside Cooperstown at the Ommegang Brewry, now owned by Belgian brewer Duvel, who hosted its annual gathering of brewers from two continents who take their Belgian style brews quite seriously indeed. Called “Belgium Comes to Cooperstown,” it’s one of the largest Belgian beer-focused events outside the home country.
While Germany and Britain are usually considered the home of the two major styles of brewing – lagers and ales – it’s the Belgians who arguably have taken brewing from its current mode of alcohol delivery system, no matter how pleasant, into the realm of something sublime, endlessly enticing and sometimes just plain wacky. So under the tents at a balmy day at Ommegang, there were beers of every Belgian connection: abbey, dubbel, tripel, lambic, blonds, reds, wits, saisons and many other styles, some new and outrageously good, some valiant failures, but all worth a taste or three.
This won’t be a primer on Belgian brewing, except to say that yeast rules, for the most part, imparting those fresh and fruity, citrusy and zesty or sour and challenging aromas and flavors. Even the blonde ales can offer surprising flavors and minor notes, compared to the light and pale brews American drinkers are weaned upon.
Yeast, and of course tradition, built upon the studious work of ancient Belgian monks, who devised various tweaks and methods to fortify, flavor and strengthen their brews. Already, as was made clear at Ommegang this month, the number of brewers who enthusiastically embrace the possibilities of Belgian-style brews is growing, some major crafts, like Brooklyn Brewery, and many smaller ones who are growing by leaps, primarily due to their Belgian leanings.
The lesson? If you aren’t exploring the addition of at least a few of the styles that Belgian or Belgian-style brewing offers, you’re missing out. I’m not arguing on behalf of fruit lambics necessarily, though those beers offer great summer cocktail and quaffing possibilities. But the beer world is turning fast, and as the crowd who bought all available tickets to the Ommegang event in mere minutes would attest, if you haven’t sampled what the tradition has to offer, you don’t really know beer.