Good Beer Hunting

Message in a Bottle

Found in Translation — What “Belgian Beer” Means Globally

National stereotypes seem straight-up crazy once you cross a border or switch languages. American kids might call an open-mouth kiss “Frenching,” but the German concept of französisch, or “French,” can mean something slightly more X-rated. One of the most celebrated sauces of classic French haute cuisine is hollandaise, once called by the near-translation of “Dutch sauce” in English, while contemporary English-language references to something “Dutch” usually evoke a sense of irony or disappointment (booze is “Dutch courage,” while having to pay your own way on a date is simply “going Dutch”). While the Czechs may drink the most beer in the world, they’ll still say that a real alcoholic “drinks like a Dane.”

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All of which is to say: it can be confusing to try to figure out what it means if a beer tastes “Belgian,” shows “Belgian character,” or is even “Belgian-inspired.” Because when you’re talking about a country as diverse as Belgium (a land with three official languages and scores of indigenous brewing styles), the concept of “Belgian” can obviously mean different things to different people, depending on their point of view. For many English-speaking beer lovers today, a reference to something “Belgian” might have to do with phenolic yeast aromas or Farmhouse Ales in general. But elsewhere on the planet, the concept of “Belgian” beer can mean something else entirely.

“First of all, it’s expensive,” replied Masayoshi Kaji, when I messaged him to ask what “Belgian beer” means for regular people, not connoisseurs, in his homeland of Japan. “It is very different from the beer that we usually drink. And it is rare, because it contains fruit.”

The idea that “Belgian beer = fruit” is pretty understandable, at least for average Joes and Janes, and it’s worth noting that the understanding of authentic Belgian beer culture is much more sophisticated among connoisseurs in Japan. Years ago, Cantillon’s Jean-Pierre Van Roy told me that, without exports to Japan and the U.S., his brewery might not have survived. 

The appreciation for Belgian brewing in Japan has been led by people like Kaji, who knows Belgian beer well himself, having served as a judge at the Brussels Beer Challenge. He’s also the director of Japan’s Craft Beer Association, which has offered educational seminars on beer styles for more than 20 years, and he runs what he calls “the smallest beer pub in the world,” the standing-only, just-six-or-so-customers El Nubichinom in Yokohama. But even among hardcore Japanese beer fans, Kaji noted, the idea of “Belgian beer” might have different connotations than elsewhere.

First of all, it’s expensive. It is very different from the beer that we usually drink. And it is rare, because it contains fruit.
— Masayoshi Kaji, Japan

“In the case of Japanese Belgian beer lovers, ‘Belgian’ also means something with high alcohol,” he continued. “It is a noble drink.”

In particular, he says, the Belgian concept of enjoying good beer along with good food is highly appreciated in Japan, because of its lengthy history and traditions. “The [Belgian] culture of pairing beer and food is wonderful. As you know, Japan is a country with a long history and culture. Likewise, Belgian beer culture is deeply beautiful.”

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That idea of “Belgian” carrying a connotation of “good food with good beer” is also still alive in France, where la cuisine à la bière is frequently associated with dishes like carbonade flamande and other classic Belgian recipes. Even in a country that thinks it knows its northeastern neighbor well, the meanings of “Belgian” in France are now in flux and occasionally contradict themselves, according to Hervé Loux, a beer judge and brewery industry consultant in the central French city of Orléans.

“Ten or 20 years ago, ‘Belgian’ would have meant Trappist beers or Abbey ales,” Loux says. Today, he noted, “Belgian” might mean “something a bit too sweet” for many younger drinkers, which he chalks up to France’s “new wave” of interest in IPAs and other craft styles. “At the same time, ‘Belgian’ holds an important concept related to Lambic and Gueuze for many French beer lovers.”

That’s definitely not the case in parts of South America, where Belgium’s spontaneously fermented tradition remains highly obscure, even among brewers. Originally from Uruguay, David Brun now lives and works in Prague, where I know him from our local homebrewing group. When I asked about the concept of “Belgian” in his homeland, he told me that Lambic was just not part of the picture.

Here, so many people—consumers and brewers—use the name ‘Belgian beer’ for sour or farmhouse beers. For sure it is wrong in practical terms, but that’s the most common use of it.
— Eduardo Villegas, Mexico

“I was in Uruguay in January and brought some European beers with me,” Brun said. “I met with homebrewers there and when I shared some Gueuzes, none of them had ever tried one before. In Uruguay, they know very little about Lambics, Gueuzes, and all those spontaneous fermentation beers. It’s really hard to get those there.”

If Lambic and Gueuze weren’t part of the concept of “Belgian” in Uruguay, I wondered what that might include, so I asked Brun to survey some of his brewing friends back home. A few hours later he got back to me, noting that no one he’d asked had said anything about spontaneous fermentation, and only one friend had mentioned the tradition of monastery breweries.

