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Love beer? Drink up in 'Malt Disneyland'

Belgium is the epicenter of brewing culture; if you love beer, you’d better learn these basics.
Image: Customers enjoy a drink at the Dulle Griet bar in Ghent, Belgium
Customers enjoy a drink at the Dulle Griet bar in Ghent. The bar serves over 250 different beers, many with their own unique glass. The Max beer glass is so prized that customers drinking it have to give up a shoe, which is lifted in a basket up to the ceiling, and given back only when the glass is returned.Yves Logghe / AP file
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Tom Peters has been excited about Belgian beer since 1984, when he took “a cheap student trip” to Belgium. Bartending back home in Philadelphia, he convinced his boss to let him stock some Belgian beer. That was a signal moment: Peters had found his calling, and Philadelphia was set on the path to becoming what several importers have called the country’s strongest market for Belgian specialty beers.

“Belgian beer adds a variety and complexity of flavors to the palate not offered by other beers,” says Peters, co-owner of Monk’s Café in Philly. “It affords a restaurant the opportunity to be creative with beer and food pairings.”

American craft brewers may boast about their innovative ways: bourbon-barrel-aged beers, wild ingredients, formulas that tip the alcohol content well north of 10 percent. Guess what? The Belgians were there first.

To most of the world, Belgium is the home of Godiva and the E.U.— but to the beer lover it is a veritable malt Disneyland, a wild profusion of beer types tucked away in the backyard of Europe, an inspiration to brewer and drinker alike. If you want to keep up with the beer geeks, you need to be in the know about Belgian brews.

Belgian brewers reflect the country’s mixed heritage of French, Dutch, English, and German cultures. They share a tradition of big, malty beers with northern France. The impact of the British Army’s stay in the country during World War I is seen in pale ales like Palm and De Koninck, Scotch ales, and stouts. And then there are the ubiquitous German-type lagers, Stella Artois being the most prevalent and famous.

Belgium also stubbornly holds on to wholly indigenous beers that are unlike any others. The most celebrated are the lambics, primitive beers that ferment on wild yeasts and carefully encouraged bacteria to produce a shocking array of aromas and flavors. Some have been described as “barnyard funk.” Others are as piercingly sour as a thorn in the tongue. (Read "Pucker Up, Buttercup".) Tart and refreshing Flemish reds like Rodenbach contrast with dry, almost woody oud bruins. Witbier is a much more approachable style: the easy-drinking spice-and-citrus-spiked wheat beer that is the model for Coors’ successful Blue Moon Belgian White.

The most impressive beers in Belgium, though, might be the Abbey beers. There are six monastic breweries in Belgium: Chimay, Val-Dieu, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Rochefort, and Orval (a seventh, La Trappe, is across the border in the Netherlands). Orval’s one beer is a brightly fizzy, dry, and bitter aperitif; Westmalle makes a more traditional dubbel, rich and chocolaty and wonderful with a range of foods, and a tripel that is a classic—dry and spicy with creamy orange notes. Critical opinion on Abbey beers verges on devotion and awe, and several show up on almost every beer writer’s top 10 list, though some of the favorites have fallen in quality from what they once were.

If you’d like to dive into these beers, the best way to do it is the way the Belgians do: with food, which in Belgium is lovingly referred to as cuisine de biere. Chances are good that there is a Belgian-inspired bistro in a major city near you. New York has several, including Markt and Vol de Nuit. Chicago’s Hop Leaf serves a wonderful braised rabbit with your lambic. Pittsburgh’s Sharp Edge combines a corner-bar atmosphere with a big-city array of Belgian beers. Brouwer’s Café puts Belgium in the heart of the craft-brewing movement in Seattle. Philadelphia has Monk’s Café plus five more ... and counting.

At the holiday beer dinner at Monk’s Café, the packed 110-seat house was served a menu of its top dishes (pheasant terrine, duck ragout, and the traditional Bûche de Noël). But the real draw was the beer. Belgian beer. Of 11 featured beers that night, seven were from Belgium.

Next time you have a chance, order a pot of steamed mussels with a heaping mound of crisp, salty frites, the twice-fried “French” fries that mark Belgian street cuisine. Ask your waiter for a good recommendation on a Belgian beer to match your meal: you might wind up with the mind-altering twist of a lambic, or the religious experience of an Abbey.