How to approach Belgian beer
Self-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)