Your First Lesson On Colors Since Kindergarten: American Ales

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Roy G. Biv may be the biggest name in colors but the only colors American drinkers should be concerned with are Pale, Amber, Brown, and Black. If you’ve spent any time perusing a beer aisle (one of my favorite pastimes), then you have undoubtedly seen beers labeled as Pale Ales, Amber Ales, Brown Ales, and Black Ales. While Pale Ales and Brown Ales originated in England, Amber Ales trace their heritage back to Ireland, and Black Ales were partly inspired by German Black Lagers, all of these styles have been Americanized by the craft beer movement. How does one “Americanize” a beer? Glad you asked! The two ways American brewers have taken European styles and Americanized them are by either using American rather than European hops or ramping up the strength and intensity of the beer to unthinkable levels by European standards. Something to understand about European drinking culture, and culture in general, is the strong grip of moderation and sensibility on the social customs. As one Brit once told me over a pint in Burton-on-Trent, “‘Tis far better that we remain sensible and reserved than to frolic to and fro in our knickers as you Americans are so fond of doing.” He was referring to the multitudinous celebrity sex tapes of failing American actors, but I think his drunken cavil was actually a key insight into European brewing culture. Europeans prefer to drink their beer in large sessions, drinking many pints/liters at a time. In order to accomplish this, the beer produced must be of reasonable ABV. In addition, the tradition of ales and lagers in Europe being of sessionable strength dates back to the days when brewing utilized the parti-gyle system, when different runnings of wort of decreasing strength were used to create beers of moderate alcoholic strength. Because apparently all Americans enjoy frolicking to and fro in our knickers all day long, our brewers not only enjoy complete freedom from tradition but also support from an adventurous, envelope-pushing audience. Thus, American ales can be distinguished from their European brethren by their very floral and citrusy American hop additions, and by their manifest-destiny-like approach to strength and intensity.

The difference between the colors is the various degrees to which the malt was kilned before going through the mashing process in the first steps of beer production. When barley is harvested for beer production, it is steeped in water to germinate the seed, thus starting the barley’s transition from starch to sugar. This is called “malting.” Once the brewer deems the malting process complete, the barley malt is kilned, or cooked, to halt the germination so that the embryo does not eat into the newly created sugars to grow as a plant. This leaves optimal sugar levels in the malt for the yeast to feed on later in the brewing process. The other reason for kilning the malt is to create different flavors in the beer. The palest malts, used in lagers and pale ales, have very light malt character that tastes biscuit and crisp, and in ales, has a slight hint of caramel. Further kilning creates darker colored beers that take on toasty and bready characteristics, then strong toffee and caramel flavors, and finally chocolatey, roasty, coffee-like, burnt, or bitter character. All of these flavors in your beer, as well as the color, are a direct result of the malt kilning process. Thus, the main difference between American Pale, Amber, Brown, and Black Ales is the amount of kilning the malt went through before brewing.
If you’ve tried enough beers, you are probably familiar with what you like and what you don’t, whether you can put words to it or not. When deciding whether to opt for an American Pale, Amber, Brown, or Black Ale, use these guidelines to help you choose something you’ll really enjoy!

American Pale Ale
Usually biscuity and slightly caramelly malt character that takes a definite backseat to fairly aggressive floral and citrusy hops. Pale ales have a definite bitter finish that is sometimes drying on the palate, though less so than American IPAs. The American Pale Ale is a very refreshing style that, because of diminished malt character, drying finish, and cleaner fermentation, seems a little more light bodied and nimble than darker beers. Its balance is definitely tipped more towards bitter hops than sweet malt.

American Amber Ale
Because of further kilning of the malt, Ambers have a more developed malt character with more toasty, bready, and especially caramelly flavors. Amber ales are very similar in hopping to pale ales, with significant citrus and floral aroma and flavor, but the added malt character brings this beer into a better overall balance. If you prefer a beer that is more balanced between sweet and bitter, Amber ales are a style to try!

American Brown Ale
Continuing with the trend, the American Brown ramps up the malt character to another level, adding sweetness and richness with caramel, chocolate, nutty, and toasty notes. Still utilizing floral and citrusy American hops, the American Brown’s balance is nevertheless tipped solidly towards the malt. However, unlike the sweet European counterparts, the American Brown has a more dry and balanced finish.

