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Beer geeks agree: Belgian monks brew some of the best

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Monk’s Café is located in the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia. (Courtesy of jenmccleary.com.)

This week I decided to take the column in a different direction and focus on a special type of beer that doesn’t get nearly enough coverage from the mainstream beer press or the online beer community — light beer. And that ends the obligatory but belated April Fools’ Day joke.

On a serious note, however, beer geeks are divisive, infuriating and often utterly under-informed figures of pure beer fandom that — for better or worse — are an integral part of beer culture. Ever seen someone show up to a pool party with one bottle and a long-stemmed tulip glass because he refuses to drink out of cans? Ever met a loud-mouthed drinker gesturing to a bearded friend about how Dogfish Head was only good when they brewed 10 gallon batches? Those are the beer geeks that we all love to hate.

Spend any time on forums like ratebeer.com and beeradvocate.com and trends in what the crowd deems to be “quality” in beer will become apparent: Bourbon barrel ageing — good; ABV over 12% — good; delicate and subtle hefeweizens — bad. Extremity is often confused with quality in these environments, where an obsession with numerical rankings has led to a top 100 chart filled almost entirely with Imperial IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts. Do a Google search sometime and try and prove me wrong.

However, few beers get people storming and stamping the way that the humble Trappist Westvleteren XII — a 10.2% Quadruple, or a “one-upped tripel” — can. Often considered one of “the rarest” beers available commercially, Westy 12 is actually brewed year-round at the Brouwerij Westvleteren, so in comparison to the single-batch one-offs that American companies often make it is downright common.

That being said, it is extremely hard to find: the monks brew only enough beer to run the brewery and have kept the total yearly production of 12 at 60,000 cases since 1948. Point of sale is limited to the brewery itself and a select few local retailers (in Belgium), and exportation is utterly forbidden, so American beer dorks will have to take a red-eye to Brussels or buy off the black market in order to get their hands on it. Caveat: black market beer sales are ruining everything for all of us, so don’t fall to the siren’s call.

This year, luckily, the Shelton Brothers, an American distribution company, was authorized to sell a special gift set, containing two Westy goblets and six bottles. Don’t get your hopes up though, because pre-sales are off the charts.

In addition to Westy 12, sour beers are often used in beer dork matches of one-upmanship as the ultimate last word. No, there was no typo in that last sentence; there are sour beers. Brussels, Belgium is the birthplace of one of my favorite branches of the beer-style tree — beers that taste about as far from “beer” as one can get.

Beer (traditionally) should be sweet; without the introduction of hops, the sugary flavor of malt would be overwhelming. Careful brewers take precautions during the fermentation process to avoid contamination by wild yeasts and bacteria, which travel the air at all times. These organisms may impart “off” flavors to the beer, such as the buttery slickness caused by a dirty tapline. However, brewers at places like Cantillon have refined their techniques over centuries to cultivate beers, known under the umbrella term “lambic,” that take advantage of the uniqueness of these wild flavors to create incredibly challenging and wonderful beers.

Lambics, which take their name from a region surrounding Brussels, Lambeek, are brewed in the traditional style by only a few companies, including the aforementioned Cantillon, who are considered one of if not the best in the world. Sour beers are divided into two main subcategories: with and without fruit added.

Listening to Cantillon brew master Jean Van Roy speak about how his company crafts world-class beers reveals an intense strain of superstition and mysticism that still accompanies the use of wild bacteria. In order to cultivate the yeast, the wort is left overnight in topless wooden vats (in contrast to modern stainless steel cylindro-conical tanks). Many of these cellars have remained literally untouched (or dusted) for centuries; the monks are hesitant to disturb even the cobwebs that surround the small cellar windows in order to ensure consistency in flavor. Much of this tradition is not simply the result of superstition though — most brewing can only take place during certain months because weather changes encourage unhealthy bacteria to thrive.

A batch of pure lambic is generally left to ferment for about three years (which is extremely long comparatively) and will taste tart, dry and almost vinous. Over that period of time, those flavors come to dominate the beer with even more intensity. Because the beer is kept in the original fermenter without the addition of more sugar, the final product is served uncarbonated and unnervingly sour.

Due to the intensity of pure lambics, brewers often blend “old” and “young” batches to produce what is called “gueuze,” pronounced, “goes.” Because the younger beer still contains sugar, gueuzes are carbonated similarly to traditional beer and are more palatable to many consumers.

Fruit beers avoid blending and instead take their sweetness from the addition of different varieties of fresh, whole fruit. These beers are classified according to the type of fruit used: the two most well known varieties are “kriek” (with cherries) and “framboise” (raspberries). Krieks take the “un-beery” taste often associated with lambics and push the flavor envelope even further into wine territory. The best fruit beers will impart an almost tannin-like tanginess to the already unusual ballet of tart and dry flavors.

Finding lambics in your local liquor store is not impossible, but the selection is usually quite limited. Lindemans brews examples of each major sub-style and are generally easy to locate, but in terms of quality and tradition they are often less than desirable — they use artificial fruit syrup in the place of whole fruit in their krieks and framboises. Boon and Belle-Vue (Warning: owned by In-Bev) are also common sights on shelves, but I have yet to have either.

3 Fonteinen and Cantillon make by far the best sour beers anywhere in the world, and Philadelphia is one of the best places to find both common and rarer offerings. Monk’s Cafe, probably the best beer bar in the city, has even collaborated with Cantillon to produce an extra-hoppy American style gueuze.

Brad is a junior. You can reach him at blenox1@swarthmore.edu.

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Hailing from Annandale, NJ, Brad is a member of the class of 2013 and boasts a major in English Literature and a minor in Political Science. His current beer of choice is Port Brewing Co. Mongo DIPA.

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