Just like the classic Dickensian novel A Tale of Two Cities, Belgium’s beer history has centered around two vastly different styles of beer that, on the surface, have nearly nothing in common; but by delving deeper into their history and cultural impact, clear parallels begin to emerge. These two families of beer for which Belgium is famous are called Lambics and Trappists.
Lambics are the black sheep of the beer world, bucking the standards and expectations set on other beers to forge its own unique path. Lambics are spontaneously fermented beers. One of the final stages of making traditional beer involves the brewer pitching a prescribed amount and type of active yeast cells into the wort (malted grain boiled and mixed with hops that is ready to be fermented into beer) to initiate fermentation and thereby produce that beverage of the gods we call beer. Lambics, however, rely on naturally occurring yeast cells wafting through the air to settle on top of the wort and start fermentation. Brewers achieve this by pouring the wort into a large, shallow vessel called a coolship that resides on the roof or top floor of the brewery. The windows are flung wide open and the yeast-ridden wind is allowed to inoculate the awaiting wort.
After a period of inoculation, the wort is barreled and aged in wooden casks for 1-3 years. Because the yeast and fermentation is wild and borderline uncontrollable, the beer must age for a long period to break down the harsh and unpleasant chemical side-effects of the process. The end result is a beer that may look, in color, similar to its brethren; however the aroma and flavor of a lambic is often described as musty, sour, barnyard-like, or, my favorite, “horse-blanket-like” as a result of the wild yeast fermentation. Pure lambic is an aquired taste, to say the least. Happily though, many lambic brewers age their lambic in various fruits to add a fruity and acetic dimension to the beer. Kriek (cherry), Frambois (raspberry), and Druivenlambik (muscat grapes) are the most common flavors of fruit lambic and are often enjoyed by men and women who prefer wine to beer. The acidity and fruitiness in these beers make them much closer in taste to red or white wine than traditional beer; however, because they are brewed using barley and wheat, they are technically beers. Also to combat the sometimes intimidating flavors of Straight Lambic, master lambic brewers blend different aged lambics to balance out the harsher flavors and aromas with ones that are more mellowed and aged, in a process very similar to blending whiskey. These blended lambics are called Geuze.
Spontaneous fermentation is a very fickle and patient process that requires a large degree of skill, the perfect location, and a great deal of luck. This style originated, and to this day continues, in Brussels, Belgium. The unique climate and area in which the capital city of Brussels resides has the perfect conditions for the wild yeast lambic brewers desire. It is only in recent years that the boldest (and some would argue foolhardy) US craft brewers are taking on the challenging lambic style. Although results are mixed, US brewers in certain locations have achieved relative degrees of success. However, to enjoy the golden standard of lambic beer straight from its source, one must make the trek to the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, Belgium.
The second family of beers for which Belgium is famous is the Trappist style ale. Centuries ago, monks began brewing and drinking very strong, malty ales to sustain themselves during long periods of fasting. As times got tougher financially, the monks began to sell their ale, brewed on site at each monastery, to keep the monastery running. Over time, the Trappist monk distinction became another golden standard for the styles of Belgian Dubbel, Tripel, and Strong Dark Ale (Quadrupel). Because of the tumultuousness of Belgian history, only since the 1930s have Trappist ales become available to the world. Seven monasteries carry the Trappist banner and have thus earned a great deal of prestige in the beer world for the sheer quality and complexity of their brews. The eight monasteries are: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren in Belgium, Koningshoeven (La Trappe) in the Netherlands, and Stift Engelszell in Austria. Together, they produce classic and specialty styles that rank among the best beers in the world. The hallmarks of Trappist ales are their deep complexity of flavor and aroma as well as a typically drying finish. Competing with Trappist ales in Belgium are Abbey Ales. By definition, an ale can only wear the Trappist moniker if it is brewed under the direct supervision of a practicing Trappist monk and within the walls of the monastery. Abbey ales, however, are beers brewed using monastic recipes but by an independent brewer who usually purchased the recipe from the monks. Abbey ales of the same style tend to have a sweeter finish than the relatively dry Trappist ales. Both Abbey and Trappist ales are terrific beers to sample, but be careful! Because of added sugar in the wort, which extends fermentation and lowers the body of the beer, even light bodied Trappist and Abbey ales can be deceptively strong in terms of ABV. Always check the ABV before consuming one of these, especially if you are driving! Rare and expensive in the US, Trappist ales are masterpieces of brewing art. If sipped conscientiously, one can pick out any multitude of layered flavors and spices. Trappist ales are meant to be savored and sipped over long periods of time to truly appreciate the skill involved in creating them.
These two families of beer differ wildly in their brewing, ingredients, and taste but share much in common in their impact upon Belgian culture and dining. In the Belgian cuisine de la biere, or beer centric food, many dishes are prepared specifically to pair with a Trappist or Lambic beer, or are prepared using a Trappist or Lambic beer. By using these beers in different sauces, marinades, and dressings, and then serving the dish with the beer to drink, the dining experience quickly moves from delicious to absolutely transcendent. The Belgians love their beer more than most cultures in the world, and take great pains in the brewing and serving of their beer and cooking of their cuisine de la biere. If planning a trip to Belgium, it would be a crime to miss out on the Trappist and Lambic beers!