American Black Ale
This is a newer style that American brewers have toyed with in the last few years, mixing the roasty, bitter, and chocolately malt character of a stout or German Schwarzbier with the floral and citrusy hop character of other American ales. The result is a balanced and interesting brew. The roasty bitterness is balanced by the citrusy hops and tamed by a medium dry finish. American Black Ales are an interesting new addition to the American Ale family!

Beer and Food Pairing
When deciding what to eat with any of these styles, consider the level of malt kilning/color and resultant flavors that accompany the styles. To help you get started, try these tasty pairs:

American Pale Ales
Try with fish, shellfish, grilled chicken, fried chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun style food, and vegetarian dishes.

American Amber Ales
Try with pork, roasted chicken, spicy Latin/Cajun, Indian, and vegetarian dishes.

American Brown Ales
Try with beefy dishes, burgers, and pork or chicken BBQ dishes.

American Black Ales
Try with burgers, charcuterie, and pork BBQ dishes.


Move Over Hopheads, Now There’s An IPA For The Rest of Us: The RyePA

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Since the U.S. Craft Beer Revolution started in the 1980s and early 1990s, the quintessential American beer style has been the American India Pale Ale (IPA). In response to the bleak landscape of watery, tasteless mass marketed beers, American homebrewers began dumping more and more American hops into their brews to boldly stand out from the pale lagers dominating the market. The beer style that allows the brewer to stretch the bitterness tolerance of the drinker is the India Pale Ale. Invented in the 1700s in England, brewers needed a way to keep their beer fresh as it made the three month journey from Great Britain to their colony in India. Pale ale, or “bitter” as it’s known in the UK, was, and still is, the favorite drink in Britain. Thus, the men who colonized India in the 1700s yearned for their favorite quaff to find its way to them half the world away. Brewers experimented and found that the antiseptic and flavoring abilities of hops would keep the ale fresh for longer on the lengthy and hot trip around the tip of Africa and up to India, especially when used at a very exaggerated rate. As the beer travelled, it would slowly degrade as a result of heat and time, so that by the time it reached India, it tasted very similar to the bitters from back home. As an unintended consequence, the highly hopped and extra strong beer caught on in Great Britain as well. So much so that British brewers started selling the strong IPAs at home as well as abroad. The most bitter of the beer styles was born!

Flash forward to the early 1990s in the United States. American brewers discovered the unique citrusy and floral taste and aroma of American grown hops and decided to create beers that showcased them. Thus, the natural vehicle with which to do this was obviously the IPA. Over the next two decades, the American IPA, using American rather than English or German hops, has become the consummate American craft brew and led to the creation of the term “hophead.” However, excessively bitter beers are not everyone’s favorite, especially, as it turned out, in the South.

In the late 1990s, now well known and loved Terrapin Beer in Athens, Georgia was only in its planning stages. Their idea? Bring the bold and hoppy craft beers that were becoming so popular out West and up North down South. However, as Terrapin founders Brian “Spike” Buckowski and John Cochrane soon discovered, Southerners were not quite sold on the idea of extra bitter and hoppy beers. As Buckowski put it in an interview with beer journalist Joshua Bernstein, “Back then, anything hoppier than a Budweiser was too bitter.” To combat Southerner’s bitter skepticism, Buckowski needed a way to dry out the drinker’s palate to prevent an overly bitter finish and keep him or her coming back for more. His solution? Adding rye to the barley malt. Buckowski’s eureka moment came as he reminisced on his college days sipping rye whiskey. Thus, the Terrapin Rye Pale Ale was born, which incorporated a small percentage of rye in the malt bill, and subsequently launched a new style of Pale Ale, IPA, and Double (Imperial) IPA in the American Craft Beer landscape.

Adding rye to barley malt does several things for the final beer: it adds subtle spiciness and dryness to the taste while increasing overall complexity and sharpness. It also can help tone down perceived hop bitterness by adding unique malt character to the beer. Finally, it opens a new world of beer and food pairing that regular IPAs just can’t quite match. Rye Pale Ales, IPAs, and Double (Imperial) IPAs have become very popular year round, because the citrusy hops quench your thirst in spring and summer, and the spicy and sometimes toasty malt character can warm you up in fall and winter. In addition, the added complexity of the malt often appeals to drinkers who balk at the excessive bitterness of regular IPAs. The Rye IPA, or RyePA/R.I.P.A., has only recently become popular among craft brewers, but is seeing fantastic reception from the beer drinking public. If you are interested in trying out one of the newest and fast-growing styles in the U.S. today, try any of the rye based beers below!

