As a beer lover, I’ve always looked forward to the fall. It’s the time of year when I put down the light, crisp German lagers I drink during the summer and reach for something richer, spicier and heartier—ale. Specifically, Belgian ale.
A radical departure from any other style of beer in the world, the ales that emerged from Belgium roughly 1,000 years ago are all about aroma, sourness, texture and fat. Not the kind of fat found in a pulled-pork sandwich, mind you, but the light, rich fat of a freshly plucked avocado.
American beer aficionados (a.k.a. nerds), tired of lighter, mass-market lagers and/or the overly hopped microbrewer’s darling IPA, have long delighted in attempting the near impossible—replicating 10 centuries of European tradition by brewing Belgian-style beers on U.S. soil (an example of American hubris at play even behind the bar). Goose Island Brewing in Chicago and New Belgium Brewing in Colorado were the trailblazers, producing the first domestic Belgian-inspired beers roughly 20 years ago. Today, however, a number of other U.S. beermakers are following suit. And while none of them possess the experience of their Belgian counterparts, their innovation puts them in the same company.
Four in particular stick out—in other words, I will be drinking each frequently over the next few months:
WISCONSIN BELGIAN RED
THE BREWERY: New Glarus Brewing (est. 1993), a pioneer of Belgian-style fruit beers in America
THE NON-BELGIAN LOCALE: New Glarus, Wisconsin
TASTING NOTES: Brewed with Montmorency cherries from Door County, Wisconsin, a brilliantly bright beer, with sour stone fruit, hops and oak, followed by leathery tannins and crème fraîche.
ALLAGASH BOURBON BARREL BLACK
THE BREWERY: Allagash Brewing Company (est. 1995), arguably the country’s most authentically Belgian beermaker
THE NON-BELGIAN LOCALE: Portland, Maine
TASTING NOTES: A stout ale that has been aged for a year in used bourbon casks. The sweetness of the bourbon and warm oak notes temper the bitter dark chocolate.
THE BREWERY: Russian River Brewing Company (est. 1997), one of the most well-respected microbreweries in the world
THE NON-BELGIAN LOCALE: Santa Rosa, California
TASTING NOTES: A dark ale aged with black currants in used cabernet sauvignon casks. Initial aromas of leather and bourbon are followed by a rich sourness that’s surprisingly buttery on the palate.
URBAN FARMHOUSE ALE
THE BREWERY: Commons Brewery (est. 2011), until recently a homebrew garage operation
THE NON-BELGIAN LOCALE: Portland, Oregon
TASTING NOTES: Sour, crisp and lightweight yet with a medium body. At the same time, the local hops give it a beautiful, floral tone.
Photo courtesy of Allagash Brewing Company