Brussels’s A La Mort Subite café was named for the loser of a game played by stock and bond brokers. It means “Sudden Death.” Eating and drinking there does feel like you died right after confession. They serve the wildly fermented lambics, ebullient gueuzes and the headier Trappist beers for which the country is so famous, expertly paired with the sort of beer food you don’t get this side of the pond. The local favorite is kip kap – pig cheeks – don’t judge if you’ve ever eaten a hot dog.
Belgium’s history with beer is long and hallowed, even if its history as a country isn’t. Even in a place like Mort Subite they’ll tell you that in 1831 “Belgium was created by the British to annoy the French.” Culturally they go back much further, but always as a confederation of tribes, never a unified people. Julius Caesar wrote very admirably about the Belgea before killing a great many of them to make some Roman political point or another. Afterwards he lumped the entire region into a province named after their unifying trait: Gallia Comata or “Long Haired Gaul.”
After all these years the Belgians still hate their countrymen like cousins who borrow money. The French speaking Walloons sneer the Flemish half of the country – probably because “Walloon” sounds funny when spoken in Dutch. The Flemish return the vibe and the German minority reportedly think the whole thing is hilarious. The animosity explains why Scottish Ales are incredibly popular in the Walloon area of the country, especially in the fall. They are toasty, fortifying and blend well with a shared Franco-Scottish hatred of the English.
That it is a small country at the intersection of many tribes is what makes it so beautiful to the beer nerd: There is always a variety at your fingertips. They tend towards the Pils, like the honey dipped Bière de Ours, but they turn out some great ales as well. Bière de Gard, similar to a Sasion, is a traditional “farmhouse ale” brewed up to serve laborers – it’s light and refreshing, but you still know that it’s there. It was the sort of thing you did when it was legal to pay people in beer. Like in college.
Bellevaux Black, an Old Ale, is generally regarded as one of Belgium’s most “interesting” beers, but that’s a qualifier that cuts both ways. This is the sort of thing the Belgians drink when the seasons change, along with a style of brown ale known as “Flemish” which is flavored with cherries and raspberries.
The headier beers that Belgium is most famous for are the Trappist brews, and there are seven brewers that can legally call themselves so – meaning they are actually brewed on the grounds of a Trappist monastery. The story is that these monasteries have been churning out beer since the Middle Ages, but that ignores a long stretch of time called the Protestant Reformation when the region – dominated by Protestant Dutch – closed the monuments to Popery and took many apart.
Chimay, available in the states, has been made in the Forges-les-Chimay monastery since 1861. Be warned, these Abbey beers pack a wallop, but why not? They are crafted by life long celibates under a vow of poverty, and everyone needs a vice. While not continuous from the dawn of time, the tradition is famous for the lambics – made with wild, open fermentation that the mass-market brewers simply hate. Their tamer cousin is the gueuze, where fresh lambics are blended with the beer that has mellowed in oak and chestnut barrels for about a year. This is similar to the Solara method in wine making. The result is a sparkling beer that remains complex. These, as well as the Flemish Oud Bruin (Old Brown) style also know as Flanders Brown, begat the sours, which American brewers have taken and – as Americans will – run with it. In the old country, these aren’t nearly as pucker inducing.
Of course one of the most charming things about craft beer is its locality – and those artisanal brews in Belgium are generally consumed there. If you want to drink like a Belgian stateside, head to your local brewer and look for an abbey ale, a white wheat, a sour or the Bière de Gard.
For an extra hint of authenticity ask for it in Dutch, or French, and German. Or just drink the beer.