Appreciating Belgian Beer

Appreciating Belgian Beer
Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)
Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)

The North American Belgian Beer Festival (NABBF), which was held on Feb. 7, is a growing endeavor spearheaded by the owners of Ashley’s. Hundreds of people packed into a giant tent in the parking lot of Ashley’s in Westland (7525 N. Wayne Rd.) to enjoy tastes of a variety of beers from Belgium. In addition to the tastes, attendees could interact with representatives from breweries and the Consulate General of Belgium.

Not many other beer festivals provide this sort of opportunity for learning and interaction with international trade experts, on a relatively small scale, and at a reasonable price. For these reasons, I rank this as one of the best beer festivals I’ve attended. I encourage you to check it out in early February next year.

Recently, Roy More (co-owner of Ashley’s) helped me become acquainted with the festival, as well as his goals for the event. In particular, I was struck by Roy’s point that Americans’ knowledge gap regarding the beers of Belgium is cavernous. Belgian-style beers are increasing in popularity in the US, but many people haven’t yet tasted beers from Belgium. Plus, the lack of specificity of the phrase “Belgian-style beer” renders it meaningless. There are many different styles of beer brewed in Belgium.

Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)
Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)

At the festival, during my conversations with representatives from a few breweries and the Consulate, a few themes emerged:

  • As with fashion and film, international beer test sites tend to be on the coasts– especially the east coast.

I understand that people in states outside of the Midwest drink beer, too. Nevertheless, it becomes difficult to expand the American Palate without access to certain products.

  • Despite the craft beer craze and the growing familiarity people have with certain types of beer, many Americans are not well-versed in Belgian beer styles.

Perhaps our collective ignorance regarding Belgian beer styles relates, at least in part, to my first point. Ignorance is often dispelled by exposure. If it’s difficult to obtain a variety of Belgian beers here, then, logically, it will be difficult to identify– or even be aware of– different styles of Belgians. (The same could be said about any brew style, Belgian or not.)

In Michigan, we’re enthusiastic learners when it comes to beer, though. Events like the NABBF provide a relaxed setting in which to experiment with different styles. Try a sour and didn’t like it? Rinse your glass and try another. Simple as that.

  • The trend toward ultra-hoppy beers in the US is the antithesis of most Belgian beers.
Mmm, fries with mayo. Mmm... Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)
Mmm, fries with mayo. Mmm… Photo courtesy of Bruno Vanzieleghem (Flickr: Bruno_VZ)

Many– likely most– styles of Belgian beer focus on balance and taking the time necessary to achieve a nuanced flavor profile. The ultra-hoppy, high IBU beers which dominate American microbrew menus can be so overwhelming to some palates that complexity is lost.

Of course, there’s more to American microbrews than IPAs and other bitter brews. However, especially over the past few years in certain places, it has felt like microbreweries are in a race to the hoppiest. If, for example, a brewery offers only a variety of pales on their five rotating taps in the middle of winter, that’s a problem– especially for those of us who don’t prefer a heavily hop-forward beer.

Interested in trying some great beers from Belgium? Stop by either Ashley’s location and read through their extensive menu. Not near an Ashley’s? Here’s a list from Beer Advocate of the top-rated beers from Belgium.

What do you think about beers from Belgium? Did you attend the NABBF this year?

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Hi, I'm Shannon and I'm proud to be from Michigan. Some things I enjoy: Cooking, craft beer, most kinds of music, travel, learning things, tattoos, driving, being on boats, water in general, being out of my comfort zone, history not printed in books (the real stories...), cats and dogs, imperfection, girls and boys, live (loud) rock 'n' roll shows, deep voices, smart people, sarcasm, dry wit, consideration, thunder, nerdiness, trying to explain complicated concepts in digestible ways, bourbon, stream-of-consciousness writing, Ford trucks from the 80s, people with useful skills, the color blue.