Bear Republic Brewing Company Hop Rod Rye
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Spicy, grainy, and citrusy with a comparatively less bitter finish than most American IPAs. Darker and maltier than most American IPAs but the rye also adds a certain spicy quality that using crystal or Munich malt does not. Refreshing but filling, the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye is best had as an accompaniment to a strong Indian or Thai curry or on a cool, fall night.

Schmaltz Brewing Company He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A.
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A fantastic Double IPA that incorporates rye to add more complexity, body, and flavor dimensions, all which take the overall beer to another level. Certainly a slow sipper, it’s incredibly long finish can sustain the palate for 5-10 minutes after a sip. Overall quite delicious and unique, the Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A is definitely worth adding to any DIPA pick six for a little variety and added malt character. This is a very strong, intense, and flavorful beer that is best enjoyed by itself as it will tend to overpower most food dishes.

New Holland Rye Hatter
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This is the most balanced of the RyePAs I have had thus far. With easily noticeable but not overwhelming spicy rye character, great American citrus/floral/piney hop regimen, and very clean, smooth, and dry finish, New Holland really knocked it out of the park with this one. This, like the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye, makes for a perfect food companion because it does not overwhelm the palate quite as much as the Schmaltz He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A.

Terrapin Rye Pale Ale
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An easy drinking and balanced beer with the best drinkability of the four suggested here that gets most of its flavor from caramel malt character and a slight spiciness from rye malt additions. With a moderately bitter finish but little discernible hop flavor or aroma, this Rye Pale Ale is a good one for those who aren’t hopheads but want to try a rye ale.

Beer and Food Pairing
Because rye ales have so much complexity of flavor, mixing bitter, toasty, citrusy, piney, floral, and spicy notes, these beers are quite versatile with food. However the best matches for them are strongly spiced foods like Indian, Pakistani, and Thai cuisine. One rule to bear in mind here is that chili or peppery heat, as is common in some of these dishes, is subdued by maltiness but accentuated by hoppiness. Thus, if you love scorching your tongue and breaking in a little sweat while you eat (like me!), then a particularly hoppy RyePA like the Bear Republic Hop Rod Rye would be perfect. However, if you are eating a dish that relies more on flavor spices that hot spices and you don’t prefer breathing fire across the table, then you are better off pairing a maltier RyePA like the Terrapin or New Holland. In addition to spicy foods, strong RyePAs pair perfectly with blue or stinky cheeses like Gorgonzola or Limburger, while weaker examples pair well with nutty and earthy cheeses like Asiago and Parmesan. Finally, RyePAs can take blackened seafood or herb crusted poultry to another level by complementing the spices and herb rubs used on the meat. RyePAs overall tend to pair much more effectively with foods than standard American IPAs because of the added malt complexity and subdued bitterness. So when you are having your next dinner party or are wondering what to order at a restaurant, consider the RyePA your ticket to culinary nirvana!

Counting In Dutch Made Easy: The Tripel

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If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a beer or two labeled as a “Tripel” and thought to yourself, “Triple the what? Alcohol? Hops? Fun? And why is it spelled so strangely?” Being the curious person I am, when I first saw this I immediately purchased one, and got straight on the internet to find out what this Tripel style was all about. That was 3 years ago, while I was still a student in college. Since that day, I have come to love this style for its well rounded malt flavor, exciting spice additions and yeast character, and, most of all, its versatility.

The Tripel is another Belgian style developed by the monks and popularized by the Trappist monastery at Westmalle. The name is in reference to the strength of the wort used to make the beer. In beer production, the brewer soaks the barley or other grains in hot water (a process called malting) to germinate the kernels and then stops the germination by blasting the barley malt with hot air (a process called kilning). How much the malt is kilned gives the beer its color. The palest lagers’ and hefeweizens’ wort is very, very lightly kilned while the darkest stouts are fully roasted to give the black color and roasty flavor. The malting process converts the starches of the barley into sugars while the kilning stops the barley from eating its own sugars to germinate and grow. This ensures the optimal levels of sugars remain in the malted barley for fermentation. Once kilning is complete, the malted barley is now called wort (pronounced wurt) which contains all the fermentable sugars the yeast will feast upon later in the brewing process to create the final beer. The Belgian monks devised a system of beer production based on different strengths of wort with gradually increasing fermentable sugars, achieved by using more and more barley in the production of the wort. They named their different strengths Singel, Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel in the native Dutch tongue.

