If the recent appearance of Belgian Gastronomic Week in bars and restaurants of select North American cities strikes you as a culinary curiosity, then you'd better put down your Thai cookbooks, pack up your Tuscan memoirs and pay attention. Belgian food and beer are hot! And by all indications, the trend is only going to get hotter.
Evidence of the new-found fashionability of Belgian cuisine is easy to find in London and New York. The past few years have witnessed an explosion in the number of Belgian restaurants and cafes - and an enormous increase in availability of Belgian beers. The trend is increasingly apparent in cities from Seattle to Toronto to Philadelphia, and things Belgian may be coming your way sooner than you think.
The agent for the popularization of Belgian gastro-culture is certainly that country's wealth of unique and extraordinary beers. But that only sets the table. What puts people in the seats, according to Martin Van Zon, president of the Belgian Canadian Business Association, is the Belgian love of good food and drink.
"The French have the culinary name," explains Van Zon, "but the Belgians live gastronomic lives." Key to this lifestyle, he says, is the national passion for fresh, well-prepared food, whether manifested in a serving of fries or a meal at one of the country's many Michelin-starred restaurants.
It's this same kind of gastronomic devotion that's made Belgium the most respected brewing nation in the world. Producers of extraordinary beers, like the remarkably complex strong golden ale Duvel, the awe-inspiring Westmalle Tripel and the delicately nuanced wheat beer Hoegaarden, are as respected and admired as British, German and Canadian beers. For beer cognoscenti, Belgium is the ne plus ultra.
If certain cynics are to be believed, the American market may actually be the saving grace of distinctive Belgian beers. According to these individuals, including one prominent American importer of Belgian ales, the local market for specialty brands in Belgium is being squeezed so hard that it's becoming almost impossible for the smaller, more specialized breweries to make a go of it on their own turf. Without export sales to the United States and other countries, this reasoning goes, all would be lost for some of the most fascinating beers in Belgium.
The range of Belgian beer stretches far beyond the strong ales of the Trappists. Among the other fascinating brews the country boasts are complex spiced ales like La Chouffe; wood-aged brown ales like Liefmans Goudenband; soured red ales such as the tart, oaky Rodenbach Grand Cru; beers flavored with cherries, raspberries and other fruits, like the Boon Mariage Parfait Kriek, fermented with cherries; orange-and coriander-spiced white beers such as the delicately nuanced Hoegaarden; lambics like Cantillon Gueuze, the world's only commercially available beer style relying on spontaneous fermentation by wild yeasts; and many, many others.
All of which should be more than enough to keep North American brewers and beer lovers interested for a long, long time to come.
Some Extraordinary Belgian Beers.. and Their Domestic Homages
Most North American brewers don't attempt to duplicate the Belgian beers that arouse their passions, but rather pay tribute to the originals by brewing unique New World variations. In some instances, as with those beers listed below, these homages can be as inspirational as the originals.
Floreffe Dubbel (Brasserie Lefebvre, Belgium): A fabulous food beer, with a fruity front and spicy, not-too-sweet body. A superb complement to cheese.
Ommegang (Brewery Ommegang, New York): Suitably rich and textural, with fruit and just the right balance of chocolate and roast. Another versatile food beer.
Duvel (Brouwerij Moortgat, Belgium): Legendary strong golden ale with a perfumey nose, pearish body and dry, lightly hoppy finish. Makes a wonderful aperitif.
Pranqster (North Coast Brewing, California): Fuller bodied and spicier than the classic Belgian, with a warming alcohol that suits it better to the end of a meal.
Westmalle Tripel (Brouwerij Westmalle, Belgium): The definition of the style. A spicy, fruity, complex, potent, glorious golden ale.
New Belgium Tripel (New Belgium Brewing, Colorado): At 8 percent alcohol, one percent weaker than the original. Floral and notably hoppy.
Hoegaarden White (Brouwerij De Kluis, Belgium): The original revivalist white beer, soft and refreshing with coriander and orange notes.
Celis White (Celis Brewing, Texas): Created by Pierre Celis, the same brewer who formulated Hoegaarden, but more citric and orangey than the Belgian beer.
Liefmans Gluhkriek (Huisbrouwerij Liefmans, Belgium): Served steaming hot, this mulled ale serves up a bold taste of sour cherry on the front but gentle spice and 6 percent alcohol on the finish.
Quelque Chose (Unibroue, Quebec): Similar to the Gluhkriek but bigger in virtually every way, with huge cherry and spice notes and a very warming 8 percent alcohol content.