If you’ve decided that you’re going to get into beer, the chances are you will go through a Belgian phase. You may, in fact, never come out of it.
Look at these obsessives, for example, who go to Belgium multiple times every year and find endless fascination in the country’s beer.
We’ve identified five factors that we think make Belgian beers to appealing to ‘beginner’ beer geeks – people at stages three to five – beyond the obvious fact that Belgium is home to many of the world’s greatest beers.
When you first encounter Belgian beer, there’s an impression of boundless choice. Even the most basic bars have lengthy beer lists, usually with enough options to offer something different throughout a weekend city break. The beers on offer range from brain-dissolvingly sour to syrup sweet, and often come with tantalising, almost romantic descriptions.
Most Belgian bars will offer a set of reliable classics – the Westmalles, Chimays, Duvel, and so on. So, while there is a lot of choice, it’s not like drinking in a modern UK taproom where the beers change constantly, week by week, like fugitives trying to evade detection. In Belgium, it’s easy to identify favourites and go back to them as often as you like, as you get to understand your own preferences.
Most Belgian beers are served from the bottle, and most of these breweries have been bottling for a very long time, so when you drink Westmalle Tripel it will taste more or less the same wherever you drink it, unlike with draught beer (and especially cask) where so much depends on the venue. Caveats apply: we have noticed consistency issues with Abt 12, for example, which put us off drinking it for a while.
On the ground in Belgium, at least, there are the matching glasses, the perfect pours and the general reverence for the product that seems to apply even in non-beer-geek places. Every glass of beer is the most important in the world at the moment it’s served. And if you like reading, there’s plenty to read, from the history of the distinctive yeast to the tales of individual breweries.
Pink elephants! Trolls! Peculiar glassware! It was made for the Instagram age. It’s just fun.
* * *
Are there downsides?
Well, perhaps the generally higher strength of Belgian beer might be offputting to the average British person.
It certainly took us quite a while to adjust to a sensible Belgian drinking pace.
And actually, the alcohol burn can seem overwhelming at first, like the whisky wall we wrote about in last month’s newsletter. We remember considering Chimay White undrinkable the first time we tried it because all we could taste was ethanol. Of course we love it now.
For some, the Belgian scene might also seem a little conservative. There are new breweries and styles emerging – certainly enough to quench our curiosity whenever we visit – but we guess it is difficult for new players to enter the market.
On the whole, though, Belgian beer strikes just the right balance between novelty and solidity. It’s vast but knowable. Often complex but rarely ridiculous. Very weird but absolutely everyday.