The Tripel style, therefore, is among the strongest of the Belgian monastic brews. Usually ranging between 7.5%-9.5% ABV and 20-40 IBUs (International Bitterness Units), the Tripel is a golden and effervescent drink that embraces exotic spice and white sugar additions as well as aromatic and flavorful Belgian yeast fermentation by-products. Tripels are often display well rounded and soft pale malt body, with subdued hop bitterness and highlighted spice and yeast flavors like crushed black pepper and clove, citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, or bananas, and floral or perfumy hop aromas. Because of white sugar additions to the wort, the ABV is always surprisingly high for the medium body and easy drinkability. Most Tripels have a satisfyingly dry finish, especially among the Trappist versions, and are bottle-conditioned for added flavor, freshness, and durability. Overall, the Tripel style is a happy marriage of spicy , fruity, and alcoholic flavors supported by a soft pale malt character.

Tripels To Try

Chimay Tripel (White)
Pouring a golden amber-yellow with a thick, white, fizzy head and slight haziness, the Chimay Tripel exhibits banana and clove aromas and flavor with a soft pale malt backbone. Overall a fine Tripel but not quite as complex or deep in flavor as the Westmalle.

St. Bernardus Tripel
A delicious and easy drinking Tripel, that showcases spicy, fruity, and biscuity notes with a balanced finish. The St. Bernardus is more drinkable than some other Tripels but also not as complex. This beer makes for a perfect companion to food.

Westmalle Tripel
The original and, in my opinion, the best. Bearing a definite banana and clove flavor enhanced by a biscuity pale malt profile and spicy yeast phenols, the Westmalle deftly balances fruity, spicy, malty, and alcoholic flavors. Showcasing a dry finish but with some residual maltiness on the tongue, this beer is an experience all to itself.

Tripel Karmeliet
A great example of a finely crafted Belgian Abbey Tripel, exhibiting notes of clove and banana with soft pale malt character and heavy malt mouthfeel. Crisp, cleansing carbonation revives the palate for next gulp. The Karmeliet’s complexity coupled with its overall well-rounded-ness make it beguiling brew.

Allagash Tripel
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Light, zesty, fruity, and bubbly, this Tripel defies logic in its light-bodied-ness and supple flavors. Less malty on the drink but slowly building in prominence in the finish, the honey, light spices, and citrus flavors shine. Overall the Allagash is a nice and strong Tripel, but displays much more refreshing quality than most. It is very close to a Saison in body and citrus character.

Victory Golden Monkey
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A nice quaff, very drinkable and exhibiting tasty peppery/clovey Belgian yeast notes with medium pale malt biscuity-ness. It falls a little short of Trappist and Abbey Tripels by not incorporating as much traditional Belgian yeast character and a little too much citrusy-ness. However, the citrus notes displayed resonate well with the spice notes to make this a successful American interpretation of the Belgian classic.

Beer and Food Pairing
The Tripel style is magnificently versatile with food because it balances vastly different flavors. Because it exhibits citrus fruit, spice, pepper, and biscuit notes, the Tripel harmonizes with many different meats, grains, and pre-meal nibbles. If you are a seafood fan, try a Tripel with grilled or broiled swordfish, sea urchins, or octopus or with a hot bowl of bouillabaisse. Tripels also pair well with land creatures such quail, duck, goose, and rabbit, especially if dressed in a Tripel-infused sauce and served with lightly spiced risotto. If you think that wine is the only thing that can pair with pasta, you’re wrong! Tripels make delicious companions to cream based pasta dishes like Fettucini Alfredo or Pasta Carbonara, as well as pesto sauces. Continuing with the Italian themed meal, olives make terrific pre-meal nibbles when served with a Tripel. So the next time you are hosting big seafood, poultry, or pasta night, consider giving the tired white wines a break and try a Tripel!

The Belgian Behemoth: The Quadrupel

Have you ever had a juicy venison or wild boar steak with typical lager and thought to yourself, “There has got to be a better beer to go with this steak than this…” What about a dessert of rich chocolate truffles and wanted a beer to wash them down with, rather than wine? Or are you the type of person who walks into a room and immediately sizes up every guy there to find the biggest, baddest, toughest one and go pick a fight with him?