“What I got from the Uruguayan dudes was basically the idea that Belgian beers are generally higher in alcohol, they tend to think fuller flavors, more malty and yeasty, esters and phenolics, and full-bodied,” he said. “Some mentioned that when thinking about Belgian beer, they think about a wide range of styles. Also, some mentioned that the they like it or are interested in it because of the fruit additions. Only one mentioned Trappist beers.”

Similar thoughts came from Raphaël Lambois, the brewer of Belgium’s Brasserie Coopérative Liégeoise in Liège, when I caught up with him while he and his wife were visiting family in their old home in Argentina. (Like Brun, Lambois was once part of our homebrew crew in Prague. We’re everywhere.) When I asked Lambois what “Belgian beer” means for his friends in Argentina, there was no discussion of Lambics or even dark beer.

It’s actually pretty funny, the perception of what ‘Belgian beer’ means here. Generally speaking, it’s Stella Artois. Stella is considered a premium beer here. It’s a little more expensive, and it’s seen as a little bit higher in quality.
— Raphaël Lambois, Argentina

“It’s actually pretty funny, the perception of what ‘Belgian beer’ means here in Argentina,” he told me. “Generally speaking, it’s Stella Artois. Stella is considered a premium beer here, and it’s sold in a bottle of one liter. It’s for drinking when you’re watching football. It’s a little more expensive, and it’s seen as a little bit higher in quality. What’s funny is that I think their version of Stella is closer to our old Belgian recipe—it seems hoppier and more refreshing here.”

“But in terms of craft beer, the city is just full of microbreweries now,” he continues. “And in fact they all brew by style, and they all have a style they call ‘Belgian,’ which is a blonde beer fermented with Fermentis T-58 yeast. They have very little imports, so they are all basing their recipes on what they find on the internet or in books, and very few people have actually tasted real Belgian beers here. So for them, what they call ‘a Belgian’ is a blonde beer, a little bit stronger, maybe around 7 or 8% alcohol, fermented with T-58. It has the aroma like a Leffe or something like that. And that’s it.”

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Move a bit closer to the U.S. and the concept of “Belgian” starts to sound more familiar. In Mexico City, Eduardo Villegas runs the Academia Mexicana De Eno-Gastronomía and a cult brewery, Cervecería Tatuaje.

“Here, so many people—consumers and brewers—use the name ‘Belgian beer’ for sour or farmhouse beers,” Villegas says. “At least that’s the most common use. For sure it is wrong in practical terms, but that could be the most common use of it here.”

That’s close to the common English-language association of “Belgian” with specific yeast characteristics, as in Garrett Oliver’s entry on “Belgian beer” in The Oxford Companion to Beer

“When we speak, therefore, of ‘Belgian beer,’ we refer to top-fermented beers showing uniquely Belgian character,” he writes. “If you ask three Belgian brewers what defines Belgian beers, it is likely that you will get three different answers. Surely, however, one answer is yeast.”

The only problem? It doesn’t always seem like brewers themselves are 100% down with this concept, using the term “Belgian character” for a variety of things beyond “top-fermented yeast aromas.” Even in Belgium, Green claims “Belgian character” for their bottom-fermented Monsieur Rock. In Toronto, Mill Street explains what they think “Belgian character” means by noting that they add “sour cherry juice to add colour and traditional Belgian character.” In the UK, Beer Hawk describes La Chouffe’s “quintessentially Belgian character” as “spiced, bready notes, coriander, and a touch of lemon.” With such variation, it’s easy to understand why consumers anywhere might have trouble getting a handle on the meaning of “Belgian.”

There’s a similar passage about yeast in Chris White and Jamil Zainasheff’s Yeast: The Practical Guide to Beer Fermentation, a book intended for brewers, rather than consumers. But White and Zainasheff’s take on “Belgian” has a bit more nuance to it, which starts to point in a new direction.

If you ask three Belgian brewers what defines Belgian beers, it is likely that you will get three different answers. Surely, however, one answer is yeast.
— Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn

“All of the Belgian beer styles share a common characteristic: the significance of yeast character to the style,” they write. “Some beers may have a more restrained yeast character, others are more forward, but they all rely on fermentation compounds particular to the yeast strain, if they are a good example of the style.”

For White and Zainasheff, that goes well beyond phenolic aromas. “In fact, many Belgian-style yeast strains do much more than produce phenols. Although there are some strains that are relatively clean, many produce a lot of esters, fusel alcohols, and earthy and even sour flavors.”

In a way, Belgium isn’t getting enough credit: the country has probably sent more beer styles around the globe than anyone else, but as those styles have crossed borders and entered new languages, they’ve come to mean different things to different people. In the end, it’s like the “Belgian” qualifier doesn’t even need to be there—it’s as if the real meaning of a beer with “Belgian character” is just a beer with character itself.

Words, Evan Rail
Illustration by Danielle Deley