Tasting beers for Belgian Independence Day

Tasting beers for Belgian Independence Day
Is beer what Belgian Independence Day is all about?

This year is probably the first time I knew that July 21 was Belgium’s Independence Day. I mostly note the day as the anniversary of man’s first walk on the moon (hey, I saw it live on TV, you have to watch a poor dub on YouTube). But anyway, like our own Independence, setting the date is not that simple. Belgium claimed independence from the Netherlands on October 4, 1830 and, oddly enough, decided the first thing they needed was a king. Apparently they took applications and held interviews before settling on Leopold, Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who’d already turned down an offer to become king of Greece. He was elected King on June 4, 1831, was crowned king June 26, and swore allegiance to the Belgian constitution on July 21, and that’s what they celebrate as Independence Day.

For this year, the Belgian brewing consortium Moortgat made a little promotional push for the occasion by sponsoring celebrations at beer bars in the States. Oddly enough, some other Belgian beers were featured last Monday for St. Arnold’s Day.

So July 21, I had about an hour to slide into the Bavarian Lodge. On any normal day, about half their taps were beers I still haven’t tried. On a promotion like this, I had to pick out a few beers from nearly 40 perfect strangers. For a hot day like it was, I skipped the heavier dubbels and triples. And the fried appetizers. But then I was foolish enough to drink my beer with a goulash soup. Not that Hamburger Helper mush, mind you, but beef and potatoes simmered in paprika and red pepper. A real test of a summer beer when it’s 95° outside. But here’s what I chose:

Alvinne Cuvée Freddy: From a small brewery in Heule, Belgium. It’s a blend of alight Belgian ale and a stout, aged for one year in a chardonnay barrel, then blended with more stout. The color is just a shade lighter than the average stout. A few minutes after pouring, there are just a few thin scraggles of foam. The smell brings up sour cherries with a little roasted malt and chocolate, then notes of red wine. Taste is all about the sourness; I can’t find much of the dark malt at first. The cherry yields to cream sherry. Quite puckery. A fuller texture than the average sour beer. Now I’m picking up some chocolate roast malt toward the end. And at the very bottom, a sense memory of Pop Rocks. At 9% alcohol by volume, it’s definitely a sipper.

De Halve Maan Brugse Zot. A pale Belgian ale from a brewer in Bruges, this is somewhat popular in bottles, but we had an unfiltered keg. Very clear autumnal amber color, I must still be at the top of the keg. White foam the height of a penny’s width. A sniff just a little malt, again with some cherry tartness. Taste starts out with hefeweizen spice. Then some bubblegum esters. Puts me in mind of as wit, but I suspect the brewers didn’t care about matching any style. Despite my thinking of a wit or weizen, I’m sure it’s all barley malt. Catching some grains of paradise, apple, and a touch of European hops coming down. Complex, yet understated.

Ommegang 2011 Belgian Independence Day Saison: yes, from the Moortgat-owned Ommegang brewery in Cooperstown, New York. This of the three beers was served in a commemorative tulip glass with the logos of the Moortgat properties. Cloudy gold in tulip. Stiff egg-white foam. Light spicy nose with clove only slightly dominating. Belgian pale malts are nice, or should I mean ni-i-i-i-ce! I might be demeaning it by calling it a "standard" saison taste. But then the spicy note gets stronger, and some bitterness from either hops or a warm farmhouse ferment. The filigrees are all there just to point out the solid golden Belgian malts. Almost like a toffee chew, and very good.

Surprisingly, though, none of these really jumped out and grabbed me. That’s just to be expected, I suppose. You can only have your first Delerium Tremens or Atomium once. But there are still a few kegs of the Belgians around in this city of good beers. Check with your favorite place and go try some. If this holiday catches on, we may see cars full of Belgians cruising the streets, horns honking and flags waving.

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    Mark McDermott

    Writer, trivia maven, fan of many things. I thought to learn all there is to know about beer as a way to stay interested in learning. It is my pleasure to bring Chicago's craft beer scene to you.

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