By Kevin Patterson and Tres Watson
If the journey of a thousand miles does indeed begin with one step, then it may only take a short, beery stroll before the palate is met with the flavor of the highly specialized and extraordinary world of Belgian ale. While it may start with flavors of Coors Blue Moon with an orange wedge firmly affixed to the edge of a class or the honey-like taste of Leffe Blonde, the taste buds slowly demand more. And you’re not alone. Even the highest regarded culinary critics quickly become seduced by the supple succulence of the dry and semisweet flavors of these masterfully sculpted beers with complex and systematic layering of dry fruit flavor, peppery spice and restrained hop balance; and they will easily agree that these artisinal brewers are undeniably making the best beers in the world.
Perhaps it’s their unique and tumultuous history wartime, medieval preservation, monastic influence, patient craftsmanship, farmhouse pride and commingling with France to their south that grounds these brewers and opens them up to inspiration. Although the cuisine is insistent on French influence, Belgian culture takes itself far less serious, albeit placing priority on high art and craft. While a menu of beer will greet the dinner table far sooner than the wine offerings, there’s also comfort in their national entree of steamed mussels and pommes frites- that’s right, French fries! It’s really no surprise that their quirky charm and quiet calm extends deep into the brew kettle. So put away the passport and unpack the suitcase because were taking a trip around Belgium without leaving your glass.
So, how’s that Blue Moon going for you? Feel free to step up your beer game and graduate into the fine perfumy refreshment of Hoegaarden. Pronounced “Who-garden,” this Belgian-style wheat beer, called witbier, is an unflappable choice that soothes the palate with a soft pillow of mild baking breads, powdery wheat and mild acidity. Seduction of the palate continues with the rounded spice of coriander and curacao orange peel that carries the lemony body into a finish of crispness and cleanliness. And at fewer than 5 percent alcohol, the session with friends underneath a summer’s umbrella can go one more round.
But with its rustic charm, supreme dryness and champagne-like effervescence, perhaps a traditional farmhouse ale is more your style. These summer seasonal ales, known as saisons, are the most rapidly growing style of Belgian ales and Fantome Hiver shows just why. Dry fruit flavors of earthen lemons, ripe apples, Japanese pears and slightly under ripened berries bounce off of its wafer-like bread sweetness while balancing delicately against the yeasty spice of freshly ground peppercorn, corkish must and winy alcohols. With fortified alcohols that extend to 5 percent, the spirited effects may seem a worthwhile deviation from dry Chardonnay and sparkling wines.
But then if the curious palate isn’t finished with its Belgian expedition, then the big guns are pulled. May I introduce the regal Chimay Grand Reserve. Originally offered only during the holiday season as Christmas seasonal ale, its popularity nudged the brewing monks at the popular Chimay Trappist abbey to change the label and offer it every day. Not only settling at 9 percent in alcohol, the dark candied fruit flavors might remind the taste buds of flavors you last revisited when you were nine years old. The fruited juice of plumbs, raspberries, raisons, dates and figs all seem to be sprinkled with powdered sugar. But then the more mature taste of vinous woods, Sherries and acidic grape tartness balance the fruit and sweet malt taste in the absence of hop bitterness. Yet still, additional complexities of black peppercorn, light cumin, and nutmeg waft over the palate with new impressions of flavor with each and every sip.
Maybe plane tickets aren’t in order, but perhaps the car keys can help. In preparation of the perfect Belgian experience, allow for a first course of summer salad with generous proportions of ripe fruits, goat cheese, and light vinaigrette to become awash with the Hoegaarden witbier in complement. Followed by a fragrant white wine reduction with linguini, salmon, and capers in the middle course continue to marry the flavors of Fantome Hiver while the bubbly carbonation and restrained bitterness lifts the oils from the mouth and usher in refreshment to allow each bite to taste as bright as the first. Then the crescendo of fruited cobbler with vanilla bean ala mode seemingly melts into the rich Chimay Grand Reserve for a dovetail of flavor that will cause guilt why you have never considered beer and desert pairings before. Hopefully this taste of Belgium has scratched that itch for at least the day, but if the froth-forward chance ever crosses your path, I would recommend that you see for yourself.
Kevin Patterson is the resident beer guide and manager at the Beer Trappe on Euclid Avenue. He is an Army veteran and formerly worked in the architecture profession before taking his love of craft beer into the occupation ranks. Patterson also is a nationally ranked Beer Judge Certification Program beer judge and a Cicerone Certified Beer Server (Cicerones are to beer what sommeliers are to wine.) Throughout the course of his career, he has reviewed 2,800 different beers, judged in more than 100 competitions and festivals, and co-written many articles on the beer culture. He has lived in Lexington for 17 years.
Tres Watson, a graduate of Centre College, is a senior account representative at Peritus, a public relations firm. Before moving to Lexington, he created and directed the 2004 Border Beer Bust in Augusta, Ga., which featured nearly 200 beers and drew 5,000 attendees over two days. Watson is an avid beer drinker and a particular fan of IPAs. He and his wife, Laura, live in Lexington, are members of the Lexington Beer Aficionados, and can frequently be found at Pazzo’s or the Beer Trappe.