Belgian Brewers is one of the oldest professional associations in the world. Their Guild of Brewers – The Knighthood of the Brewers’ Paddle welcomed the first Irish person in its ancient history to join the Knighthood, Dean McGuinness. Included in the new Knights was the American Ambassador to the Kingdom of Belgium. I attended the Enthronement ceremony in early September in the Town Hall in Brussels of my former Tutor.
After the enthronement of the new Knights, they proceeded to the Market Square to officially open the Belgian Beer Festival. Dean and his wife and beer sommelier Breda, distribute Belgian beers throughout Ireland with their family-owned company Premier International.
In addition, Dean is an educator and invigilator in the Diploma of Craft Beers and Ciders in conjunction with Beer Heaven and the National Off-licence Association of Ireland.
I spoke with Dean afterwards and asked him to give a glimpse of just a handful of the many and diverse styles of Belgian beers available in Ireland and to outline what makes them so distinct. Dean gave me a sample of these styles of Belgian beers to taste and write my own impressions of them. Before talking about the beers sampled, I’ll give an overview on the style and its main characteristics.
This style was established and popularised by Hoegaarden. This was a traditional Belgian beer style that was in danger of dying out. A milkman, Pierre Celis decided that he wanted to revive the style and started brewing a Belgian witbier in the town of Hoegaarden. He sold his business to Interbrew (now AB Inbev, the largest brewing company in the world) but later had an argument with them claiming they were trying to change his recipe. Pierre set up a new brewery in Austin, Texas, U.S.A. and started brewing Celis White, in his words ‘to the original recipe of Hoegaarden’.
Essence of style: a Belgian wheat beer with a cloudy appearance due to the high proportion of wheat in the brewing. Brewed with ‘gruut’ (herbs and spices, called ‘gruit’ in the UK) with coriander and curacao (dried orange peel) being the cornerstone of the spice blend.
CEILIS WHITE BELGIAN WITBIER
5% – €1.89 25cl at O’Briens Wines, Number 21 Off-Licence, Martins Off-Licence
Pale light gold with an even and vigorous carbonation maintaining a deep and dense persistent white foam.
Fragrant with honey and lemon boiled sweets and floral notes. Mouth-filling mousse, refreshing and light-bodied for a Belgian and a long citrusy and tart fruity finish.
A crisp Sauvignon Blanc of beers.
A number of Belgian breweries have brewed beers to this style, with many of them having a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Devil (Duvel, Lucifer, Satan etc.) or to mischief of some sort (Delirium Tremens).
Essence of style: golden ale with an alcohol content typically above 8.0% ABV. Character resulting from fermentation can include fruit (usually lighter coloured fruit e.g. apricot, pear, apple and stone fruit) and sometimes spice (e.g. clove).
DELIRIUM TREMENS, HUYGHE FAMILY BREWERY SINCE 1654
8.5% ABV – €3.85 330ml and €8.99 – €9.99 750 ml at O’Briens Wines, Redmond’s of Ranelagh, Martins Off-Licence, Molloy’s Liquor Store.
Medium golden and very deep, fine, long-lasting white foam. Fruity and hoppy aromas follow onto the palate with a silky texture delivering a dry and a soft malty palate. The full-bodied alcohol is easily underestimated by the fresh tangy malt and hoppy bitterness.
I have to declare a particular vested interest in this beer following my swearing allegiance to the Pink Elephant at a Confrerie Ceremony at the Huyghe Brewery when in Belgium in early September (image below).
Two elements to this style: Trappiste is a reference to the fact that the beer is brewed under the supervision of Trappiste monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance and it’s brewed according to the rules of the International Trappiste Association (on the site of the abbey, profits going to charitable causes under the control of the monks). Tripel is a classic Belgian Strong Ale style, typically golden (although some breweries cause a little confusion by brewing ‘Dark Tripels’) and usually above 8.0% ABV.
Essence of style: the Tripel style is quite broad, but is usually a golden ale and can have character that might lead with hop flavour (floral, perfumed notes), fruit character, spice or with flavours from the grain blend used in the style. Normally, ‘golden’ and ‘above average strength’ would be the defining characteristics. Some people find it difficult to distinguish between strong Belgian Golden Ales and Tripels because the Tripel style is broad enough to overlap/envelope the Strong Belgian Golden Ale style. When looking at the brands that fall under Tripel and Golden Ale, the difference can often come down to the ‘attitude’ with which the beer is presented – Tripels being more ‘formal’ and ‘classic’ in style. Whereas, Strong Golden Ales are often presented in a more ‘cheeky’ way.
