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Washington rally for Belgian beer

Colleen and MichaelDon't mess with Colleen Cannon (pictured with me at the right). She and her husband Tom are engineers for the U.S. Navy, and might just send a gunboat. Colleen, aged 35, was extremely angry ("pissed" was the word used) when various local stores, in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., reduced their selection of Belgian beers. She decided it was time for local beer-lovers to demonstrate their passion for such brews.

Hence the 2001 "Spirit of Belgium", organised by Colleen and her colleagues in the Washington club Brewers United for Real Potables. Once the word was on the net, enthusiasts flew in from as far as Baton Rouge, La., and Chicago, Ill.

The "Spirit of Belgium" was a weekend mini-festival. There were two distinct tastings, one featuring imports, the other highlighting Belgian-style beers made in America.

Among the two hundred tasters, many felt that the best Belgian imports had considerably more depth of character, complexity and individuality, while the American versions tended to be more formulaic, and heavy on the spices. Broadly true, but the Belgian beers have evolved over decades, and sometimes centuries. The Americans were seeking authenticity of style and, for myself, I enjoyed their robustness.

I was familiar with most of the Belgians, though I was impressed by one of the country's rare stouts, called Hercule (at a hefty 9.0 per cent alcohol by volume), from a farmhouse brewery in Ellezelles, south of Brussels. It tasted like licorice jelly-beans dusted with ginger, and had a real punch of alcohol in the finish.

Among the Belgian-style American brews, I enjoyed a lively, lemony, Tripel from the Legend Brewing Company, of Richmond, Va; a malty, long, Grand Cru from Virginia Beverage; a sherbety Saison from Capitol City's brewpub in Shirlington/Arlington; a fruity-spicy Belgian Strong Ale from Sweetwater, in Merrifield; and a refreshing, complex, gingery, Tripel from Rock Bottom in Bethesda, Md.

The heart and soul

The event also included a seminar, in which the highlight for me was a presentation on Belgian yeasts by Chris White. His company, White Labs, of San Diego, Ca, provides yeast both for homebrewers and professionals, and contributed to the character of many of the beers at the event.

The particular importance of yeast selection in Belgian beers was highlighted by speaker Bill Covaleski, of the Victory brewery, in Downingtown, Pa. He talked of yeast as "the heart and soul" of these brews. The brewery's products include the renowned Golden Monkey Tripel. Garrett Oliver, of the Brooklyn Brewery, N.Y., spoke of his "abject terror" at being required to brew a Belgian Witbier. In the event, his Blanche de Brooklyn won a gold medal in the World Beer Cup.

The much-admired Ommegang Brewery, in Cooperstown, N.Y., contributed speaker Don Feinberg. The brewery, which he runs with his wife Wendy Littlefield, specialises in Belgian-style beers (It was recently featured on the Beerhunter website). Don talked about the role of such American breweries in promoting awareness of Belgian imports.

He also addressed the difficulty that brewers face in marketing speciality beers aimed at the connoisseur. These were niche products in an industry accustomed to very high volumes. They therefore needed to offer higher profit margins in order to be worthwhile to distributors. This was why, after early enthusiasm, Belgian brews had retreated slightly in the American market. If they were to gain greater distribution, speciality brews had to be regarded as the beer world's answer to "fine wines", with a more commensurate price differential.

Just how wild?

Later, Don and I were among the judges in a competition for home-brewed Belgian-style beers. From 125 entries, we judged ten finalists, each in a different style. I particularly enjoyed a fruity Saison, and both of us were enormously impressed by an Oud Bruin (reminiscent of the rare Oud Zottegems), but we finally settled on a very tart Lambic (very much in the style of Cantillon) as best of show. Local home-brewer Brian St Clair had made his first visit to Belgium, and bought some very rare Lambics (including one from a long-gone blender). He had cultured yeasts from them, and, as an added element of nature, used wild hops picked in the Platte Valley of Colorado. "The hardest part was worrying about bears and mountain lions," he said. "They had both left evidence of their presence."

That puts into a new context the "earthy" aromas of Lambic.

Happy winner
And the winner is ... brewer Brian St Clair takes center stage, with Don Feinberg and Michael Jackson.

Published: JAN 22, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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