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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