If any of these questions sound like you, then look no further than the Belgian Strong Dark Ale (Quadrupel) style as your selected target or tipple. The strongest and most complex of the Belgian ales, and on the same level of vigor and body as American Barleywines and Russian Imperial Stouts, the Belgian Strong Dark Ale, or Belgian Quad, is a formidable opponent, indeed. Ranging between 8.0-11.0% ABV and enough body to fill even the hungriest stomach (as was its original intended purpose), this behemoth packs more complexity than some of Einstein’s research papers on quantum mechanics. Ranging from dark brown to black with a beautiful tan head, Belgian Quads range from dry to sweet but always drop a malt-bomb on the unprepared drinker. However, once the initial malt shock wears off, vastly different and captivating flavors can be discerned. Belgian Quads are all unique, but can display caramel, toasty, or bready malt aromas with dark fruits like raisins, plums, black cherries, figs, or prunes noticeable. Layered on top of the malty and fruity base layer are peppery and spicy phenols (yeast by-products) as well as added spices like star anise or black pepper. Hops are very subdued in flavor and bitterness, so drinkers who don’t prefer excessive bitterness could easily enjoy this style. Belgian Quads are a style to be both feared and revered, cherished and coveted, but most of all, respected and enjoyed.

Beers to Try

Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue)
Malty, figgy, and raisiny, the Chimay Blue stands up with the best of the Quads although it differs in its mouthfeel. Slightly more carbonated than the other Trappist Quads, the Blue has a fizzier taste that makes it perfect to accompany rich or fatty foods because of carbonation’s ability to scrub the palate clean. Usually the easiest of the Trappist ales to find in the US, the Chimay Blue also makes for a great entry into the world of Belgian Quads.

Rochefort 10
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The Rochefort 10, the greatest and most alluring of the Rochefort ales, is further evidence why Trappist ales deserve their own special classification. With strong notes of dark fruits and slight spiciness from yeast to balance out the heavy dark malt bill, this beer packs a punch that will knock you off your barstool on the first sip. Rich and complex, the 10’s heaviness will leave you satisfied but the complexity will have you intrigued down to the last sip.

Westvleteren 12
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This is the Quad to end all Quads. An immediate dark fruit punch in the mouth with slowly developing dark malt and yeast character that somehow manages to stay medium bodied and a slightly dry finish. Although it is very similar in taste to most well made quads, its nimble body and drying finish take the Westy XII to another level. This is a malt bomb that is amazingly drinkable.

St. Bernardus Abt 12
This Abbey Quad pours a murky, coppery-brown with a thick off-white head exploding with fig, raisin, and date aroma, brown banana, and noticeable caramel and sugary sweetness. Nicely layered flavor that evolves through the drink with early malty caramel/nuttiness followed by fruity raisin and fig and finally finishing with a sweet, but not cloying, sugary finish. The sweet finish distinguishes the Abt 12 from the Trappist Quads.

Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel
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From the De Halve Maan (The Half Moon) Brewery in Bruges, Belgium, this Abbey Quad is the sweetest of the Quads presented here. A very strong and noticeably alcoholic drink with strong flavors of dark fruits and molasses, this beer’s incredibly long finish demands that it be enjoyed over a long period of time, and in small, but nevertheless delicious, sips.

Beer and Food Pairing
One of the major considerations to take when pairing beer and food is the natural progression of the meal as well as relative intensities of beers and foods. If serving a light viniagrette salad, a ferociously intense Belgian Quad is a poor choice– the beer will drown out the flavors of the salad completely. Similarly, if serving a heavy beer like Belgian Quad with an entree, be sure that the next course will have similar intensity, or else the beer and food will taste watery compared to what was previously imbibed. Beer “intensity” is a product of its roastiness, body, bitterness, strength, and other factors; basically, it is easy to tell when one beer is “bigger” or “more intense” than another just by using your own taste buds. If looking to pair a Belgian Quad, try it with any strongly flavored or gamey meat, like venison, wild boar, pheasant, or duck. If looking to sip a Belgian Quad slowly over dessert, look no further than rich chocolate truffles or cake– the richer the better!

A Tale of Two Styles: Trappists and Lambics


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.


