In general, Belgian beer has a higher alcohol content than American beers to which you may be more accustomed. But they’re also a lot more flavorful. Be smart when drinking. Pace yourself and stay hydrated. You’ll enjoy it a lot more.
efore we get going, a word to the wise...
In the entire world there are only seven official Trappist monasteries that brew beer. Six of them are in Belgium (praise the Lord). Most Trappist beers are strong brown ales though a few are lighter in color and strength. Oh, the seventh Trappist monastery? You’ll find it in the Netherlands. If you ever leave Belgium, that is.
Now before you go saying "What does the look of the beer have to do with anything?" let us tell you. The appearance of beer can tell you a lot about the "health" of the beverage as well as the taste you will soon be experiencing. Raise your glass to the light and ask yourself these questions:
- What's the color? Each style of beer has its own coloration. For example, greenish-yellows are more indicative of pilsners, pinks and reds for fruit lambics, and deep chocolate browns for stouts and porters. If you've got a green stout in your hand - think twice before drinking!
- Does this beer have a good head on its shoulders? Beer is a carbonated beverage. Unlike soda, however, the bubbles of carbon dioxide mix with the yeast and rise to the surface to create a fuzzy substance, often referred to as the head. Each style of beer will produce a different thickness of head. You can tell if your beer has a good head retention by checking out its thickness after one minute. At least a half of the original head should remain after pouring.
90-95% of the beer drinking experiences is through smell. But before you rush into quaffing your beer, know this - you’ve only got about 4 good sniffs before your nose loses its ability to describe what it smells. Here’s the trick to smelling beer - Bring the glass below your nose and take 2 quick sniffs. Then, open your mouth (taste and smell are connected after all) and then take a long whiff in through your nose. Describe what you smell:
- What’s the bouquet? Hop aromas determine the bouquet of a beer. Since these smells dissipate quickly, smell for this ingredient right after the beer has been poured. Some of the descriptions of hop smells include herbal, pine, floral, or spice.
- What’s the overall aroma? The aroma is formed by the hops, malts, grains and other by-products of the fermentation process. Take note of the intensity of smells. Does one element overpower others? Then think about the ingredients. The malts in particular will shine through as these create such smells as nutty, sweet, grainy, roasted, caramel, or chocolate.
- Any strange odors? Strange doesn’t necessarily equal bad. Since some of the best beer reviews include descriptions like “smells like a barnyard," don’t let smell prevent you from trying a beer. With that said however, defects in a beer can come through in the smell. Oxidation of a beer will result in a skunky smell. If you think you’re beer is off in this way, ask the bartender for their opinion. They may tell you it’s meant to be that way (in which case try it – you could be delighted) or you could be praised as a hero who prevented everyone from a bad batch of beer.
The part you’ve all been waiting for – the taste test. Taste too is a complex beast, so again, don’t rush into it. On your first sampling, take enough of the beer into your mouth to wash your entire tongue and then ask yourself these questions:
- Do the smells translate into similar tastes? First try to identify the flavors. Think about the smells you identified and see if those smells are coming through in the flavor as well. Also be sure to step back think about the beer taste overall. Is it bitter, sour, sweet, or salty?
- Is it intense? When tasting a beer, you should also think about the intensity of flavors. Use this to assess how balanced the beer is overall.
- How does it feel in the mouth? Beers can be dry (low in sugars), fruity (higher in sugar), or rich (full taste of malt and fruit.) Identify where your beer falls on this spectrum.
- What’s the grand finale? After taking a taste and swallowing, wait. Aftertaste is a key part of beer tasting experience. Let the flavors linger, then describe what's happening in your mouth. Is it a pleasant aftertaste? Did the alcohols produce too strong an aftertaste? Did the carbonation cause distractions from the flavor? You should also take note of how long the aftertaste lasts. Each style of beer produces different durations of aftertastes. Lighter beers last for shorter periods of time whereas stronger stouts, for example, linger longer.
Like your nose, your taste palate gets tired after 5 or 6 beers. But not to fear – there is a quick fix. Keep your palate active by having water and bread or crackers in between each beer. Your taste buds will thank you and, as an added perk, you’ll be able to stand without falling over at the end of the night!
SHOW US WHAT YOU'VE LEARNED
Now that you are an expert - it's time to put what you've learned into practice. When you join us at the pub, use this scorecard to rate what you taste!
This is the Flemish Dutch world for double, implying double malt in the brew and thus double strength. Usually a brown ale of 6-8% alcohol, often with allusions to monks and abbeys and frequently made there to raise money for the same. Some beer historians claim the name also has its origin in the monk’s less than creative naming scheme. First batch, second batch, third batch, etc.
The Flemish Dutch word for triple, suggesting 3X malt and strength. Historically, trippels were dark brown strong ales, but today they’re mostly brewed as a golden-blond beer with a hint of sweetness. As with the dubbels, tripels are often brewed by monks. (Yes, there is a single style, but it’s usually served as the table beer in the monastery and rarely made available to the public.)
By now you get the idea. Quads imply four times the malt, brew and alcoholic punch. Usually dark in color with varying degrees of sweetness. The monks seem to have stopped at four. They probably passed out.
White beer is typically a lighter beer of 4-5% alcohol made with at least 30% wheat in the brew which causes a cloudy white appearance. Most are also flavored with coriander, dried peel and other spices.
Originally brewed as a light summer beer beer style from Wallonie, the French-speaking south of Belgium. Today’s Wallonian microbreweries produce a variety of saison styles including blonde, amber and brown. The term “farmhouse ale” is also used to describe the same beer style.
Any of several beer styles made with wild air-born yeast that occurs naturally and in great abundance in Belgium. Traditional lambics (also spelled lambieks) are fermented in oak casks for up to three years and used for blending to make geuze or steeped in different kinds of fruit. Lambics can shock the unacquainted palate at first. They range in flavor from sweet and tart to sour and tart. But once you develop a taste for it you’ll crave it. The sourer the better converts say.
In the case of Fruit Lambics, whole fruits are traditionally added after the spontaneous fermentation has started. Kriek (cherries), Frambroise (raspberries), Pêche (peach), Pomme (apple), and Cassis (black currant) are common fruits, all producing subtle to intense fruit characters respectively.
Traditionally made from blending two or more lambics and adding a small bit of sugar to initiate fermentation while it matures in the cellar in champagne style bottles. If you like lambics, you’ll love geuze. The taste sensation it creates is sometimes described as a cross between traditional cider, vintage wine and an ultra-dry ale.
Local West Flanders’ stouts tend to be low strength (4-5%) and sweet in the manner of a British milk stout. Others are closer to the drier Guiness style. Still others defy description and will have you convinced you are drinking a cup of coffee or chocolate. Our very own Black Albert (brewed for us in Belgium) is an imperial stout that many critics claim is one of the best in its class. Beer Advocate magazine went so far as to actually proclaim it the best beer in the world.
uick guide to tasting beer...
uick guide to Belgian beer styles...
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