Review: Cheers to Belgian Beers

What an odd scene: at noon, beeristas starting showing up at Roots for the much advertised (including here) noon start for the Cheers to Belgian Beers tasting. Early folks, like me, were sent packing: sorry, it doesn't start til noon. But within a short time, the brewery had shifted gears to accommodate the hordes. By three--the later start time--all the commemorative glassware was gone. No worries, the brewery scrounged up an assortment of wee snifters, asked for a $2 donation, and everyone was happy. This improvisational quality had a retro, 1988 feel, and so did the widespread good cheer with which everyone greeted it.

And then it was on to the beers.

How the Yeast Behaved
By the time I finally arrived (at six, after watching Memphis club UCLA), some of the beers were running out. In the end, I managed to try13 of the 16 pouring. The great value of an experiment like this is that you have a large enough sample size to begin to see the elements and range of the yeast. The Ardennes (La Chouffe) strain used this year didn't produce a particularly strong character to most beers, unlike many Belgian varieties. It's fairly clean and neutral. However, it leaves a lot of unfermentable sugars in the beer.

At least half the beers I tried were overly sweet--and the use of candi sugar by some breweries didn't help matters. My guess is that, given another opportunity, breweries would make adjustments to recipes or allow a longer period of fermentation. But so goes the process of experimentation, right? Another characteristic that cropped up in three or four of the beers was a vegetable quality--like squash or boiled vegetables. Normally one might suspect DMS, but I don't here--I think it's some kinda funky that the yeast kicks off under certain conditions.

Oh, and as a final note, I was surprised that none of the breweries tried a hop monster. Most everyone stuck to fairly traditional interpretations of strong ales and abbeys, and nothing was more than about 30 IBUs (which is to say not at all bitter in these sweet, 6-9% beers). Next time I hope to see breweries take the yeast and get crazy--with adjuncts, unpredictable style selection, and use of hopping rates. So many of the beers on offer were sweet, golden-hued ales that it was a little hard to distinguish them past a certain point.

The Beers
The cream of this particular crop were four beers: Laurelwood Saison de Arfuinna and Roots Farmouse Bruin were fine beers, and the Full Sail Dubbel and Widmer Golden were fantastic. I have heard rumors that the FS didn't actually use the Ardennes yeast, which is both confusing and weird (and, if it wins, will be all the weirder still). I voted for the FS Dubbel, so I'll start with it--but for the moment, let's put an asterisk beside it.

Full Sail Dubbel (7.3%) - a wonderful, rich aroma, the best in the bunch--redolent of freshly-cut wood. I generally think of dubbels as a throwaway style; a beer to drink in the daylight when the tripel is too big. But this was sumptuous--floral yet earthy, malty without being the least sweet (perhaps evidence a different yeast was used), chocolatey and even a bit smoky. It finishes cleanly and very dryly. It has neither the heaviness nor bite of a beer of this size--I would have guessed 5%. If this were available in the bottle, I'd buy it by the case. (It's available at the Pilsner Room)

Widmer Belgian Golden (6.1%) - A beautiful beer, clear and perfectly golden--like Duvel, if that calls anything to mind. A spicy Belgian nose. The palate was the most accutely "Belgian" of all the beers we tried--I doubt Jackson himself could have detected the Yankee inside. The Brothers managed to wring all the residual sugars out of the beer, revealing the capacity of the yeast, which produced a marvelously spicy palate. It was slightly phenolic, adding to the overal complexity. Not at all cloying or sweet in the aftertaste.

The next two were good beers; I tried them early and for a long time thought one would get my vote. Both are availiable at their respective breweries.

Roots Farmhouse Bruin (6.0%) - The lightest of the beers here. The title may suggest a Flanders Brown, but this is more like a rustic, uncategorized ale. The dark malts mellow the sweetness, and brewer Jason McAdam managed to pull a little funk from the strain--sherrylike more than sour.

Laurelwood Saison de Arduinna (6.4%) - I'll admit to some skeptisim of this beer, with its 15 IBUs. However, Chad Kennedy managed to balance the malts with orange and lemon additions (Peel? Which orange? Dunno.)--the result was a very creamy, almost breakfasty beer. Again, he managed keep the beer from cloying, despite adding candi sugar.

Other notes: BJ's Redrum (red ale) tasted more like a dubbel, and like the dubbels I recognize--adequate but without a lot of character. Van Havig experimented with spice for his amber Rock Bottom Floreal Deux, a beer that might eventually balance out but which is a bit strongly spiced at this point. Raccoon Lodge's C'est Dangue had a lot going on, including a funkiness, but also needed more time in the cask. Max's Fanno Creek's Reverend's Daughter was cloying, phenolic, and heavy. Alameda's Lucky Devil was also cloying, and like the R's daughter, had that squash note. Hopwork's El Diablo was a kick in the teeth--very, very strong and sharp. I think Christian Ettinger must have used a fair amount of candi sugar, for it was overly sweet. Could become a masterpiece with age. I had but a sip of Philedelphia's Flemish Brown, which was (intentionally, I'm pretty sure) sour and chocolatey. I'd like to have had more. The McMenamins' Gulden Tijger was more like a tripel than a strong golden, and was heavy and sweet. Finally, the Lucky Lab Malt Bomb seemed to hail from Glasgow rather than Ghent--it was a lovely malty beer that also had the squash character.

I didn't try the Lompoc beers (Mon Cheri and La Diablesse) because they had blown, nor the McMenamin's Blind Abbot, which was one beer more than I was willing to try.

I don't know who won the competition or what next year's yeast will be. As always, details when I receive them.