Note: a Tripel does not have to be Trappiste. Some Abbey Beers are Tripels and some beers are brewed as Tripels but without any connection to an Abbey.
CHIMAY TRIPLE ALE, SCOURMONT ABBEY
8% ABV – €3.49 330ml and €7.99-€8.99 750ml at O’Briens Wines, Gibneys Off-Licence, Sweeney’s Wine Merchants, Worldwide Wines.
Medium golden and clear with very deep and persistent creamy white foam.
Perfumed with ripe pears. Dry and generous, richly flavoured with rounded grainy-sweet malty full-bodied palate with a gentle warming finish.
Fruit Beers made on a base of Belgian witbier. Mongozo beers were established by Max deHavelaar and his work is continued now by Jan Fleurkens. The recipes are based on traditional alcohol drinks from across Equatorial and Tropical countries. The ingredients used in the beer are all Fair Trade and the beers are brewed to organic standards. Each beer in the range is characterised by a distinctive exotic fruit (non-standard for Belgian fruit beers). Jan is moving towards using a buckwheat base for all of these beers which would also mean that the full range would be gluten free also.
Essence of style: Belgian witbier base provides a relatively clean foundation to allow the essence of the fruit flavour to be the main focus. Distinctively fruity and quite sweet.
MONGOZO COCONUT, THE EXOTIC BEER
Pale golden and hazy with a moderate depth of white foam.
Highly perfumed with coconut and honey, but not artificially so. Slightly sweet and very enjoyable.
Fruity and a pure coconut cocktail after-taste with the carbonation giving a very clean and counterbalancing finish.
Dark Ale of above average strength with dark fruit flavours and a distinctive character coming from the malt (liquorice, dark malt flavours). Gouden Carolus Classic was described as ‘the classic dark ale of Belgium’ and has been awarded Best Dark Ale in the World at the World Beer Awards. From Brewery Het Anker, run by Charles deClef – fifth generation of his family to run the brewery.
Essence of Style: dark malt and dark fermentation flavours in a rich, full-bodied strong ale.
GOUDEN CAROLUS CLASSIC, BELGIAN DARK STRONG ALE
Dark amber colour under a moderate depth of beige foam.
Subtle aromas of caramel, malt and spice. Velvety smooth texture and treacle richness softening any malty bitterness.
The alcohol kept in balance by the very long and mellow molasses finish.
A beer that is brewed and then undergoes subsequent fermentations under oak in ‘foeders’ (large oak vessels). Rodenbach is considered to be the signature beer for the style and is a blend of both younger and older beer. Rodenbach being 75% one-year-old and 25% three-year-old beer; Grand Cru (this beer) 33% one-year-old and 66% three-year-old and Rodenbach Vintage being 100% three-year-old beer. Rodenbach Vintage is only released periodically with a batch in Ireland in October.
Essence of Style: Belgian sour with tart fruit flavours (cherry, strawberry, cider vinegar) and other sour flavours (balsamic vinegar, acetic) all in evidence. Not a beer for the beginner and some would say it is an acquired taste. One view is that you need to drink at least three litres of sour beer before you can decide whether or not you like it. Sour beers are currently very fashionable in the United States. While just starting to emerge in Ireland, however, no consideration of Belgian beer and Belgian brewing tradition would be complete without acknowledging the sour category.
RONDENBACH GRAND CRU, FLANDERS RED ALE
Deep amber with a faint head quickly fading to a beige halo of foam on the surface. Aromatic with an attractive sour cherry and cider vinegar bouquet.
The sourness attacks on the entry and finishes with tasty cherry stone and green apple tartness. Attractive and refreshing with a lovely balance between the acidic bite and the tangy acetic sour finish.
Known as the Burgundy of Belgium, a red wine lover’s beer.
Liam Campbell is one of Ireland’s most experienced wine writers. His work has been featured in the pages of numerous publications, most recently as the Wine & Drinks Editor for The Irish Independent, as well as in Irish Homes, Easy Food and The Dubliner magazines.
Besides writing, his involvement in the world of wine goes deeper: he’s an approved WSET educator and holder of a WSET Diploma, Diploma in Craft Beer & Cider, and he has worked as judge in international wine competitions and as a wine consultant.