Trappist Ales
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!

Belgium: Try Not To Drool Too Much, You’ll Look Like A Tourist

People travel for all sorts of reasons, but I have found that the basic motivation for travel is to indulge one’s favorite of the five senses. Some travel great distances to see historical buildings, art, or museums; some pack up nothing but swim suits and sun tan lotion to feel the sun and sand on their skin; some travel to hear music or speeches by the greatest artists or leaders today. Others, like me, travel purely to satisfy our basic sense of taste (and thereby, smell). In my travels over the last year, I can tell you that if epicurean travel is your idea of the perfect vacation, then look no further than Belgium. Belgium is a small country of only about 11 million people in Western Europe on the North Sea. Belgian culture and culinary prowess is a direct result of sharing its border with France, Luxembourg, Germany, and the Netherlands. The Belgian approach to food and drink combines the rusticity of the Dutch, the sturdiness of the Germans, and the finesse of the French. Dining in Belgium is truly a once in a lifetime experience.


Even more than food, the Belgians are known the world over for their brewing tradition. So gripping is the hold that beer has on food and culture in Belgium, the main style of food prepared is called biere de la cuisine. Home to thirteen original and officially recognized beer styles, plus the vastly diverse category of “Belgian Specialty Ales,” Belgium has a brewing tradition like no other country in the world. Such a rich and compelling brewing tradition comes by no accident or happy mistake. Due to ownership and control of the nation changing hands a whopping eighteen times between 1477 and 1830 (key years in the early development and skilled crafting of beer), the Belgian brewing tradition has adapted and absorbed the best of the brewing traditions of the rest of Europe. In addition, unlike Germany’s 1516 beer purity law called the Reinheitsgebot, Belgian brewers have been and continue to be totally free to experiment with any ingredients they choose. The result of this experimentation is the most diverse, dynamic, and sensational beer culture in Europe.


Sit down in a fine restaurant anywhere in the US and you will most likely be presented with an extensive wine list. The same is true in Belgium, except with a beer list. (There is even a bar in Brussels frequented called the Delerium Cafe, world record holder for most beers offered at one time at 2004 varieties! The beer menu is 256 pages long!) Belgian beers range from the palest yellow white to a brown so dark your eyes would have you believe you needed a knife and fork to dig ingest it. Belgians brew beers that are spicier than Indian curry, maltier than a greasy spoon diner milkshake, and sourer than week old milk (yes, you read that last one correctly!). While American brewers seem to be setting the curve now-a-days for pushing the envelope when it comes to innovative and strangely delicious beers, they are only following in the footsteps of the Belgians. If beers could talk, Belgians styles would say to American styles “Son, I’ve been doing this since before you were born.”

The styles for which Belgians are best known are:

Light and Fruity

Belgian Pale Ale

Tart and Acetic

Flanders Red Ale
Flanders Brown Ale/Oud Bruin
Straight (Unblended) Lambic
Fruit Lambic

Malty and Complex

Belgian Blond Ale
Belgian Dubbel
Belgian Tripel
Belgian Strong Golden Ale
Belgian Strong Dark Ale

In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is but one rule in the Universe: always bring a towel. The same is true in Belgium. You’ll need it when you start drooling uncontrollably over the best food and best beer in the world.

Real Ale: The Frankenstein of the Beer World

When I was a kid, I used to love watching cartoons, and one of my favorites was The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest. I remember well one day when my dad walked into the living room just in time to see the show going to commercial with the enthusiastically gruff voiced tagline, “The REAL Adventures of Jonny Quest will be back after this message…” To which he quipped, “Hm, I didn’t know the Jonny Quest cartoon I watched when I was a kid was fake…”

Such is the response of many Americans when they venture to jolly old England and see pub after pub advertising “Real Ales.” But never fear, just like Jonny Quest, this is not to say that the beers you might be familiar with should be called “fake” ale. No, real ale is a term reflecting the living nature of the beer in the cask. Stories differ, but some say that in the original version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein was actually drunkenly referring to his pint of real ale when he maniacally shrieked, “IT’S ALIVE!!!” That bit of literary history is debateable, but what isn’t is the criteria a beer must meet to be considered a real ale.

