If someone asked you to name all the European countries you could think of, how quickly would you get to Belgium? I suspect it wouldn’t be in your top ten–maybe somewhere late in the top 20 (by then you’d be hitting the freak countries, like Moldavia and Montenegro). And if you were then given a quiz on Belgium, how much do you think you’d know about it? For instance, what language do Belgians speak? (Answer: Flemish—almost identical to Dutch, and French). Come to think of it, do you have any Belgian friends, or even know somebody who has Belgian friends?
Strangely, our knowledge of this wealthy Western European country is extremely limited. Most of us have heard of the capital, Brussels (the city for which the infamous and disgusting “sprout” is named), and have eaten Belgian waffles or Belgian chocolates. That’s a pretty slim repertoire for the country that is the capital of the European Union, has one of the highest quality of life ratings in the world, and is home to a spectacular variety of beers that could arguably blow the doors right off most brew-smug countries.
In beer-drinking circles, Belgium is reputed to have one of the most interesting, varied, and high-quality selections of beer in the world. In fact, Michael Jackson wrote a book devoted entirely to the beers of Belgium. Yet we tend to be about as aware of Belgium’s beer as we are of the country in general. Why? Well, some of the things I’ve read about Belgium suggest that while Belgians are very open-minded, live-and-let-live people who place high priority on education, quality of life, and, of course, good beer, the national character is a humble one, with little nationalistic pride and an aversion to risk.
In short, Belgium doesn’t really advertise itself a lot.
Fortunately, my friend Maura (wife of Justin—see Pilsner Urquell review) has developed a sort of “jones” for Belgian and Belgian-style beers, and at a recent barbecue handed me a terrific Belgian white beer called Hoegaarden.
Hoegaarden (pronounced “who-garden”) is named after the town in Belgium where it was first brewed in 1445. It’s in the family of white beers, so named because they are not filtered and have a cloudy appearance. White beer is also brewed with equal parts barley and wheat, and is top-fermented—a combination that gives the beer a “sour” quality. The sourness, however, is nicely offset by the addition of coriander (oddly, a spice often used in Indian food!) and dried Curacao orange peel. The result is an outstanding mixture of subtle flavors that I’ve never come across before. (I tend to stay away from “spiced” and weirdly flavored beers, because I feel they lose their “beery” character. Not so in this case!) The brewers at Hoegaarden are apparently proud of this “sweet-sour” quality, which they tout on the beer’s packaging.
One Belgium beer website I looked at stated that there is a different kind of glass for every style of Belgian beer. Hoegaarden recommends an octagonal glass with a wide mouth. I’m not sure what the octagon is all about. Could be it just looks pretty that way. However, you will want a wide-mouthed glass (like a pint glass) to allow you to catch all the subtle aromas and flavors. (You really do lose a lot if you drink from the bottle.) The instructions on the bottle say to pour 2/3 of the contents into a glass, swirl the remaining 1/3 in the bottle and pour on top to create a nice creamy head. It works! Also, be sure not to drink it too cold. This one only needs to be “cool.”
One drawback I’ve seen with most Belgian beers is its impact on your wallet, and Hoegaarden is no exception. You have to think of it as you would a wine, I suppose. This brew’s for tasting, not chugging, and well worth the investment.
I’m sure the Belly will be checking out some more Belgian beers in the future. Until then, congratulations—you can dazzle your friends with plenty of Belgium trivia at the next party!