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Nov 24, 2014

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American Beer Month: 2000 Tasting
Belgian-style ales

by Stephen Beaumont

Hey beer drinkers, it's American (sic) Beer Month! Yippee!

But you probably already knew this. The reason that you're being invited to these on-line tastings is because somebody -- I've read most of the press releases and I'm still not sure if it was Bill Clinton or Charlie Papazian who declared the event -- decided that July should be a month devoted to American (sic) beer. The kick-off took place on July 1, and as you may have read in RBP Mail, it featured a bunch of brewery reps gathered on the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum to recite the following pledge:

On my honor, I do hereby pledge,
That for the month of July I will celebrate the breadth and diversity
Of the beers and ales of the United States of America.
That I will recognize the heritage, tradition and future of brewing in our republic,
And that I will savor the flavor of American made beer
Responsibly, moderately and exclusively.
Hail to beer, America's beverage!

Well, actually no. Beer is not "America's beverage." Beer was the drink of ancient Egypt, the Amazon, Africa, the British Isles, Germany, Belgium, and even France and Greece long before it was the drink of the United States of America. And let us not forget that even in the New World the Yanks were laggards; the oldest brewery in these parts is in Canada, not the States.

So beer is the world's beverage, not America's. Having established that, I should add that despite appearances and popular beliefs to the contrary, the United States is not America. It is part of North America, certainly, even a portion of the Americas, but not the whole land mass unto itself.

On the basis of these two premises, I have selected four ales for tasting today, all inspired by some of the great beers of Belgium and all brewed in North America. Which is to say that three of them hail from breweries in the United States and one from a Canadian brewing company. Together, they make a pretty impressive quartet.

First up is Celis White, a traditional Belgian-style wheat beer from the Celis Brewery of Austin, Texas. The flagship beer of the brewery established by Belgian brewing legend Pierre Celis, the Celis White created its first waves in U.S. brewing circles when it made its debut at the Great American Beer Festival of 1992. There, brewers from all over gathered at the Celis booth the sample this beer's wonderful mix of fresh coriander aromatics and a soft, citric body. (My notes from that tasting emphasize the mellowness of the orange notes in the flavour.)

Later, Celis generated more buzz on the U.S. beer scene when Pierre sold a majority interest in his brewery to Miller in 1995. Soon thereafter, some tasters began to argue that the beer had changed in character, and while it is all too tempting to chalk up such fears to big brewery paranoia, there did seem to be some validity to the claims. In notes from 1997 and 1999, I observed that the orange character of the beer had become more pronounced, perhaps in response to the arrival in the U.S. market of the more coriandered Hoegaarden from the Belgian brewing giant, Interbrew.

The Celis Brewery is now 100% owned by Miller and, if the paranoids are correct, that could spell bad things for the White down the road. But then again, perhaps Miller will realize that they have a well-balanced, surprisingly complex gem on their hands and leave it be. Only time, I suppose, will tell.

(One note on North American white beers: The day before writing this review, I happened by coincidence to open a bottle of the limited release Witbier from Vancouver, British Columbia's Granville Island Brewing and was delighted by what brewer Mark Simpson had accomplished. This highly spicy white is light and refreshing, as a white beer should be, but also packed full with enough flavour to be a very rewarding glass of beer. All in all, I thought it deserving of inclusion in any list of impressive North American whites.)

The next beer up is Rare Vos, the third and most recent offering from the Brewery Ommegang of Cooperstown, New York, and in my estimation, their most laudable brand.

Billed as a "Brabant Ale," the 6.5% alcohol Rare Vos doesn't really remind me of anything I've come across in Belgium, save perhaps for a small family resemblance to a lighter version of Duvel. (Moortgaat, the company that brews Duvel, is a part owner in Ommegang.) Said resemblance is manifested primarily in the pear-ish notes that I pick up in the aroma and, to a more limited degree, in the body. Also in the nose I find peppery spice with some faint notes of fig, while the moderately refreshing body provides more spice (cinnamon and allspice) and dried fruit, including apple, fig and date.

Once I added the yeast from the bottle to my glass -- like all of Ommegang's beers, Rare Vos is bottle-fermented -- I noted that the spice was accentuated at the expense of the fruit, which could be good or bad depending on how you feel about such things. Certainly on the positive side was the fact that, through the yeast addition, the slightly cloying finish of Rare Vos became both drier and spicier, which I thought improved the ale's strong overall appeal.

Ommegang co-owner Don Feinberg likes to characterize his beers as "special occasion ales," brews not for the everyday but for mealtimes or situations where you desire something special. And where Ommegang Ale and Hennepin, the brewery's two stronger offerings, are concerned, I would agree. But I think that Feinberg is wrong about Rare Vos -- it would be a welcome beer in my home any day.

The third beer in this tasting is the Canadian offering: the 8% Maudite from Unibroue of Chambly, Quebec. (For travellers wishing to visit the brewery, the modest town of Chambly is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River about 30 minutes by car away from Montreal.) A tough beer to pigeonhole, Maudite is probably best characterized as a strong, spicy abbey-style dubbel.

But even that description fails to do justice to this marvellously complex ale. Unibroue's brewers do employ spices in its brewing, that they will admit, but what spices? Do the clove notes in the aroma come from added spice or the magical interplay of yeast, hops and malt? And what of the cinnamon? The allspice? The coriander?

As much as the aroma of this fine ale sets my mind to working and my mouth to watering, it is in the flavour that it truly comes together. Chocolate notes combine with spice and hints of green apple and other fruit to create an immensely satisfying brew that is frighteningly drinkable for one so strong. (Perhaps that is why a friend of mine once characterized Maudite as a Belgian-style ale with a Quebecois accent.) In addition to being one of my favourite domestic beers for enjoying with cheese, Maudite is a great with barbecued steak, a cigar or on its own after a meal.

The last beer in the tasting comes from a brewery that has Belgian influence in not only its beer styles, but also its name: the Trippel from the New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado.

At 8.5% alcohol, the New Belgium Trippel is a half percent weaker than the classic Westmalle Tripel, but actually tastes stronger, a curiosity to be attributed more to the extraordinary character of the Westmalle beer than to any shortcomings of the New Belgium ale. The nose has wonderfully fragrant florals (from the saaz hops) along with peppery spice, notes of orange oils and a distinct whiff of alcohol. In the taste, the Trippel continues its aggressive ways, with notes of tangerine up front and lots of spice and red apple in the middle.

The alcohol that is so evident in the aroma shows up about half way through the taste and lingers right through the finish, giving the New Belgium Trippel more in common with a double shot of whisky than, say, a Belgian white. In fact, so intense and warming is this beer that I was prompted to describe it in my tasting notes as "a formidable 'barley wine' of a tripel." A good dose of finishing hops dries and bitters the long aftertaste.

I would be tempted to say that the Trippel deserves to be held back as an after-dinner digestif or late night sipper except for one quirk of coincidence. The day of my second tasting of this beer, I elected to finish the bottle with my lunch of a peanut butter and wild blueberry jam sandwich. For reasons I haven't even begun to try to figure out, the two tastes complemented one another beautifully!

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