Charles De Gaulle, who moaned about France, “How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheeses?” might have had a nervous breakdown running Belgium, which is smaller than Maine and has over 1,000 different beers.
A book on the subject, “All Belgian Beers” by Hilde Deweer is 1,568 pages long and weighs 3.4 pounds.
Try as I would to make a dent in the nation’s favorite beverage while on a trip to Antwerp, Ghent and Brussels last month, I came away only flabbergasted at the variety and styles of the brews there, each with its own signature glass.
There are amber, blonde, brown, champagne, sour, and strong ales, lambic and fruit beers, pale lagers, stout, white-wheat beer, winter varieties, and many more.
For a crash course, I headed to Antwerp’s De Groote Witte Arend (the great white eagle), set in a raftered, brick building, built in 1488 as a convent. Since 1976 it has been a beer hall/restaurant with a menu of 280 brews and hearty dishes like beef stew, mussels in a curry sauce, and eel baked in cream. I sampled beers that ranged from a mere 4.6 percent alcohol up to a whopping 9.2 percent.
What I found overall was the enormous difference between Belgian beers and most American brews, which are overwhelmingly bland lagers. At De Groote Witte Arend, I drank a Buffalo Bitter ale on draft, named after Buffalo Bill, whose circus once played in town and distracted a young beermaker enough to have him neglect stirring the beer, resulting in a very bitter brew, which this definitely is, with 9 percent alcohol.
I tasted a couple of monastery-made beers, that included Trappist Rochefort (9.2 percent), wonderfully wheaty and delicious with Belgian food. Hopus, made by Brasserie Lefebvre (which makes 24 other beers), was sudsy and luscious, bittersweet, dark and syrupy. But the most impressive beer of the evening -- voted “World’s Best Ale” at the 2008 World Beer Awards -- was Tripel Karmeliet, an earthy, very rich, piney-sweet concoction. Its maker, Bosteels, has been in the business for seven generations, since 1791.
In the beautiful and serene city of Ghent, I visited Gruut Gentse Stadsbrouwerij on the river (open to the public, with a cafe inside), owned by a young brewer named Annick De Splenter, who uniquely uses spices (gruit) rather than hops to make her five unfiltered, unpasteurized, slightly cloudy beers.
You can taste the faint flavors of spices like coriander and orange peel in her wheat beer, while her semi-sweet amber Old English Pale Ale is a gorgeous caramel color, with lots of rich complexity, a beer with 6.6 percent alcohol to be enjoyed all on its own, not slugged back at a pub.
Her brown ale has a lovely, spicy aroma and citrusy flavor with a long, nutty finish, while her Blonde (5.5 percent) is gently barleyed, similar to a good U.S. lager but with considerably more body.
Just as an experiment, De Splenter made a beer with hops, called Inferno, which shows how hops add the bitterness characteristic of most beers, but it lacked any other interesting flavors.
Brussels teems with pubs and beer brasseries, including one called Delirium Cafe -- on appropriately named Impasse de la Fidelite -- that lists more than 2,000 beers from all over the world, every one described in text, including Belgian Pink Killer, made from grapefruit.
No beer aficionado visiting Belgium can afford to miss the city’s museum of the Geuze, run by the Van Roy-Cantillon family since 1900, where the living microorganisms in the air cause the spontaneous fermentation of the traditional so-called Geuze lambic process, which begins with raw wheat, malted barley, and dried, three-year-old hops.
The beer is pumped into chestnut barrels, where the fermentation begins, during which carbon dioxide seeps out through the wood; thus, the beer is not oversaturated with the gas. The company claims its Greuze can age and improve for more than 20 years.
This range of beer styles impressed me not only in their numbers but in the many ways they can be enjoyed, as a thirst quencher, as an accompaniment to individual food -- not least cheeses, which go very well with slightly sweet beers -- or as an after-dinner drink.
Great Britain, Germany, and America’s craft breweries all make fine, interesting beers, but given the number made in Belgium, I’ve been converted to ferreting them out whenever I can find them. As one Belgian friend told me, “For Belgians beer is neither a religion nor an indulgence. It’s just good food.”
(John Mariani writes on wine for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)