Is ‘Belgian’ a Flavour?

Macro shot of text and diagram: 'Yeast'.

We find ourselves using ‘Belgian’ as a shortcut flavour descriptor sometimes and have been thinking about what this means, for various reasons.

First, because we just finished writing an article about Liverpool’s Passageway Brewery. If you’ve read Brew Britannia you’ll have the gist of the story: it emerged in the mid-1990s, run in their spare time by two friends who worked together, and knocked people’s socks off by fermenting British-style cask ales with a then highly exotic Belgian yeast strain.

Secondly, because we’ve also been writing an article about British beer geeks obsessed with Belgian beer, which means we’ve been hanging out with a few of the same. One gently admonished us on this point, suggesting that ‘Belgian’ as used to describe flavour by non-Belgians usually just means ‘spicy yeast’, when of course Belgian beers might be tart, sherry-like, fruity (from actual fruit), literally spicy (as opposed to yeast spicy), hoppy (in various offbeat ways), and so on.

A bicycle outside a bar in Bruges, 2010.

And, finally, there have just been some beers that got us excited — beers that aren’t Belgian, or even fundamentally Belgian in style, but which use Belgian-derived yeast to add a twist. Stone Cali-Belgique, which we found confusing and underwhelming when we paid a fortune for it at The Rake in London years ago, is fast becoming a go-to in its canned Berlin-brewed bargain-price incarnation. Elusive Brewing’s Plan-B — a 3.7% pale ale brewed with UK malt, New World hops and Belgian yeast, was a contender for our Golden Pints bottled beer of 2016. And that Lervig/Magic Rock Farmhouse IPA from a few years back still haunts our palates. In general these days, we’ll pick up any kind of pale ale or IPA made this way — it just floats our boat.

So, yes, when we say something tastes ‘Belgian’, we do mostly mean that it has that faintly funky, abandoned-fruit-bowl, distantly gingery quality. The same character that, in our home-brewing, we’ve managed to get from various supposedly highly divergent Belgian-style yeasts, from dried stuff intended for producing Witbier, to saison and Trappist strains cloned from famous breweries and dispatched in vials.

But maybe sometimes we’re referring to something even broader — a very vague sense of faintly rustic, barely tamed oddness.

If this was flipped and a bunch of Belgian beer geeks were telling us about a beer produced in, say, Ghent that tasted ‘really British’, we think we’d know what they were trying to get across. And noting that a beer tastes ‘quite German’ certainly conveys something, too.

Shortcuts, like ‘proper pub’ or ‘malty’, are fine when used with caution, and don’t always need pinning down at every corner, especially if it stalls the conversation.

10 thoughts on “Is ‘Belgian’ a Flavour?”

  1. During my first beer tasting class in a course I am involved in in Brussels, I made the egregious error – when asked by the guy teaching the course – of describing the aroma of the Duvel we were trying as “Belgian”. Into the dunce corner with me…

  2. You really need to give Ticketybrew another go, as this is precisely their area (featuring actual Belgian yeast, or so I’m given to understand). The microbial issues that gave them flavour stability problems (particularly in bottle) have definitely been fixed now – the Pale, the Blonde and the Dubbel are all rock-solid (and very Belgian). Bit of a hike to Stalybridge from where you are, but I’m sure Duncan could put a couple of bottles in the post.

  3. Looking back over old posts, rather than Belgian I often used “burlappy” or some such reference to sweet musty spiciness. But is it really an issue? A few big voiced old schoolers with control issues will bang on that Belgian isn’t a taste (just as ice cold isn’t) but it is still a descriptor of the experience. If someone chooses another adjectival structure, fine, but when you write “Belgian” I know what you mean even if a few more adjectives would narrow it further.

  4. I’d say it probably depends on context, in an article on British ale describing a beer as tasting really Belgian is helpful to readers (gives many of us vague idea of what to expect from the beer). If discussing Belgian beers it’s obviously a bit of a useless term. Even terms like Hoppy have their place, though in a discussion on say American ipas it’s about as helpful as saying the beer is wet 🙂 (we know that already and need more info). Probably better to go slightly longer and more accurate (eg it reminded me of Belgian beers like duvel

  5. If I was backed into a corner and asked to sum up the defining characteristic of the taste of Belgian beer in one word, I’d say “complexity”.

  6. For me, I think of the wet hay for some and the red liquorice strings for others. Many Belgian beers taste far too sugary for me (this doesn’t include beers like Rodenbach though). This is why De La Senne’s Taras Boulba and Zinnebier were such breakthroughs. They were/are session strength quaffing beers that have sharpness over sweetness.

  7. I think a location as a “flavor” works if one’s acquainted with beers of a particular area or in it’s style.
    I often speak of the distinctly “British” quality English beers have. Which is becoming more of a U.K. quality. American takes on “English” beers still come in too hoppy and don’t quite have the character I pick up in actual English beer. Which, if US brewers in their takes are using English yeasts, I suspect the difference may come down to the water.

    1. Given the differences between water in Kent, Staffordshire and Cheshire (massive amounts of carbonate, sulphate and chloride respectively) don’t stop Spitfire, Pedigree and Unicorn from tasting “English”, I’d suggest it’s not the water. And English yeast strains seem fairly widely used in the US. I’d look at malt bills (despite advances in breeding, irrigated 6-row barley is still significantly different to unirrigated 2-row) and in particular hopping. I cringe when I see things like (presumably US-grown) Cascade being recommended as a substitute for say Fuggles or even Challenger/Target etc in English-style beers. I don’t think US brewers realise the huge terroir differences between US-grown hops and UK-grown ones. Even leaving varietal variations to one side, growing conditions are very different which leads to huge differences in terpenoid biochemistry and hence taste. So UK-grown Cascades are probably closer to traditional UK Fuggles than US-grown Fuggles – but both are still a distance away from tasting like UK Fuggles.

      The British growers are starting to cotton onto this kind of thing – East Kent Goldings now have a protected “appellation controlee”-equivalent like Champagne, Jersey Royal potatoes or Cornish pasties, but we’ve a long way to go before beer has the same sense of terroir as wine for instance. We’re getting there a bit, with the whole green hop thing and eg Cloudwater launching a NW DIPA with the historic Lees yeast strain, but it’s early days.

  8. I remember thinking Saison Voisin tasted very English when I drank it at the brewery, and of course Houblon Chouffe was distinctly American. Perspective is all.

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