Joe Sixpack: Feestdag calls for a celebration of Belgian flavor

The Belgian flag.
The Belgian flag.
Posted: July 15, 2011

ON THE OCCASION of Belgian Independence Day, it's appropriate to contemplate: What makes a Belgian beer Belgian?

What? You didn't know that Belgian Independence Day is Thursday? Neither did I till I started getting news releases from Belgian beer importers and bars, announcing special brews and festivals to mark the occasion.

Turns out Belgium was once part of the Netherlands (for all of 15 years!). The citizens declared their independence after rioting over an opera (yes, an opera!), fought a quick revolution (it lasted 10 days!), then elected (yes, elected!) a king, who was crowned on July 21, 1831.

And for that they call it Independence Day? Well, no, the Belgies actually call it Feestdag, or Festival Day.

All of which, as I said, is appropriate grounds to consider the offbeat nature of Belgian beer.

It's not enough to define Belgian beer as any beer that's made in Belgium; that doesn't narrow it down at all. After all, there are more than a dozen distinct Belgian categories - from sour Flemish brown to sweet dubbel - that seemingly share little in common. A lambic tastes nothing like a witbier, which tastes nothing like a tripel, which tastes nothing like a farmhouse ale. Heck, even within the category of Trappist ales, you'll find thick, malty Rochefort 10 and hoppy, funky Orval. Duvel, Saison Dupont, Lindemans Framboise, Chimay, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden - they're all popular Belgian imports, but they hardly taste alike.

Yet, beer drinkers frequently refer to the Belgian beer as if it has a distinct, recognizable flavor.

What they're tasting, I think, is mainly the yeast - possibly the least understood of beer's main ingredients.

The microorganisms that convert sugar (malt) into alcohol and carbon dioxide also create chemical compounds known as phenols and esters. These by-products produce some of the telltale aromas and flavors that build the character of beer.

We don't notice these compounds much in mainstream lagers, because their "clean" yeast strains are cultivated to reduce their output. Ale yeasts, by contrast, are intentionally designed to produce high levels of esters, which typically have a fruity (apple, citrus, berry) aroma, and phenols, which have a spicy (clove, black pepper) character. Think about the banana aroma of a German wheat beer - that's the yeast at work.

Most commercially available Belgian yeast strains accentuate those compounds. Brewers then push them even further by raising the fermentation temperature.

To understand the impact of yeast, first taste Stone IPA. Now pour a glass of the California brewery's Cali-Belgique. The latter is essentially identical to the former, except that it is fermented with a Belgian yeast strain.

"The best way I can describe it," said Stone CEO Greg Koch, "is that Stone IPA is all about the citrus notes. Cali-Belgique takes that in a tropical direction. It's softer and fruitier.

"It's funny, because most beer advertising focuses on nonsense like 'clear, mountain spring water.' But this shows folks exactly how important yeast is to the whole process."

Indeed, the unique flavor of Belgian-style IPAs makes them the hottest new beer category in America. (Try Flying Dog Raging Bitch, Great Divide Belgica, Green Flash Le Freak, Flying Fish Exit 4, Victory Wild Devil) Now, Stone is doing the same thing with its Old Guardian Barley Wine and Imperial Russian Stout, bottling versions that were fermented with a Belgian yeast strain.

Taste any of them, and you're left with the distinct flavor of Belgium.

But what, exactly, is that flavor?

"That's a $10 question," Koch said. "It's a challenge to put your finger on it. It's a flavor that takes it on a big left turn from what we're used to. Sometimes the road is scenic; sometimes it's a bit bumpy."

* There's no better way to appreciate the flavor of Belgian beer (and honor the valor of Belgium's revolutionary operagoers) than to get out there and drink the stuff.

Tomorrow, from 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Johnny Brenda's (Frankford and Girard Avenues, Fishtown) hosts its annual Saison Brunch, featuring U.S. versions of the classic Belgian farmhouse style.

New York's Brewery Ommegang has created a special Belgian Independence Day Saison for the occasion. It'll be featured at several local celebrations in the next week, including:

Resurrection Ale House (2425 Grays Ferry Ave., Grays Ferry), Thursday, 6 p.m.

Iron Abbey Gastro Pub (680 N. Easton Road, Horsham), July 22, 7 p.m.

TJ's Restaurant & Drinkery (35 Paoli Plaza, Paoli), July 23, 7 p.m.

"Joe Sixpack" is by Don Russell, director of Philly Beer Week. For more on the beer scene, sign up for his weekly email update at www.joesixpack.net. E-mail: joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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