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February 14, 2010

How to approach Belgian beer

belgian ale and beerSelf-professed beer guru (read: geek) and frequent Midnight Sun contributor Alexander D. Mitchell IV describes beer with such words as "mouthfeel." I'm still not sure what that means. But I don't know many other people with as much beer knowledge as Mr. Mitchell. Here, the good professor discusses Belgian beers:

Feb. 12 marks the first of three days of what has now become an annual event in the Baltimore and Eastern craft beer scene, the annual Max's Taphouse Belgian Beer Festival.

For three days, Max's Taphouse clears their 70+ draft lines of their usual selection of beers --ranging from Miller Lite to some of the world's most esoteric brews -- to put on a full selection of Belgian beers, supplemented by over a hundred bottled Belgian beers and a succession of different Belgian drafts to replace the first ones to run out.

So what is all the hubbub about Belgian beer? Is that like Belgian chocolate? Isn't Stella Artois Belgian? Heck, isn't Budweiser technically owned by a multi-national conglomerate based in Belgium?

Yes and yes, but that's not what beer snobs and aficionados refer to when they talk about "Belgian beer." ...

Traditionally, Belgian beers are brewed with spontaneous fermentation, meaning that instead of adding a particular strain of yeast to a malt-and-hops soup to ferment it, they left it out in the open, to allow naturally occurring "wild" yeasts to fall in and do their stuff -- eat up sugars and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide as byproducts. Well, that's what they used to do.

Nowadays, commercial breweries in Belgium typically cultivate a "house" strain of brewing yeast with the same characteristics for the sake of consistency. Think of Belgian beer as being like the legendary sourdough breads of San Francisco and elsewhere; the exact same yeasts are responsible.

The result is the same: A beer with unusual and often complex "funky" flavors, as different from most North American industrially-produced lagers as a Greek gyro is from an hot dog or sushi is from fish sticks.

In addition, the beers can vary from pale and very strong to black as Guinness and stronger, and from candy-sweet beers with fruit infusions (see framboise for raspberry, cassis for blackcurrant, or kriek for cherry) to excruciatingly sour and tart. If you know you hate hoppy bitterness, you are in luck: Belgian beers are, as a rule, very low on hop character.

Beer drinkers in Baltimore are probably most familiar with The Brewer's Art brewpub in Mount Vernon and its flagship Resurrection Ale and other products, which are produced with Belgian-style yeasts. Other breweries in North America use similar yeasts and techniques, including New York's
Ommegang, Maine's Allagash, and Quebec's Unibroue.

But Belgium is where it's truly at, and for the past several years, Max's Taphouse has livened up the post-football, pre-baseball doldrums doing what it does best, bringing the best Belgium has to offer (at least commercially available in Maryland) to enthusiastic followers of Belgian beers.

Unlike, say, the beer festivals at the Timonium fairgrounds or elsewhere, this "festival" has no cover charge or admission, and you pay as you go with beers. Any of the draft beers will be available in small 4-ounce sample glasses, as well as in full servings (which varies from a wine glass to a goblet to a pint glass, depending on beer style and alcohol content). A selection of Belgian food will also be available, although pub food without quite the grand eloquence of The Brewer's Art's fine kitchen and chef.

If you are a newcomer looking for guidance, look around. Most likely, one can find a few hard core Belgian beer fans who may have traveled as far as across the continent for this festival, and one regular crew usually shows up with printed notes on each beer, taking up a table and sharing as many beers as possible. 

Others may appear with books or laptop computers, researching each beer as they go.  Baltimore is also blessed with the presence of Belgian beer writer/author/blogger Chuck Cook, and a quick internet search will reveal several websites devoted to explaining the intricacies of Belgian beer.

(Baltimore Sun archive photo)

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Posted by Sam Sessa at 9:00 AM | | Comments (5)
Categories: Bars & Clubs


texts from my friend, who worked at Max's during the Belgian festival:

"we're in the transition period, b/w beer dorks & meatheads"

"god I hate beer dorks"

"there's 3 people here that are wearing wolf shirts"

For the record, Max's will STILL be pouring through the leftover Belgian drafts as long as there's still beer in the kegs, so in effect the Belgian Fest continues all week long this week........

^^ guessing those were the locos serving the food

You racist, B! Actually my homie's on the floor, right in the thick of it.

I'd like to get over there & see what's left. I stopped by the Festival last year & discovered what's now my favorite beer, Kasteel Donker. Although that Heavy Seas Yule Tide is a close 2nd.

Tried to go this year but it was too crowded. Last year I made a point of getting there at noon on Sunday just to get a table. Love me some Belgian beer.

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About Erik Maza
Erik Maza is a features reporter at the Baltimore Sun. He writes for several sections of the Sun paper and contributes weekly columns on music and nightlife. He also writes and edits the Midnight Sun blog. He often covers entertainment, business, and the business of entertainment. Occasionally, he writes about Four Loko, The Block, the liquor board, and those who practice "simulated sex with a potted palm tree." Before The Sun, he was a reporter at the Miami New Times. He's also written for Miami magazine, the Orlando Sentinel, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Gainesville Sun. Got tips? Gripes? Pitches? He's reachable at Click here to keep up with the dumb music he's listening to.

Midnight Sun covers Baltimore music, live entertainment, and nightlife news. On the blog, you'll find, among other things, concert announcements, breaking news, bars closings and openings, up-to-date coverage of crime in nightlife, new music, round-the-clock coverage of Virgin Mobile FreeFest, handy guides on bars staying open past 2 a.m. on New Year's Eve and those that carry Natty Boh on draft. Recurring features include seven-day nightlife guides, Concert News, guest reviews of bars and concerts, Wednesday Corkboard, and photo galleries, as well as reader-submitted photos. Thanks for reading.

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