A real ale must be:

1. Brewed from traditional ingredients (malt, hops, water, yeast)
2. Matured through a secondary fermentation in the container from which it is dispensed
3. Served without the use of extraneous carbon dioxide

To make real ale, the brewer uses traditional brewing ingredients to create a product that is then placed in either a cask or bottles. Before sealing the cask or bottles, the brewer adds a little extra sugar and yeast to the beer. This primes the beer for a secondary fermentation to occur inside the sealed container. The live yeast eats the added sugar to create more alcohol and carbon dioxide inside the cask or bottle. This process continues until the seal on the container is broken, i.e. the cask is tapped or bottle opened. Because the beer is continually fermenting, and therefore slowly changing, inside the cask or bottle, it is said to be “alive.” In addition to adding yeast and priming sugar to the cask, oftentimes English brewers will add one last dosage of hops for flavor and finings for filtration.

American craft brewers are known for both challenging the outer boundaries of beer styles as well as hearkening back to the old styles with new re-creations. In recent years, more and more American craft brewers have begun to create real ale following traditional English practices. Ever looked closely at some of the nicer beers on the grocery store shelf and noticed the term “bottle-conditioned” emblazoned like a badge of honor for the beer? This means that there is live yeast actively conditioning (carbonating, strengthening, and subtly changing the flavor) the beer inside. Bottle-conditioned beers, like English Real Ales, are therefore “living” beers as well. Because of this brewing practice, these beers tend to age well. While the majority of beer is meant to be consumed fresh, some of the stronger bottle-conditioned ales and lagers, if kept in a cool, dry location, may be interesting to drink after significant periods of aging. The yeast continues to alter the beer over time and can result in a vastly different beverage one, five, ten, even twenty years in the future.

Ow’s Abou’a Nice, Warm Pint?
One common cultural misconception among Americans is that the British drink their beer warm. Some even believe beers are served with steam rising from the pint as if it were a hot cuppa! (Cup of tea = cuppa) However, warm is a relative term. The ideal temperature for any traditional keg is 38°F. Traditional kegs are pressurized with either CO2 or a CO2/N2 blend which allows the beer to be pushed from the keg through the beer line to the tap and into your glass. The keg is kept under constant pressure so that the CO2 dissolves into the beer, thereby artificially carbonating the beer to the brewer’s preference. After installing a draft system, a bar owner must take into consideration the distance and vertical climb the beer must take from keg to tap, as well as the brewer’s preference in the beer carbonation level, when pressurizing the system. Thus, draft systems must be meticulously kept to ensure the perfect pint.

Temperature is a major determinant of the carbonation level and balance of the entire draft system. Ever picked up a keg from the grocery store and taken great care not to jostle it on the drive home, only to find your beer pouring with six inches of head? This is largely due to the slight temperature rise the keg experienced during transportation. If a keg is heated above 38°F, the dissolved CO2 begins to escape from the beer, creating an overly foamy, or heady, beer. If a keg drops below 34°F, the CO2 cannot escape at all, creating a “flat” tasting beer. The ideal temperature to create a lovely ½ to 1 inch head is 38°F. Thus, even when you go to England, traditionally kegged beers are served cold.

However, real ales are not artificially carbonated! Thus, they are not subject to the same temperature stipulations of regular beers. Traditionally, real ale in Great Britain was brewed on premises and kept in the cellars of the various pubs around the country. These cellars were unrefrigerated. Because Great Britain has a much cooler climate than the US, publicans could depend on their cellars to remain between 50-60°F. To this day, real ales are kept in the old cellars of the pubs, and therefore served at a cool temperature—NOT warm or even piping hot. True, a pint of ale served at 55°F may feel quite warm when compared to a 38°F pint of lager, but in reality, British ales are not served nearly as warm as most Americans would believe.

So Where Can I Find Real Ale In the US?
Just because England is famous for real ales doesn’t mean you can’t try some in your own hometown. Increasingly, American craft and micro-breweries are releasing specialty cask ales for consumption at their breweries and brewpubs. Below are just a few of the breweries taking pride in recreating an English speciality in the good ole US of A.

1. Clipper City Brewing (Makers of Heavy Seas Beer) in Baltimore, MD
2. Hardywood Park Craft Brewery in Richmond, VA
3. Lagunita’s Brewing Company in Petaluma, CA
4. Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, MI
5. Peak Organic Brewing Company in Portland, ME

These are just a few of the major breweries who have invested in the real ale English tradition. If interested in trying cask ale elsewhere, contact your local brewery.