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EATING & DRINKING

Belgian beer boots butt

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake

Posted June 29, 2012
Belgian beer: It gives good head. © Brouwerij Bosteels

Belgium is to beer what Champagne is to wine, with Kwak the finest of the lot.


Now don't get me wrong, I truly love British real ale, adore German pints and kneel in awe of British Columbia's army of microbrewers.

However, I honestly believe that only a very few beers, such High Speed Death or Red Racer IPA, can go head-to-head with a decent Belgian brew, and of these there are plenty.

For example, Bierebel.com, a website set up in 1999 by the then 17-year-old Pierre Lebrun to collate and disseminate information on Belgian beers, lists a total of 2,437 different varieties produced by 169 breweries, which ain't bad for a population of 11 million.

What's more, these 2,000-odd different beers encompass a whole host of top-fermented1 amber, white, blond, red, brown, Trappist, Abbey, regional, seasonal, fruit-flavoured and 'Scotch' brews as well as spontaneously fermented lambic and gueuze beers that rely on exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria floating about the Senne Valley.

Incidentally, there are just six Trappist breweries, viz Chimay, Westmalle, Rochefort, Orval, Achel and Westvleteren, and their saintly output should not be confused with more secular Abbey beers, which are brewed under licence from, but not in or by, an Abbey.

Thus the well-known Abbey beer Leffe, for instance, is not made by monks in habits but instead by InBev, which is itself part of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewer that closed 2011 with revenues of $39bn.


SPOILT FOR CHOICE
As a result of all this diversity, the selection of beers on offer in most Belgian pubs can be a tad overwhelming.

My answer to the quandary that this choice often throws up is to simply try as many different brews as possible (the bulk of which will be in bottled rather than draught form).

Just randomly pick one with a funny name if you're really stuck, such as Sur-Les-Bois Arsenic, Belgoo Arboo or Silly Double Enghien Brune to name but three.

Whatever you do, I urge you not to be dull and ask for a bottom-fermented fizzy pop lager of the sort you could buy pretty much anywhere in the world.

Sadly, on my first visit to Belgium as an 18-year-old travelling with two friends on an InterRail-type ticket, one of my companions did exactly that.

"But why?" the waiter replied. "This beer is made with water from underneath a graveyard!"

Matey was having none of it, though, and so eventually our waiter caved in.

"Your piss," he said on his return, throwing down our pints as though they had just fallen out of a tramp's bottom.

Worse still, as well as coming across as uncultured kutten we must have looked like a right load of lightweights.

You see, what most people consider to be strong beer in Britain is actually pretty weak and puny by Belgian standards.

With the exception of the few fizzy pop lagers on offer, traditional saison brews2 and the 2% table beers that until the 1970s were dished up to kids to wash down their school dinners, most Belgian beers weigh in at between 7 and 9%.

Meanwhile, for those looking to really ramp things up, Bush, which we later switched to after realising the error of our ways, commands a 12% rating, with numerous Christmas brews hitting the scales at around 15%.

Even kriek, a cherry-flavoured lambic appealing more to the tastes of Belgian women (and probably the best hangover tonic to date), can more than hold its own with a typical ABV of 5%.

However, be warned: weak kriek is out there too.



Kwak: It gets you ducked. © Brouwerij Bosteels

BEHOLD THE KWAK
Typically served in half-pint measures with comically frothy heads, nearly every top-fermented Belgian beer comes with its own special glass, ranging from straight-sided 'jam pots' and pseudo-medieval goblets to bulbous 'tulip' jobbies of the kind employed to dish up Duvel, a very pleasant 8.5-percenter.

While the various glasses employed no doubt do advance branding, on the whole they should not be seen as mere marketing gimmicks.

Instead, they have very often been specifically designed to accentuate the particular qualities of the brew in question, such as enhancing aroma release or, by featuring microscopic scoring, the formation of bubbles.

The best beer glass around, though, is that for Kwak (as in quack), an 8.1% brown ambrosia produced by Buggenhout-based Brouwerij Bosteels.

Resembling a mini yard glass, this amazing vessel, thanks to its spherical bottom, has to be kept upright by a separate wooden 'test tube holder'.

The result is something akin to what you might find bubbling away in young Frankenstein's laboratory.


CLEVER MR KWAK
When served in its correct glass, this particular beer also makes an amusing 'kwak kwak kwak' sound when you raise the bottom aloft to drain the last of your brew, so livening up what is usually the most harrowing part of any 'pint'.

This sound and the beer's name, though, would appear to be mere coincidence as Kwak purportedly refers to Pauwel Kwak, a publican from Dendermonde who first started brewing this liquid joy back in the early 19th century.

At the time, so the tale goes, mail coach drivers were forbidden by law from leaving their vehicles when on duty, a callous edict that prevented them from popping into Mr Kwak's pub for a scoop or two.

To right this wrong, the Kwakmeister General, who was clearly a very compassionate sort of chap, hit upon a brilliant idea: a funny-looking glass that when filled and suspended from a recess by the driver's seat would sway with the motion of the coach to ensure his mobile patrons could sate their thirst without losing a single drop between swigs4.

Back then, I guess, drinking and driving was not quite the no-no it is today.

After all, in the days before municipal waterworks, the production of beer was pretty much the only way of ensuring a safe supply of drinking water for the population of Europe, hence why the local Trappists got into home brewing back in the Middle Ages.

Indeed, this often overlooked snippet of historical practicality could well go a long way to explaining why life was so brutal in the past.

I mean, if you were the local magistrate and you'd had eight pints before lunchtime, wouldn't you think it right to hang someone for stealing a sheep?

Or would you just puke all over their shoes?

Who knows.

But it's certainly something to ponder over a brace of Kwaks.


Footnotes

1) Without going into the science, top fermenting uses yeasts that produce a foam on the top of the wort during the fermentation process and generally results in an fruity, full-flavoured ale-type beer. The yeasts used in bottom fermenting do not create such a foam and usually produce lagers. Top fermenting requires temperatures of between 15ºC and 24ºC compared to around 10ºC for bottom fermenting. Consequently, the two methods are sometimes referred to, respectively, as warm fermenting and cool (or cold) fermenting.

2) Saison beers were originally brewed to quench the thirsts of farm workers labouring in the summer heat (saison being French for 'season').

3) According to Brouwerij Bosteels, Kwak was first brewed by Pauwel Kwak in neighbouring Dendermonde. However, for one reason or another, the production of Kwak ceased "for more than 150 years". Until, that is, "it was brought back to life by [Brouwerij Bosteels] in 1980 with the will to restore the historic beer from our region". And personally, I'm well glad they did. Big thanks to Brouwerij Bosteels for clearing that up and for the lovely photos to boot.



Belgium rocks!

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