Who’s down for Belgian beer tasting and learning something about what we’re drinking? That’s what I thought. Lucky for us here in Sactown, Total Wine and More puts on beer classes twice each month. Don’t worry, I posted the remaining 2012 schedule at the bottom of this article. So…I attended the January beer appreciation course, dedicated to the best Belgian beers that our hosts could dig up. I’ll admit I was jazzed at the prospect of tasting a dozen beers, but I really had no idea what to expect. Would this particular beer class live up to the hype?
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, There were about 35 people in attendance including myself. The beer classes are held in a conference room in the back, which you can arrange to use for business or social events if you call the store. There was an assortment of deli style hors d’oeuvres, so this situation was starting off right. We received a program to follow along with the slide show, and beer tasting sheets to fill out as we went along. After a brief overview on how beer is made, it was off to the races! It appears that the slideshow was written by Rob Hill, who is in charge of Total Wine’s beer program (@Total_Wine_Beer), with leeway for the local employees to pick beers they like, so props there.
A Brief History of Belgium
So, for those who don’t know their geography, Belgium is situated between France and Germany, was once ruled by Spain, and was once part of the Netherlands. They gained their independence in the 1830s, and life was good until World War I. The first time Germany invaded Belgium, the usurpers took their beer kettles and melted them down for bullets. So, when World War II rolled along, the crafty Belgians took their new beer kettles and buried them. When the war was over, they dug up their fermentation kettles and got back to work on what really matters, making some damn good craft beer.
Belgian Saison, Witbier, and Belgian Pale Ale
We started tasting with a Saison (French for “season”), which I thought was fruity, but a bit prickly and heavy. Saison beers started as versions of farmhouse ale, basically home brewed beer. The next type of beer on the menu was a Witbier (“white beer”), New Belgian Mothership. I liked this one a little better, it was pretty crisp and fruity, with hints of coriander and cloves, maybe even some orange peel. Apparently, the Belgians historically have no qualms about experimenting with ingredients, especially in their Witbiers. The Witbier tradition died off in the 1950s , but was revived in the 1960s. Blue Moon would be an example of a white beer most everyone has heard of. Next up was a Belgian Pale Ale, Musketeer Antigoon. To this point, my favorite Belgian beer so far. This Antigoon pale ale was complex, with a sweet aroma; the taste falling somewhere between fruity, spicy, and smoky; and smooth carbonation. Something I learned was that Belgian Pale Ales are bottle treated so that the carbonation builds over time, but not the alcohol content. Belgian Pale Ale was not the original name for this type of beer. The English called it that sometime in the past, and it’s what we call them today.
The Difference Between Trappist Beers and Abbey Beers
The cool thing about going to a beer seminar like this one is that I learn things I would have never even thought about before. For instance, Trappist beers date back centuries, to when monks got fed up with life in France and Germany and migrated to Belgium. The monks ate foods grown inside the abbey walls and from fields surrounding the abbeys. During Lent, they would use their home brewed beer as a means of sustenance during Lent. Today, authentic Trappist beer must be brewed inside the abbey walls of a recognized Trappist abbey, of which there are six in Belgium and one in The Netherlands. Abbey beers are like franchisees of the original abbeys, subcontracted by abbeys that cannot keep up with production due to demand or manpower issues. Abbey beers do not bear the authentic Trappist beer emblem, due to a 1992 ruling that protects the original abbeys from knockoff brands.
Belgian Strong Pale Ale and Belgian Dubbel Beers
The Belgian Strong Pale Ale that we sampled was Duvel, not a bad choice. The honey colored brew had a sweet, caramel aroma; a earthy taste, and a deceptively high alcohol content with a dry finish. This Belgian ale was very hoppy and complex in nature, with the wheat really shining through. Our Belgian Dubbel was an American brew, Flying Fish. We were informed the American Dubbels tend to be sweeter than their overseas counterparts. The Flying Fish was the darkest sample yet and had an aroma that was chocolaty, nutty, and spicy, showing off anise overtones. The taste was roasty, caramely, and nutty, with strong molasses and cocoa tones. The finish was velvety and by far the most balanced thus far. There was a hint of hops and malt as well. It vaguely reminded me of a port. I almost bought this one on the spot. We also got to sample a Trappist Dubbel, Westmalle, which was also very good.
