A Rich Bouquet Of Belgian Brews

No one really knows how many kinds of beer Belgians make. Estimates range as high as 800, but even conservative guesses of 400 are impressive for a country of just 10 million people. Raspberry beer, wheat beer, red beer, golden beer, 12%-alcohol beer, beer made with grapes, beer made in abbeys, beer laced with spices, dark Christmas beer--you name it, and Belgium seems to brew it. As Englishman Michael Jackson, who has written extensively on Belgian beer, puts it: "The reverence reserved for wine in most countries is in Belgium accorded to beer."

Some of that reverence is now being imported to the U.S., the new boom market for Belgium's 100 breweries. But in America, don't look for common pilsners, such as Stella Artois or Jupiler, the leading brands in Belgium, where pilsners account for 70% of the sales. Belgian brewers don't like to go head-to-head with such established pilsners as Heineken. But the main reason is that the real hot sellers in New York, Chicago, San Diego, San Francisco, and other U.S. cities are "specialty" Belgian beers--typically $10 a six-pack.

ALE AND HEARTY. If you're happy with Budweiser, Miller, or other watery, mass-produced U.S. pilsners, Belgium's specialty beers may not be for you. But if you see beer as an aperitif, an accompaniment to dessert, an alternative to brandy, or a tasty ingredient in such dishes as steamed mussels and braised beef, Belgium has the brews.

America's appetite for Belgian beers has been sparked in part by the rise of U.S. microbreweries and the growing popularity of quality domestic beers such as Samuel Adams, says Don Feinberg, who runs Vanberg & DeWolf in Cooperstown, N.Y., one of a growing number of importers of Belgian beer. Feinberg says his job of selling to distributors has gotten easier, as Americans have become less rigid in their taste.

If you want to take the plunge, a primer on Belgium's leading beer types may help. Lambic is wheat beer, rather than one made from the traditional hops-and-barley recipe. It is fermented in small breweries in the Senne valley just south of Brussels, where airborne wild yeast is allowed to float into the wheat mash through the roof slats, promoting spontaneous fermentation. Straight lambic beers, sold under such names as Belle-Vue, have little or no carbonation and are very dry.

Gueuze, such as Alken-Maes' Mort Subite brand, is a blend of young and old lambics made with two or more fermentations. Kriek, made by breweries such as Liefmans, is a blended lambic that has had cherries, strawberries, or raspberries added. It's often served in champagne flutes as a before-dinner drink. In fact, each brand uses a special glass, which Belgian bartenders can supply. Rodenbach's Grand Cru red beer takes a stemmed glass like that used for Burgundy. Orval's abbey-style Trappiste is served in a chunky-style goblet, similar to those used by monks in the Middle Ages.

Faro beer contains sugar or caramel for a "sweet and sour" taste. White beer such as Interbrew's Hoegaarden has an aroma like honey, derived from its combination of wheat, oats, Curaao orange peels, and coriander. Brown beer like that made by Liefmans is close to an old English ale. Saisons are low-alcohol, orangy beers made in the Wallonia region of Belgium in the summer or harvest seasons. Golden ales such as Duvel have an 8.2% alcohol content by volume, so don't be fooled by the pale-gold color into thinking you're trying just a standard 4.5% pilsner.

RAFT OF DRAFT. For beer lovers who visit Belgium, a must stop is the museum at the Brewer's House, No. 10 on Brussels' famous Grand Place. Less formal and more fun might be a visit to a typical Belgian bar, where you'll find dozens of brews on tap and sometimes more than 100 in bottles. Brussels' Moeder Lambic (68, rue de Savoie) has 28 draft pumps.

For more information, scan some books by Michael Jackson. Impmrter Feinberg, who would like consumers to make the connection between the sophistication of wine and that of beer, sells about 5,000 copies a year of Jackson's The Great Beers of Belgium ($28; Coda, Antwerp). Also look for Jackson's The New World Guide to Beer ($23; Running Press, Philadelphia). As Feinberg says about Belgian beer: "The more you know, the better it tastes."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.