The easy-to-drink brews have an international following.
The beers of Belgium are admired the world over. But what makes them so special?
"That's a big question. Can I just say 'yeast'?" Lanny Hoff's half-joking response referenced the singular combination of yeast-derived fruit and spice that is the most readily identifiable characteristic of many Belgian brews. Hoff is vice president of Artisanal Imports, which specializes in Belgian beer, and he's an inductee into the Belgian Brewers Guild's Knighthood of the Brewers Mash Staff. Sir Hoff knows a thing or two about Belgian ale.
"Great Belgians are universally well balanced and satisfying." says Hoff. Those beers emphasize the notion of "drinkability." While many Belgian beers have alcohol levels north of 8 percent, delicately layered flavors and dry finish make them deceptively easy to drink.
Kevin Welch, owner and brewer at Boom Island Brewery, agrees. He spent two summers working alongside some of Belgium's best brewers before launching his Belgian-centric brewery in northeast Minneapolis this year. "One of the most important traits I found was balance [in Belgium]. Treatment of flavor profile is always approached with great care and delicacy." He crafts the beer at Boom Island with the same care and delicacy, even using yeast strains he brought back from breweries in Belgium.
Hoff points out that big, resiny hops and massive malt are not part of the Belgium equation. Though full-flavored and complex, these beers aren't palate wreckers.
Minnesotans needn't travel overseas to sample these sublime brews. A good selection of them, both Belgian and American-made, are available right here.
Westmalle Tripel is one of the best. Brewed at one of only eight Trappist monastery breweries, this strong, golden ale is bone dry with a sharp bitter bite. Overtones of apricots and peaches round out the characteristic flavors of Belgian yeast. It's 9.5 percent alcohol, but drinks like a beer half that strength.
Tripel Karmeliet is another world-class beer brewed to the same style as the Westmalle. It's a touch less bitter and has appealing, orangy citrus notes that play over the top.
For something darker, try Hoodoo Dubbel from local brewer Boom Island. Dark amber in color, its malty, brown bread and caramel flavors are topped off with yeasty notes of banana and spice. Some dried, dark fruit notes add a bit of depth.
"Candy beer" is what I call Quadrupel Ale from La Trappe, a Trappist brewery in the Netherlands. It's strong and malty with brown sugar sweetness and raisin flavors taking the lead. That Belgian balance is provided by moderate hop bitterness and solid alcohol warming. This beer is a liquid dessert to be sipped and savored.
Just because the Belgians like balance doesn't mean they don't do hops. Belgian IPA is a style that has gained popularity in the past few years. Urthel Hop-It is a prime Belgian example. It's a strong, golden ale with bracing bitterness and amped-up spicy hop flavors. Beneath it all is that characteristic Belgian yeast.
For something locally brewed try Boom Island's Thoprock IPA or Harriet Brewing Company's West Side. The latter is an Americanized version with citrusy hops replacing the spicy European varieties.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.