Belgian Strong Dark Ale, IPA, Belgian Trippel, and Belgian Quadrupel Beers
Now we were getting into the higher alcohol by volume beers; did they arrange it this way on purpose? Either way, I wasn’t complaining. The Belgian Tripel the presenters chose La Fin Du Monde, and it did not come off like the 9% alcohol that it is. The Du Monde had a coppery, caramel-like color, and had a very sweet, fruity, yet spicy taste. I could taste a hint of banana, but also cloves, and coriander. The finish was creamy, balanced, and long-lasting. I really liked this choice of beer. The Belgian IPA we got to sample was the Stone IPA, which was very popular in the room. The hops in this beer were very strong; it had a floral aroma, an earthy taste, and a good finish. One IPA that we did not sample, but which was recommended was Raging Bitch. Gotta come back to try that one later.
On to the Belgian-style Strong Dark Ale, Adriaen Brower. This is one of the bottles that I ended up buying, due to it’s delicious, clean taste of dark fruit. The Adriaen Brower also had a fairly dark color, and a smooth consistency. This selection also reminded me of a port, if it was transformed into a beer. The Belgian Quadrupel was next, and at a whopping 10% alcohol by volume, the St. Bernardus had a strong finish. I think this was one of the aforementioned abbey beers. This beer was like port lite. The words that describe this beer best are molasses, brown sugar, caramel, and chocolate. This wasn’t a bad choice either, but I didn’t like it quite as much as the Adriaen Brower or the Stone IPA. Apparently, Quadruppels are an American innovation and not done traditionally in Belgium itself.
Flanders Red Ale and Fruit Lambic
We closed out the beer class with two rather unique beers. The Flanders Ale, or Red Ale tastes like nothing else out there. The other beer samplers didn’t know quite what to make of it, buit I rather liked it. Flanders Ale is designed to be sour, and the Belgians blend about a third of young brew with two-thirds old beer, and then age it for two years in vats which they may or may not clean. Dark malts turn the brew hues of burgundy, cherry, or plum, hence the moniker of red ale. The Flanders Ale we sampled was Grand Cru, and the best way I can describe it is if you took hot and sour soup like you order at a Chinese restaurant and transformed it into an ale. I liked it a lot, although I think no one else at this beer class did.
The last Belgian beer that we got to sample was a Fruit Lambic, which is is essentially a high end ale with large amounts of fruit mixed with it. The Belgians make different varieties, in raspberry, apple, peach and other flavors. I rushed up to buy a bottle of Framboise Lambic after the presentation was over. I highly recommend you you try this raspberry lambic as well. We did get a bonus beer at the end to bring the total to twelve. I think it was a Trappist ale, Trappiste Rochefort, with a whopping 11.6% alcohol by volume. No one really seemed into it by this point, and neither was I.
Final Thoughts on the Belgian Beers
This event was like a mini Belgian beer fest, and a perfectly good way to spend two hours sampling different international beers. At the end of the presentation, we got coupons in case we wanted to grab some beer on sale or make a beer gift to a friend, which I did one of each. While there certainly is other beer and wine sampling going on all the time in our area, the Total Wine Sacramento locations are something to keep in mind for a monthly expedition with friends. I think everyone can find at least three or four beers that they really enjoy that they never would have tried otherwise.
Remaining Total Wine Beer Classes for 2012
Here’s the remaining beer class schedule for the Total Wine Sacramento and Total Wine Roseville locations in 2012. Classes are $15 per person, but the February class is buy one ticket, get one ticket for free. These classes are all held on Thursday nights from 6:30pm–8:30pm and are repeated on the following Saturdays from 3pm–5pm.
- February 16th: Lagers and Ales Beyond Pilsners and Pales
- March 22nd: Introduction to Beer – Get Your Suds On
- April 19th: Great Breweries, Great Beers
- May 17th: Hooray for IPA!
- June 21st: Beerrelavance – The Tastiest Lesson You’ve Ever Had
- July 19th: Belgian Classics (This is a repeat of the class in this article)
- August 16th: Great Craft Brew for Game Day & Every Day
- September 20th: Oktoberfest & Pumpkins – A Fall Seasonal Beer Harvest
- October 18th: Hooray For IPA!
- November 29th: Savor the Season – Winter and Holiday Brews