‘What do you think is the best beer?’ You know this type of awkward question. In fact, it’s not really answerable as there is no such thing as the ‘best beer’. The wonderful thing about Belgian beer is that you will always find a brew to suit your mood and taste at any given moment.
After an autumnal walk in the Ardennes a dark abbey beer in the evening, in front of an open fire, goes down extremely well. When I am tasting a Rochefort 8, I immediately get images of woods drenched in a multi-coloured palette with sweeping brush strokes.
Hans Wierts of Brewery DijkWaert in Herentals knows where I’m coming from. His inspiration also comes from what he sees, feels and smells around him. So, an autumnal forest walk has led to the creation of 'Bos Bier' which reflects earthy aromas and tastes.
“I try to retain this experience in the beer,” he says. Here, the seasons play a major role. A 'Fruitig Biereke' is perfect for summer, a 'Bos Bier' is more suited to the autumn. Although a wet summer provides the perfect excuse to blur the seasonal lines...
A blue sky with a brilliantly shiny sun calls for a glass of something light and fresh. A popular choice such as a pils, a fresh and slightly sour witbier, Vlaams roodbruin, a slightly more pronounced lambic or a gueuze. I leave all options open and put away my blinkers. Far be it from me to call myelf a connaisseur.
I admire zythologists who fill entire volumes on the contents of their glasses. However, I have found that the more I taste, the more discerning I become.
I often find a beer too insipid, too sweet, too average, or I come across the next big thing and find that it is not particularly inspirational. But, I remain open to new experiences and I try not to lean immediately on my established beer criteria.
However, every new Tripel, whether I like it or not, will be put to the test against the Westmalle and every amber beer I am asked to taste is compared with a De Koninck ‘bolleke’, which currently takes first place on my personal medal podium. Some things in life are set in stone (and I am now abandoning any attempt at objectivity).
When ordering a ‘bolleke’ in a café, I will expect the beer to be served in a tulip-shaped glass, finished off with a lovely frothy collar as thick as two fingers. Pouring is done in two stages and in between them, the glass will be given a rest for a few seconds as time does its work beautifully.
This slow ritual is part of the process, just like a freshly poured Guinness that takes on the appearance of milky coffee for a few seconds before turning into the pint that we all know and love.
I don’t want to play safe and I love a surprise. When, in Bruges, I tried a Viven IPA for the first time and was able to taste pure grapefruit - a revelation! I was unfamiliar with the overseas aroma hops used. Nowadays, these provide the character in quite a few new beers. “We search for balance in the glass,” as many Belgian brewers will tell you.
Not too sweet, too sour or too bitter. “A beer is only really good if you fancy a second glass,” according to Chris Bauweraerts, co-founder of Brasserie d’Achouffe (La Chouffe).
But even then, it’s all about the occasion and the mood you’re in. Do I want to have another one or just try a special beer that I haven’t heard of before? How much time do I have to enjoy myself? Tossing back a heavy beer, because you’re short on time – definitely not recommended.