Hey, you! Over there, the brewer or beer sommelier or certified cicerone or just plain beer drinker. You know that beer you’re brewing/serving/drinking, the one produced in the USA but fermented with a yeast which, many years ago, had its origins in Belgium. There is something you need to know about it, so pay very close attention.
It is NOT Belgian.
Belgian beer is NOT beer fermented with Wyeast #1214 or White Labs WLP550. It is NOT beer affected by Brettanomyces or any odd variety of yeast or bacteria. It is NOT wheat beer spiced with coriander and orange peel. And it is NOT beer fermented with cherries or dosed with cherry juice.
Belgian beer is beer that is brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period.
Okay, so there’s that dealt with, now let’s move on to “Belgian-style.” There IS one sort of beer that may be properly termed “Belgian-style” and that is a wheat beer brewed with a significant portion of unmalted wheat and flavoured with coriander and orange peel. You may also call it a wit or a white beer or a bière blanche, if you wish. But if you’re going to use “Belgian-style” please be sure to include the “style” part – see above – and follow it with “wheat beer.”
As for all other beers brewed and fermented outside of Belgium, regardless of what they contain or how they have been fermented or conditioned, they are NOT “Belgian-style.” They may be “abbey-style” or “Belgian-inspired” but not “Belgian-style.” Here’s why.
Although a small country of 11 or so million people, Belgium is nothing if not a diverse brewing nation. It has been said, and not without some accuracy, that Belgian beers have no style, since each brewer crafts their brands in their own particular style or styles. If you really tried to sort it through, as my colleague Tim Webb does in his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, you can probably whittle it down to 30 or 35 very broadly defined sorts of ale and lager – with very few of the latter – but none of those can or should be solely defined as being of “Belgian-style.”
“Belgian,” as I recently noted on Facebook, is not so much a style as it is a huge mix of idiosyncratic brewing philosophies. (Sorry to quote myself, but I really like that line.) To describe a beer not brewed in Belgium as “Belgian” or “Belgian-style” is to do a great disservice to the country’s long brewing traditions and current diversity, not to mention the beer, the brewer and the drinker, the last because it necessitates an assumption that said individual is geographically ignorant.
So, to recap, Belgian beer is beer brewed in Belgium, and “Belgian-style” is a largely meaningless and belittling adjective. Now, get back to your beer.
Styles & Why They Do/Don’t Matter
Beer styles. God, but I’m tired of debating them. It’s gotten so we can’t even speak of something so simple as a “session beer” without some people getting the britches bunched up in apoplectic rage over the bar being set too high, or low. Certain folk want to quantify and categorize every last little ale or lager; others are free and easy and don’t really mind if you just call it “beer” and sod the stylistic nonsense.
Me, I’ll admit to freely vacillating between the two poles over the years, but more recently I’ve been steadily shifting away from categorization. Here’s why.
Beer styles help me educate others about beer, which is part of what I do to pay the mortgage. If someone knows nothing about, say, IPA, it is immeasurably helpful to have some sort of style guidelines to help them wrap their brains around it all, preferably mixed with a shot or two of history and a whole whack of context. Which is why I believe Michael Jackson defined two pages worth of “classical beer-styles” early in his seminal “World Guide to Beer,” first published in 1977.
Problems arise, however, when we attempt to create new categories for everything rather than defining them within the context of those style we already understand. Take the double IPA, for instance. A proper double IPA is a strong and very hoppy IPA, period. It doesn’t need any further definition, in this writer’s opinion, just as a coffee stout is a stout flavoured with coffee, rather than a singular entity on its own. A “session beer?” Well, that’s a lower alcohol beer suitable for drinking over the course of a “session,” which for me could be a 4% bitter or a 5.1% pilsner, or even a 7% Belgian ale, depending upon the time and context of the “session.”
In the end, there are probably two or three dozen or so styles we really need to acknowledge, with everything else slotting neatly into some variation on those themes. Experimentation? Innovation? “Moroccan” saisons? Bring ’em on, says I. Beer is about variety, and variety is, you know, the spice of life. I like it spicy and so I shall embrace all comers, unless, of course, they suck. But I shall not imagine that each and every one of them is deserving of its own new category.
Filed under beer & the web, beer blogs, beer style, beer terminology, brewing history, drinking quality, session beer, social commentary