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The speciality beers from Belgium and Germany are some of the best, most characterful and most varied in the world. Nigel Huddleston tells you where to begin and gives you some hints on food-matching
As continental beers go, there are none finer than those from Belgium and Germany. Like whisky from Scotland or wine from France, these European neighbours produce beers with great character, diversity and longevity.
This series of features has already visited the country’s fruit and wheat beers, so here we’re going to look at other classic continental styles that fall outside those categories – beers that the industry has created the catch-all phrase ‘speciality beers’ to encompass.
This is because they are beers that defy categorisation along conventional flavour lines – clean and fresh lager or hoppy bitter ales.
Therein lies the beauty of both beer in general and continental speciality beers in particular. You can safely list many of the individual beers, or ranges from a particular brewery, safe in the knowledge that they deliver a versatility that will complement dishes as diverse as moules frites, cassoulet, steaks, fish, any number of pasta sauces, light and heavy puddings and the cheese board. First, though, let’s deal with some definitions.
Only beers produced by the seven designated Trappist monastery breweries (Chimay, Orval, De Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren and De Achelse Kluis in Belgium and the Dutch De Koningshoeven) are legally allowed to use the term Trappist on the label. Brewing is controlled by the monks of the order. These are not to be confused with abbey beers, whose origins lie in the ecclesiastical world but are now brewed under contract by commercial brewers using the old name. Leffe, is the best known of these.
As far as styles go, lambic beer is made through a process of spontaneous fermentation through yeast occurring naturally in the atmosphere, rather than pitching a yeast that has been cultured.
The sour beer style gueuze is a blend of young and old lambics, and faro is a sweetened lambic style. Saison is a term applied to seasonal summer beers, mainly from the southern part of Belgium.
Germany is best known for its lagers, but among the speciality styles is altbier, a copper-coloured, smoky, ale.
The term bock is increasingly used outside Germany, but is thought to be a derivation of the German town of Einbeck where the style – a strong, sweet, full-bodied lager – was reputedly first brewed.
Dopplebocks are stronger, while Eisbock has a higher alcohol level because the beer is frozen and the resultant ice crystals removed to create a more concentrated brew.
Dunkel simply means dark, while hell is pale. The prefix hefe means yeast, and denotes a secondary fermentation in the bottle – what would be called bottle-conditioned in the UK.
Kölsch is a style particular to Cologne – clean and fresh like a lager, though technically brewed like an ale.
This should be enough to get you started, but what do they taste like?
Key tasting terms: Tart, warming, fruity, spicy, full-bodied.
If it were a wine it would be: These are the aristocracy of the beer world – so a premier cru Bordeaux or top Burgundy.
What they are: Although there are other monastic traditions in brewing, those of the Trappist monasteries are the best known, with beer historically used to provide sustenance for travellers who lodged in them or sold to provide money to fund the monks’ work, as with other agricultural produce.
Trappist ranges tend to have a graded scale of alcoholic strength based on numbers (Rochefort 6, 8, 10), words (Westmalle Dubbel or Tripel) or colour (Chimay blue, red or white label). Generally, the body involved in these beers makes them the stuff for hearty stews, pies and casseroles. The fruitiness of some will work with puddings, though the tarter styles should steer clear of chocolate.
Orval 6.2% abv £1.25/33cl, James Clay, Beer Paradise, Beer Direct
Orval’s teardrop bottle looks great and has an easy bar-call to give it a head start, but the beer is pretty wonderful too. There’s apple and peardops on the nose, but also a grassy freshness and minerally dryness, which makes it ripe for white wine substitution.
There is enough acidity to cut through the oiliness of fleshy fish and a balanced, bittersweet flavour that could deal with the complexity of spicy seafood, such as prawns in garlic and ginger.
Key tasting terms: Fresh, crisp, clean, citrus, malty.
If it were a wine it would be: An off-dry Alsace white
What they are: Both in colour and flavour profile, blonde beer provides a safe first footing for drinkers graduating up from pilsner-style lagers.
They tend to be made with a medium- to high-roasted barley malt, which gives a sweet malty flavour, but usually offset by a hoppy bitterness. The overall effect is clean and fresh like the best lager but with more complex fruit and spice flavours.
Following the basic first principle of serving lighter beers with fish and white meat, the latter territory is where they tend to end up, but each beer has to be judged on its own merit.
It might be more useful to think in terms of when in the meal they are served, rather than what with; most aren’t so bitter that they’ll destroy the palate if served early, so they’re useful to put up front with starters, especially seafood.
Duvel (Blonde) 8.5% abv, £1.20/33cl, James Clay, Beer Paradise
This classic Belgian ale gives the lie to notions that strength equals darkness in beer. Its hazy yellow-green colour is reminiscent of of olive oil left in a cold store.
Don’t let that put you off, though, because this is fresh, clean and citrussy with a delicate hoppy bitterness. You know all those wines where the labels say great with fish, chicken and salad because they can’t think of anything else to say? Well, this beats the lot.
Key tasting terms: Full-bodied, creamy, malty, warming.
If it were a wine it would be: A dry, aromatic white.
What they are: Essentially, amber beers are blonde beers – only more so. They are copper or bronze in colour with a higher ratio of malty sweetness to bitterness, but without the roasted smokiness of many darker beers.
They are closer in character to many British ales than anything else here, but with the hops turned down.
Bière des Collines Quintine Ambrée 8.5% abv, £1.70/33cl, James Clay
We’ll spare you the full title – there’s enough information to rival any pre-reform German wine label. This has a brilliant malty, raisin-like nose and a quaffable, moreish melony sweet flavour, with a toffee flourish to end. It is one for the puddings, but its lightness of touch puts it at the light cheesecake and crème brûlée end of things. The flip-top bottle gives extra novelty value, or gravitas, depending how you look at these things.
Rodenbach Grand Cru 6% abv, £1.25/33cl, James Clay, Beer Paradise, Beer Direct
Do yourself a favour: before taking a sip, spend five minutes just savouring the aromas of this Rolls Royce of Belgian beers. It’s loaded with whiffs of vanilla, oloroso sherry, raisins, dates and almonds. That doesn’t really prepare you for the extraordinary sweet and sour flavours with not-very-subtle mineral and green apple elements. A no-brainer for the spicier end of the Chinese/Thai culinary axis.
Key tasting terms: Sweet, dried fruit, cloying, warming, smoky.
If it were a wine it would be: Sauternes or New World botrytis.
What they are: If your only experience of dark beer is an insipid mild that’s been stuck in the uncooled beer lines of a pub for a month in the summer, then you’re probably not going to be turned on by us saying these beers are warm, sweet and astringent.
You’re probably not going to believe how great they are unless you go out and find some to try. What keeps them onside is the way, as with great winemaking, the sweetness and smokiness are kept in balance.
With wine, it’s acidity that does the job; here it’s a restrained hoppy bitterness. The smoky edge makes for a good match with strong cheese and cured meats, though the toffee and fruit elements provide dessert options aplenty.
Weltenburger Kloster Asam Bock 6.9% abv, £1.30/50cl, Pierhead Purchasing
From a brewery that proves the Belgians don’t have the monopoly on the monastic brewing tradition, this ecclesiastical brew has a lovely chocolate brown colour, a rich, raisin and cherry-like nose.
Its sweetly-spiced fruit flavour puts it on the dessert menu, though its relative lack of bitterness gives it a freshness that could work well alongside salads with fruit-heavy dressings.
Editorial feature from Imbibe Magazine November/December 2007