29 June 2011

Because "Belgian" is no kind of descriptor

We do tend to throw the B-word around rather indiscriminately. It generally means a very full-bodied, estery, slightly yeasty kind of thing: cloudy, funky, and available in any colour from pale Duvel-yellow to dark Rochefort-brown. Hoppy it ain't, despite even the new wave of American inspired hop-driven Belgian ales; and there's certainly nothing you'd call "clean" in the profile.

One brewing company in particular is doing its utmost to break out of the strictures of national beer stereotyping: De La Senne, from Brussels. I've covered a couple of their beers previously (here and here) and the wife kindly brought two more back from a recent trip to Belgium.

Zinne Bir calls itself a "Brussels' People Ale", in what can only be a cheeky attempt to wind up the beer style purists. And the English grammar purists too, I guess. It's 5.8% ABV and pours a cloudy orange shade, quite fizzy but not really throwing out much by way of aroma -- just some lightly spicy jasmine sweetness. The first impression on tasting is bitterness, and lots of it, with both the yeast and hops ganging up together and introducing their respective brands of sharpness simultaneously. It calms down after a moment and finishes pithy rather than sharp. The fizz makes it refreshing and it's all really quite quaffable. An ordinary decent beer for the citizens of Brussels? Yes, I can see how that works. And if it means more Cantillon for me, then I'm happy.

I figured that Equinox would be somewhat more typically Belgian: an 8% ABV dark ale in a 75cl bottle? Has to be vaguely trappist in tone, hasn't it? Nope. I think they've assembled this the way one would for an abbey beer and then used a totally different, unBelgian yeast. Of fruity esters there are none. Instead it's a very dry, bitter, and slightly smoky beer, nearly akin to a strong Irish stout. It's full-bodied almost to the point of greasiness and the liquorice aroma is the nearest thing to fruit that it offers. I found it hard going, all in all. An enjoyable novelty, but I didn't need to devote my evening to three quarters of a litre of it.

It's always good to see brewers breaking free of received notions of what beer in their country is supposed to be, especially in countries like Belgium with well-established brewing traditions. Here's to the tinkerers.


  1. Sounds like a song by Pulp: "I wanna drink like Brussels people - I wanna drink whatever Brussels people do …"

    Except Brussels people mostly drink Jupiler, I believe …

  2. I've occasionally received hostility from American homebrewers for making a very simple point: You don't need Belgian yeast to make Belgian beer. What you need to do is make the beer in Belgium.

    Senne is one of a handful of Belgian breweries thinking outside the box in terms of fermentation profile, not to mention hops.

  3. For me the great pleasure of Belgian beer is the diversity of flavours. Weak, strong, light, dark, sweet, sour, bitter, malty. The full spectrum is there. I hope that the rush for extreme hoppiness doesn't swamp this diversity.