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“This tastes like the spring classics,” he said, as we clinked our goblets of Leffe Blonde. My friend recounted his travels across Belgium, waxing poetic about the abundance of delicious beers served in giant tents to race spectators. His tales of pommes frites, grimacing racers whizzing by, and endless liters of strong ale made me pine to live in such a wonderful place. And then it dawned on me: I already do.
Words: Alex Boone
Images: Tim Schamber
The American beer revolution is upon us. Thanks to the hard work of a handful of pioneers over the past 20 years, good beer is finally available to the masses. Major grocery stores stock double IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts alongside cubes of tasteless, yellow macro-brew (many of which, ironically, are owned by a Belgian company). Restaurants serve locally-brewed craft beers on tap, and proudly list their bottle selections in the same leather-bound notebooks once reserved for wines.
Best of all, the spirit of American ingenuity has resulted in a myriad of beer styles to enjoy—some distinctly our own, such as the heavily hopped India Pale Ales from San Diego, while others, in a nod to tradition, are brewed in the classic European style. The result is an overwhelming selection of producers and varieties from which to choose—a fun challenge for self-proclaimed beer nerds, but often a chore for the recreational sipper.
So, what to drink? In the spirit of the spring classics like Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, hearty Belgian-style beers are a natural fit. (Save the dry-hopped IPAs for watching the Tour on a warm July evening.) Toast to our countrymen racing on European cobbles with any of these four beers brewed on this side of the pond.
Epic Brewing Company:
Utah Sage Saison
Salt Lake City, Utah
Release #3, 7.5% abv
Epic offers an aromatic twist on the beer traditionally brewed for consumption by Walloon field hands during hot summer months. Utah Sage Saison pours a hazy gold with visible carbonation and a dense two-finger white head that leaves lacing along the sides of the glass as it recedes. The first whiff is overwhelmingly of white sagebrush, evoking the feeling of standing in the Eastern Sierra Nevada on a warm August afternoon. Spicy, earthy notes and a hint of unripe apricots emerge as the beer opens up in the glass. The first taste brings Meyer lemon peel and spicy sage, followed by an earthy streak mid-palate. Medium body and lively carbonation keep this beer light on its feet and true to the thirst-quenching style. The finish is long and dry with a beautiful sage note that lingers for close to a minute. Overall, this strikes a lovely balance between malt, hop and herb flavors, and would pair beautifully with an aged white cheddar or butternut squash soup.
Release: May 25, 2012, 11% abv
Allagash have combined a distinctly American beverage—bourbon whiskey (or more specifically, barrels that once contained bourbon)—with a Trippel, a strong golden ale whose notable Belgian examples are brewed by monks within the walls of Trappist monasteries. Curieux pours a cloudy straw color with a rocky, one-finger white head that quickly fades into delicate lace. The nose reveals aromas of caramel and vanilla up front, followed by pear and toasty almond croissant. As the beer warms, subtle hints of sweet, boozy bourbon come forward—just enough to remind you of its eight weeks spent in used Jim Beam barrels, but never overpowering the overall balance of the beer. Rich, toasted coconut flavors coat the mouth upon the first sip, followed by baking spices, pear and earthy noble hops. As with the nose, the bourbon flavor increases as the beer warms, but stays true to its delicate, feminine style. Curiuex is rich and full-bodied but manages to hide its 11% abv extremely well, thanks to the dry finish and fine carbonation. This is an absolutely stellar example of what barrel-aged beers have to offer. It would serve as a perfect aperitif with triple cream brie, or for dessert with an apple tarte tatin.
The Bruery: Tart of Darkness Placentia, California
2012 release, 5.6% abv
Since their inception in 2008, The Bruery have quickly made a name for themselves with their assortment of style-bending interpretations of European beers. Tart of Darkness draws from the traditional Oud Bruin barrel-aged Flemish sour, but is made with the grain bill of an American stout. Special strains of bacteria and wild yeast are used to ferment this beer, whose presence would otherwise be considered a fault in most commercially available styles.
Tart of Darkness shows a nearly opaque reddish brown, with a fizzy beige head that quickly diminishes to a ring of bubbles at the edge of the glass. Strong aromas of tart cherries and red wine vinegar leap from the glass, while a more subtle Concord grape note lingers in the background. Bittersweet cacao and tiramisu come forth as the beer warms. Mouth-puckering sour cherry floods the palate once the beer hits your lips, giving way to an earthy component reminiscent of a warm, dusty barn. Cacao, oak tannins and a juicy vinous element emerge after several minutes in the glass. The beer finishes bone dry with a tart, acidic zing that lingers for well over a minute. Light body, effervescent carbonation and modest ABV make this a good candidate for a Friday afternoon quaff, and would pair nicely with a prosciutto and aged gruyere panini.
March 2011 release, 7.5% abv
Sierra Nevada’s iconic Pale Ale is the beer that introduced many to aggressively hopped “West Coast” craft ales. It’s fitting that the brewery responsible for changing many Americans’ taste in beer pay homage to Belgian tradition with an abbey-style Dubbel, brewed in collaboration with the Trappist monastery Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. This division of Sierra Nevada, dubbed Ovila, produces Belgian-style ales, including a saison, strong golden ale and quadrupel.
Ovila Dubbel pours a rich copper color in the glass, with orange highlights and an off-white one-finger head that fades slowly. A steady stream of champagne-like carbonation rises from the bottom of the glass, thanks to the secondary fermentation that took place in the bottle, plus—at the time of tasting—nearly two years of cellaring. The nose reveals rich aromas of brown sugar, prunes, fruitcake and sarsaparilla. Flavors follow suit with sherry-soaked prunes, homemade caramels and an estery component redolent of bubblegum. The velvety mouthfeel and seamless integration of flavors speaks to the merits of aging bottle-conditioned ales, and begs the question: how would this evolve over the next two years? Medium body and lots of fine carbonation balance the malty backbone beautifully. Pair this sophisticated abbey Dubbel with grilled elk medallions topped with browned butter and thyme sauce.
From Issue 12. Buy it here.