By Lydia Nichols
Compassionate living must always include being kind
to ourselves as well as to others: we sensible humans all have certain
sweet treasures in life to which we treat ourselves as rewards for our
hard work. One of the rewards I take the greatest pleasure in is good,
flavorful beer. With an unprecedented number of great-tasting vegan
beers available now in pubs, restaurants, or supermarkets, it is sometimes
a struggle to choose from among them.
I have always enjoyed imported beers, but one country tops the list
of producers: Belgium. Belgian beers are not only delicious, but are
also all vegan, containing no isinglass, finings, gelatins or any other
Belgium has an interesting history of brewing practices. Traditionally,
it has been conducted by two types of communities: artisan or farmhouse
breweries, and monasteries. While some Belgian beer-makers have sold
out to large corporations, many current Belgian breweries are family-owned
and still operate independently.
Some of Belgium’s most storied and flavorful beers are produced
at Trappist monasteries. There are six Trappist breweries in the world,
all of which are in Belgium: Chimay, Orval, Westmalle, Achel, Rochefort,
and Westvleteren. For many centuries, monks have served as head brewers,
using techniques and recipes based on ancient traditions. These brewers
are the only ones allowed by law to use the “Trappist” label
on their products—though it is typical for many other Belgian
monastic sects, who also brew beer either on the abbey premises or
license at a secular brewery, to mimic the style of Trappist beer,
and their labels often bear the names of saints, shrines, or churches.
Chimay is one of the most prevalent and well-known
of the Trappist brewers, and has a growing popularity in the U.S. The
Chimay monastery was established around 1850 but did not begin brewing
beer commercially until 1862. The town of Chimay is located in South
Belgium near the border of France, and with a population of less than
10,000, may be small, but the people’s dedication to producing
quality beer is great. Chimay even has a restriction against salting
the roads, as the salt might contaminate the water table and ruin the
main ingredient of their famous beer! Chimay ale has a distinctive
flavor, and is available in three types, which are identified by the
color of the label and cork: Chimay Rouge, Grand Chimay Blue, and Chimay
For those who only consume organic beer, Belgium has that to offer as
well. Foret, for example, is an unfiltered organic
ale brewed by Brasserie Dupont, a well-respected artisan brewery. It
has a rich golden color and delivers an aroma filled with a blend of
spices such as cinnamon, vanilla, pepper, figs, and a trace of toffee.
Brasserie Dupont’s beers are all carefully brewed from barley
that is specially malted and meets all requirements of organic processing.
All raw materials are processed naturally without chemicals or preservatives.
Belgium is home also to Lambic beers, which are spontaneously fermented
beers and some of the world’s rarest and most delicate brews.
Lambic, which could really be considered the ‘champagne’
of beer, is crafted through a process similar to other beers, except
that 30 percent unmalted wheat is added to the malted barley; aged hops
are used (instead of the more common freshest-possible) to contribute
preservative properties but not the herb’s bitter flavor; and
no yeast is added. Instead, after boiling, the lambic wort is transferred
to a large, shallow, copper vessel where it is exposed to cool fresh
air and wild yeast. Fermenting rooms are dark and full of cobwebs—brewers
dare not clean them for fear of losing the unique natural yeasts. Lambics
mature for almost two years; and are then treated accordingly to make
the chosen style of the lambic beer family: a dry aperitif, full-bodied
dinner, or fruity dessert beer.
Lindemans lambics are probably the best-known and
most highly regarded of this treasured brew—the family-owned brewery
has been among the “Top Ten Breweries in the World” for
four consecutive years, and produces a collection that includes fruit
flavors such as Framboise (raspberry) and Pêche (peach), as well
as their Gueuze Cuvée René: an unseasoned, wild-fermented
wheat beer golden in color with a winey palate.
My favorite Belgian beer is Hoegaarden. Hoegaarden’s
heritage dates back to 1445, from a small village of the same name,
just east of Brussels. Its most popular product, Hoegaarden White,
a wheat beer, top-fermented and then refermented in the bottle. This
beer sports a crisp aroma and a flavor alternating between lemons and
faint wheat. Hoegaarden is naturally cloudy, and the smooth taste is
often enhanced with a fresh lemon slice. The refreshing nature of this
beer makes it perfect for summer.
There are a few other, lesser-known types of Hoegaarden. The Speciale
is a stronger wheat beer that is brewed seasonally, available only
September until February. Speciale is hazy golden in color and has
a taste of lightly roasted malts and Hoegaarden herbs. Hoegaarden Forbidden
Fruit is brewed according to a long tradition in which the secret blend
includes the flavors of dark malts, dried orange peel, and coriander.
Last but not least, there is Hoegaarden Grand Cru, which is known as
the noblest beer in the Hoegaarden brewery. Grand Cru has a pleasant
peachy color and palate, and combines sweetness with a hoppy bitterness.
Hoegaarden’s popularity is spreading, and it is becoming increasingly
easier to find. In 1997, Hoegaarden (Interbrew) was the recipient of
the International Beer Competition’s Organic Beer gold medal.
Hopefully by now you are interested in tasting some good Belgian beers.
It is impossible to write about all their breweries have to offer, so
I suggest trying as many as possible. New York provides a variety of
locations that share my love for Belgian beers, which are typically
sold in 12.7 and 25.4 ounce bottles that retail for about $4 to $6.
Any store with a strong beer department should have a decent selection
of Belgian beers.
If you want to go out on the town, here are a few New York locations
where you’ll find a great selection of Belgian beers. Café Centro (212) 818-1222; d.b.a. (212) 475-5097;
The Ginger Man (212) 532-3740; Blind Tiger
Alehouse (212) 675-3848; Cafe des Bruxelles
(212) 206-1830. Cheers!
Lydia Nichols is Director of Communications
for the Washington, DC office of In Defense of Animals (www.idausa.org).