Great Beers from Europe and the United States are Leading a Renaissance of the Brewmaster's Art
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96
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Schneider-Weisse's doppelbock-strength big brother from the same brewery is called Aventinus, and it has even deeper pleasures to offer. The aroma profile is similar to Schneider-Weisse, but the balance is tipped towards banana, with a hint of chocolate backing it up. The flavors burst on the palate, cruising in smoothly to a clean, warming, spicy finish.
Belgium raises the European brewer's art to its most rambunctious and creative levels. In many ways, Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars; Belgian beers are not for everyone, but to the connoisseur they offer stunning complexity and unparalleled richness. Whereas the Germans stick to the tight script of the Reinheitsgebot, the Belgians throw the rule book out the window and do as they please. Brewing in Belgium is idiosyncratic and old-fashioned at the same time; Belgians brew ales in ancient styles, but no two beers are alike. Every brewery has its own flavor-producing yeast strains and even its own specially shaped glassware.
The most famous Belgian beers are those brewed by the Trappist order of monks within its monasteries. Of these, the best known is Chimay, brewed by the brothers of L'Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont. Of the three Chimay beers, the most prized is Chimay Bleu, or Grande Réserve. Chimay Bleu carries its 9 percent alcohol with grace, showing dark fruit, nutmeg and black pepper in the nose, with a hint of apple peel. The flavors follow through on a full-bodied, slightly sweet palate with an earthy, yeasty backdrop of raisins and chocolate. The hops take a back seat, serving only to provide a bracing balance. A stellar match with roasted duck, Chimay improves with cellaring, and some connoisseurs will not drink it until it is at least three years old. I rarely manage to wait that long.
At the other end of the Trappist ale spectrum is the ale produced by the brothers of Notre Dame D'Orval, simply named Orval. The distinctive bowling pin-shaped bottle contains a pale ale with a startling orangey color, capped by a rocky white head and an aroma of spicy hops and bright fruit. Sharp, focused hop bitterness gives way to a dry, spicy palate with a citrusy fruit finish. Hop bitterness and bready malt linger refreshingly on the palate. Another bottle beckons.
Some beers aspire to heavenly connections, bearing some relationship to an abbey, but are brewed by secular breweries. These are referred to as "abbey ales," and despite the fact that they are not divinely derived, some of them are very fine in their own right. The most popular styles are dobbel (also spelled dubbel) and tripel, the names referring obliquely to their alcohol contents of roughly 6 percent and 9 percent, respectively. The 500-year-old Roman Brewery of Oudenaarde produces the fine Roman Dobbelen, a nice example of the dobbel style. Deep reddish-brown, this beer is redolent of dark fruit, raisins, chocolate and a touch of coffee. The palate is slightly sweet and caramel-like, countered by a broad bitterness and finishing with a clean hop snap.
One tripel is the Affligem Tripel, a deep golden beer with an effusive white head and a perfume-like aroma, showing plenty of pear and a touch of anise and ripe cantaloupe melon. Yeasty, hoppy, fresh and spicy on the palate, the warmth of the alcohol gives the beer an almost spirit-like quality. A long, earthy, fruity finish rounds it off. This beer virtually begs for a pork loin roast, but will settle for pheasant or a free-range chicken.
Some Belgian beers defy categorization and simply become icons unto themselves. One such beer is the popular Duvel, brewed by the Moortgat family of Breendonk. Taking the opposite tack to the abbey breweries, the Moortgats appealed to a lower authority and named their beer after the Flemish word for the devil. Certainly, the beer is seductive and deceptive enough. The very pale yellow color masks a beer that contains more than 8 percent alcohol by volume. The beer is bottle-conditioned and virtually erupts into the glass, raising a massive stark white head. The nose is perfume-like, full of hops, pear, brandy and citrus. Light-bodied but flashy on the palate, the beer is full of spicy flavors backed by hay and a hint of tobacco. The palate signs off with a snap of hops and a spicy aftertaste warmed by alcohol. Brilliant with a wide variety of foods, Duvel is often referred to as the "Champagne of Belgium."
Certain styles of beer evolved to serve the same purpose as rustic table wines. Farmhouse beers were once abundant in the countrysides of Belgium and northern France. Some are still going strong. The Belgian farmhouse, or saison, style is best represented by the Dupont Brewery of Tourpes, which produces the fantastic Saison Dupont. You can still buy fresh eggs at the Dupont brewery, which is admirably close to its farming roots.
The beer is so full of live yeast that the bottle appears vaguely crusty on the inside. The bottle lets loose its cork with champagnelike vigor. Golden, churning, almost chunky and powerfully aromatic, this beer raises up a head so stiff one could float a quarter on it. A blast of apples, yeast, grapefruit and coriander forms an appetizing aroma. The beer is bracingly bitter up front, following through with a dry, sprightly, spicy palate. The finish is clean, dry and refreshing, with a lingering impression of fresh earth and cut hay. I'm still trying to find food that Saison Dupont doesn't go with. A nice garden on a summer's day, some lightly chilled Saison Dupont and a medium-bodied spicy cigar form the cornerstone of my idea of perfect leisure.
Most brewers go well out of their way to ensure that sour flavors do not appear in their beers. For some Belgian brewers, however, sourness is just another paint on the palette. The red ales of Flanders are often mouth-puckering in their sourness, a quality that is softened by aging in wood. Rodenbach Grand Cru is the granddad of these ales; the red color is derived partly from a long maturation in varnished oak vats three stories tall. Rodenbach Grand Cru shows a bit of its sourness even in the nose, but raisins, caramel and Madeira are also prevalent. The sourness hits the palate with a tart smack, but quickly reveals an interplay of oak tannins, bright fruit and rock candy, rolling through to leave a somewhat tannic oakiness in its wake. It is a terrific beer to serve with strong cheeses and gutsy salads.
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