Stepping through the solid-oak door of De Twee Palen, the taproom for the Het Anker Brewery, in Mechelen, Belgium, is like slipping through a portal into the distant past: Dark coffered wainscoting, low vaulted ceilings, and empty wooden firkins dangling from the walls contribute to a medieval aura that is both creaky and comfortable. Taverns like this one crisscross the Low Countries and offer beers that, with a pinch of spice or a taste of cherry, a whiff of wine or the hint of sourness, appear to be the missing drink–er, link–in the long time line explaining the evolution of malty beverages. Belgian brews can prove exciting for suds aficionados interested in stretching their palates beyond the blond blandness that blankets the overall market. I don’t mean to dismiss all light-colored beers out of hand–or mouth–especially not when a very good pilsner, Belgium’s own Stella Artois, is so widely available. If Stella has taken its critical knocks over the years, it has more to do with its being made by Interbrew, one of the world’s larger–and more predatory–brewing companies, than to any intrinsic deficiencies of the beer. Indeed, it is hard to find fault with a lager that, through the use of floor-malted pale barley, Saaz hops, and a creditable 21 days of conditioning, is both refreshing and pleasingly bitter.
Interbrew is also responsible for the Abbey Leffe range of ales, including the rather pleasant Blonde Ale, yeasty, with light fruitiness, and a Brown Ale, influenced by cocoa overtones. The company’s attention to detail is perhaps most evident, though, in its Hoegaarden line, which it acquired nine years ago. These include three of Belgium’s top topes, the archetypal Wit, Verboden Vrucht, and Grand Cru, each one bottled unfiltered, unpasteurized, and naturally carbonated.
Under Interbrew’s stewardship, the cloudy yellow Hoegaarden Wit remains a winning wheat beer: frothy and flavorful with accents of coriander seed and orange peel tantalizing the tongue. The Grand Cru, a shade darker and similarly spiced, is highlighted by a yeasty, mandarin orange character. Still richer is Verboden Vrucht, also fruity, though with more of an edge of apricots. The consistency of these brands from year to year is one of brewing technology engineer Marnix Catteeuw’s primary challenges: “Consumers expect the beer to taste the same, even while raw materials are changing. Yet if the farmers don’t grow the same barley they once did, we have to change the recipe to arrive at the same product.”
Generally, those sorts of alterations tend more toward the subtle than the dramatic. For instance, Jan Adriaensens, brewing engineer at the Abbey ofWestmalle, observes that a slightly different malt may be measured seamlessly into a recipe through adjustments in mashing temperatures. He emphasizes, though, that a beer’s flavor is not affected by ingredients alone: “You have to be very attentive to what you’re doing in the brewery because the least change you make will give you a different taste.” So how have Westmalle’s Tripel and Dubbel fared since the Trappist abbey automated its brewhouse in 1992? Divinely, to judge by recent samplings. The latter retains its velvety smooth texture and palate of nuts and milk chocolate, while the former, which is hopped with whole-flower Hallertau Spalt, Saaz, and Slovenian buds, seems just a shade drier than the Tripel of old.
A difference in packaging sizes, too, can influence flavor and mouth feel. “Even though it’s the same beer, that in the keg will taste completely different than its bottled counterpart,” states Antoine Bosteels, general manager of the Bronwerij Bosteels, in East Flanders. “The aromas are the same and the foam very nice, but the [CO.sub.2] saturation is totally different.” Bosteels experimented with bottle conditioning its delicious Kwak, an amber, aromatically caramel, spicy top- fermenter, but found the process didn’t improve a product that is customarily filtered and flash pasteurized. Such trials weren’t wasted, though, as the brewery’s newest ale, Tripel Karmeliet, does undergo refermentation. This delicious, deep-gold brew derives its smooth, grainy palate from a combination of pale malt, wheat, and oats, while the addition of three spices endows it with fruity orange, coriander, and peppery vanilla flavors.
Bosteels, busily modernizing its facility, intends at long last to allow visitors in for tours, and a taproom is to be constructed to accommodate them. The Proef Brewery lacks such an amenity, though its stainless-steel plant is state of the art. General manager Dirk Naudts, who opened for brewsness three years ago, aims primarily to work as a contract brewer.
Evidence of Naudts’s abilities lies in his Reinaert line, including an especially fine Tripel–yeasty, grainy, and a touch winey–and a rich, caramel malt-infused Grand Cruant.
Reinaert beers share a tendency toward billowy heads, thanks to their all-malt makeup, Naudts believes. Similarly crowned is the classic copper ale of Antwerp, known simply by the name of its brewery, De Koninck, also a malt-only concoction. Long-distance devotees of this ale will be delighted to learn that it is once again being exported to the United States.
More important, since the brewery’s modernization in 1995, this dry, fruity, faintly nutty drink is more consistently tasty than ever before. Additionally, a recent brew from the company, the golden-colored Antoon, is no less pleasing, coating the mouth with a melange of fresh-gristed malt and fruity Saaz blossoms.
Travelers traversing Belgium in search of the holy grale will, of course, occasionally encounter a disappintment. Some misguided brewers seem to feel no need to invest in top-notch ingredients, quality control, and routine modernization as long as they hold a historic recipe. Such appears to be the case regarding the beers of Het Anker. Gouden Carolus was once one of the great beers of the kingdom, artfully balancing chocolate and sourness with a complex spicing that hinted of ginger, juniper, and cloves. A recent serving at De Twee Palen yielded a different sort of “throwback”: It took just three sips of the insipid brew, which seemed little more than a watered down dubbel, before the Gouden Carolus was discarded.
Other down-on-their-luck libations from Anker include Mechelschen Bruynen and Triple Toison d’Or. If such examples are becoming a rarity in Belgium these days, give some credit to companies like Interbrew, De Koninck, Bosteels, and many others. In raising their own quality standards, they elevate the bar for everyone else. Providing Proof-er, proof-that there’s no reason why wonderfully savory suds shouldn’t be created with one mash fork in the past and another stretching forward into the future.