In Flanders Fields

Imageby Mark Tichenor

I write this column with a bellyful of giddy anticipation about attending Brewery Ommegang’s annual Belgium Comes to Cooperstown festival. Of course, by the time you read this, Belgium will be on an Airbus A330 headed home. Still, the excitement is focusing my attention on Belgian beer, and how, curiously, we Americans are starting to take it for granted.

Not long ago Belgium, a nation in which you could see from one border to the other with a good pair of binoculars, was the giant of the beer world. Out of its abbeys, town breweries and farmhouses poured more individual, strange and diverse brews than anywhere else on the planet. Before the craft brewing movement gathered steam, American beer lovers widely considered the Belgian stuff to be the finest in existence.

It stayed that way for a long time, mostly because American craft brewers were crap at copying Belgian beer styles. But then some things happened. Instead of doing the sensible thing and giving up, brewers kept trying to make Belgian beer. Equipment got better, so did yeast and hop strains. Eventually, our small breweries did to Belgian Beer what Japanese electronics companies once did to American TV manufacturers: They beat them out of the market with beers that ranged from almost as good to better, and generally with a much gentler punch to the lucky drinker’s wallet.

Being the creative little devils that they are, some craft brewers took Belgian style cues and ran with them, conjuring up entirely new hybrid styles like Belgian IPA, in which spicy Belgian yeast and extreme Pacific Northwest hoppiness marry so well that breweries in Belgium started producing examples of their own.

Some US breweries make only a halfhearted stab at Belgian styles, but others, such as Lost Abbey and Brewery Ommegang, do nothing else, and thrive in rarefied territory at the top of the luxury beer chain. A quick peek at their facilities indicates that these brewers are not starved for business o r revenue.  

So now, Belgian brews are on the beer lover’s back burner here in the USA. We’re so inundated with choice, novelty and marketing stuntage that there’s less reason to look overseas than ever before.

And yet, it can’t be said that Belgian beer is rendered irrelevant. The country’s unique geography and tradition still allow for the creation of beers that can’t quite be duplicated on these shores, and, for some styles (sour ales and lambics, for example), American brewmasters have very much to learn.

Thus, there will always be a place for the beers of Belgium and American beers brewed to Belgian style guidelines to coexist and actually complement each other. The alluring hint of spice in an American-made tripel or witbier might pique a drinker’s curiosity enough to delve into the imported stuff, read the stories, learn the history, and find a new, impossibly small world of big beers merely one ocean away.

Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to beercraft@rochester.rr.com.

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