Liquid Assets: The fermented beers of Belgium mix old and new for noteworthy flavors.
Horse blanket, fermenting hay, barnyard. These are beer flavor descriptors? They are when you are describing the spontaneously fermented "sour" beers of Belgium. While most beers are fermented with carefully cultured strains of yeast, wild beer brewers allow a mix of wild yeast and acid-producing bacteria to do the job, resulting in beers with distinctive sour and fruity flavors that defy common conceptions of what beer should taste like.
While many sour-beer styles can be an acquired taste, Flemish red ales are consistent crowd-pleasers. Sometimes called the "Burgundies of Belgium," these alluring ales pour an inviting ruby color that looks great in a chalice or even a red-wine glass. The flavor lies somewhere between beer and red wine. They have a tart, fruity edge that reminds me of dark cherries infused with balsamic vinegar.
Duchesse de Bourgogne is a Flemish red ale with very broad appeal. It's a bit sweeter than some others. Black cherry notes and residual sugars play a delicately balanced counterpoint to the sour. The earthy undertones of wild yeast remain largely in the background. It's delightful.
At the top of my favorites list for several years running has been Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge from the Bokor Brewery in Belgium. Its flavors are more intense than the Duchesse. The first taste can be a tart shocker to those expecting something more beer-like. But move past that initial jolt and this beer rewards you with a complex flavor blend of balsamic vinegar, dark fruit and old leather that changes with every sip.
Those with more adventurous palates can step up to fruit lambic and gueuze.
Many people are familiar with the Lindemans line of fruit lambics. Though tasty, especially with chocolate desserts, these sweetened beers are not traditional lambics. For something more authentic try Oud Beersel Framboise. The corked bottle opens with a pop, releasing a dark-red, bubbly brew capped with light pink foam. The aroma and taste of fresh raspberries leads and is accentuated by bright acidity. The sour is softened by underlying sweetness and subtle barnyard funkiness.
Gueuze is an unfruited blend of young lambic with lambic that has been aged for three years or more. The cider-like character is marked by intense acidity and pronounced leathery, earthy and barnyard flavors from wild fermentation. Though not necessarily for the faint of heart, they are among the most extraordinarily complex beers you will ever taste. Lindemans Cuvée René is a delicious example of gueuze that is readily available locally. It brings the whole package, with sourness, funk and sharp wheat notes all coming together in a magical mélange.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.