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November 2003
Belgian Brews

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 animal products.

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 by 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 spicy 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 Triple.

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, is 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 from 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 (

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