As part of our “Field Trip” series, we’re following Avenue Pub owner Polly Watts and her staff as they get up close and personal with some of the best beer in Belgium. Here she digs deep into the best, and not so best, of Belgian beers.
BRUSSELS — Beer lovers tend to think of Brussels as Mecca, and even though I’ve been here multiple times I’m guilty of romanticizing the beer culture here. The fact is though, that there is just as much mediocre beer here as there is in the U.S. OK, that’s a VAST overstatement, but it is fair to say that the vast majority of places in the city don’t carry the tiny breweries that we support at the Avenue Pub every day.
We started our day with a brunch (they don’t call it brunch here) with a lovely omelette and croque monster. A Gueuze was on the menu, and, since we were nursing hangovers from the night before, we ordered it. (As an aside, a good Belgium Kriek is the best hangover remedy there is.) It’s low ABV, and I’m convinced that electrolytes from the cherries survive the brewing process. I really don’t want to know if I’m wrong, by the way, so you brewing experts can just keep that info to yourselves.
Explanation of lambic
The lambic and Gueuze that most beer geeks in the U.S. go crazy for are the result of spontaneous fermentation. For you beginners, that means that the brewer doesn’t add yeast but relies on the environment around the brewery to contribute that essential part of the process. Just like wine the terroir is a critical part of this. If your yeast is coming from your environment, it’s pretty important where environment is located. Also, this is an area that one can step into a land mine. You should never ever suggest that Gueuze or lambic can be made anywhere BUT the Senne valley. It’s sort of like calling sparkling wine Champagne when it’s not from the champagne region of France you will be dismissed out of hand.
Decades ago, many Belgian lambic breweries started adding sugar to their lambics and Gueuzes. While I don’t know why that trend started, I’m guessing it was to make a traditional craft more palatable to a wider audience. The upshot is that your average beer drinker thinks of lambic and even Gueuze as something sweet — some more sweet than others, but still sweet. While the majority of Belgian beer drinkers might know that fruit lambic and Gueuze don’t have to have sugar added, it’s been my observation that the sweetened versions are mostly what you see in the cafes. You have to seek out the places that sell beers like Cantillon, which s NOT sweetened. Is it because Cantillon is made in such small quantities or because the average Belgian/Belgian tourists are looking for the sweetened version? I’m not sure. (Likely, it’s a combination of both.) Even the fabulous beer-centric restaurant we went to last night was out of Cantillon.
At any rate, eggs (protein) and Kriek (electrolytes) is my recipe for hangover, so we ordered it without asking. Lindemans (of lindemans framboise) blends a lovely Gueuze without added sugar called cuvée Rene. They also make a Kriek without added sugar by the same name. My excitement of seeing Gueuze on the cafe menu (I mean how often does that happen in the States?) and the hangover haze meant I didn’t question the exact version. And the menu didn’t specify. What arrived was Lindemans sweetened Gueuze, which, along with several others, are standard Belgian cafe offerings. Also missing from most of the cafes was any sort of small craft brewery (local brewery de la Senne is almost as hard to find). Pay to play is legal in Belgium, so that surely accounts for some of the lack of small brewery offerings. It was late afternoon before I dragged my meandering group to Moeder lambic for what I knew would be an exceptional beer list. The thrill of seeing multiple de la sennes, Cantillons and de Rankes on the draft menu made the wait and the walk worth it. We even found a fabulous beer we hadn’t had before from Vervet. (You can be sure I’m already working on getting it for the Pub.) So as a friend of Belgian friend of mine so aptly said. You have to know where to go. Funny, I’d say the same thing about the U.S.!
Stay tuned later in the week for our Cantillon visit and the story about the $100 bowls of soup.