Originally published in The McGill Daily on April 7, 2008.
If, somehow, beer culture was a religion – and the zealous, prophetical, and dogmatic sides of the industry do exist – Belgium would be the holy land. Of the places on the globe where beer is given its due respect, nowhere is it revered as much as in Belgium. Belgian culture is beer culture. Because of this, an earnest admiration of Belgium’s beers, their original styles, and history, have become the hallmarks of beer geekdom.
Here in Quebec, Belgian beer is certainly celebrated. Some breweries, like the American Allagash or Ommegang, or the Chambly-based Unibroue, excusively brew Belgian-style beers. Others, like the local brewpub Dieu du Ciel, keep a few tried and true Belgian styles on the roster. Over centuries of practice, Belgian brewers have crafted so many different beers that the Belgian style is easily assimilated into modern beer culture.
“In Belgium…anything can happen when you open a bottle,” remarks Dieu du Ciel’s brewmaster Jean-François Gravel. His brewpub in Mile End, which has taken North American beer scene by storm since it opened in 1998, keeps three Belgian-style families on the tap list. The witbier, abbey-style, and saison provide a general overview of the styles one might expect to find in any Belgian bar.
The witbier is the equivalent of the blanche beer that many enjoy on Montreal terraces during the summer. Light and fruity, it gets its name from the cloudy, “white” quality of the unfiltered yeast that remains suspended in the beer. The fruity quality actually comes from byproducts produced by the yeast during fermentation. In Belgium, brewers at Hoegaarden brew their witbier with orange peel and coriander seed, while in Quebec the blanche comes adorned with a slice of lemon. Hoegaarden is nice, but rather expensive as an import. Instead, try Dieu du Ciel’s Blanche du Paradis, Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly, or Le Cheval Blanc’s signature beer.
In Belgium, monks brew the Abbey-style beers, hence the name abbey. The most serious brewers of abbey-style beers are the Trappist monks, who brew some of the most famous Belgium beers. Chimay, Duvel, and Orval are all available at most SAQs. These are examples of the Belgian blonde, dubbel, and tripel Trappist styles known for the complexity given by the yeast and alcohol content.
Dieu du Ciel and other local breweries have appropriated the abbey-style for their own variations. Dernière Volonté is Dieu du Ciel’s hoppy abbey blonde ale. “There’s nothing like it on the market,” claims Gravel.
Whereas most Belgian breweries are located in the Flemish part of the country, the Saison represents Belgian’s French brewers. Also known as farmhouse ale, the saison is characterized by a spicy, sturdy flavor and earthy yeast tones. It is one of only a few French styles, but has found a revival in North American craft brewing. Gravel says that he is currently fine-tuning his saison recipe in order to find the perfect varieties of yeast and grain. “We try different grains – rye, buckwheat, wheat – so in the future we will probably have a family of saisons,” he says. Until then, the classic, and Belgian, Saison Dupont can be found at any large SAQ.
The popularity of Belgian beers in Quebec might be attributed to the astonishing beer culture that has flourished there. Montreal brewers like Dieu du Ciel have captured a small part of this culture in the attention they have paid to the Belgian styles. Thanks to them, we can appreciate a substantial portion of the global beer macrocosm without leaving the island.
Dieu du Ciel is located at the corner of Clark and Laurier.