Even if you don’t like beer, you owe it to yourself to try a Belgian brew (and if you do like beer, make it a double). The Belgians brew such fantastically flavorful and endlessly varied versions of the stuff that they really need a distinct classification to set them apart. Calling them ‘beers’ is just too limiting. But whatever you call them, Belgian beers are some of the best in the world.
What makes them so good is hard to say. It could be because they’ve been brewing beer seriously since the middle ages. But more likely it is because they’re not governed by some requirement or orthodox notion about what beer should be, they experiment with just about any combination. They add spices and sugars. They bottle them using the same methods applied to high end champagne and age them in oak like wine. If you can think of it, they’ve probably done it. After several hundred years of such experimentation, you’re bound to create something special. And they do.
So it was with great anticipation that we visited Allagash Brewing Company in Portland, ME. Allagash was one of the first artisan breweries to spring up in the 1990s that dedicated itself to the Belgian style of beer making. We had the opportunity to taste their original beer, Allagash White, a traditional Belgian wheat beer that is unfiltered and spiced with Curacao orange peels, and coriander. If that combination of spices makes you think we’re in an entirely different universe of brews, it’s because we are. But surprisingly, the spices are so well balanced and subtle that all you notice is that this golden hued beverage is deliciously different from what you normally get from similar looking beers. White is what we consider an everyday drinking beer; something refreshing on a hot afternoon or with a meal. It is a bit expensive to fill that purpose, but it would be nice to have a couple of bottles around for a change of pace every now and again.
Barrel aged beer! Curieux?
Then we moved on to tasting the Dubbel and the Triple, which are heavier, more flavorful, and sweeter beers. We think of these as “dessert brews,” to be savored slowly and deliberately for their own sake. The mahogany-colored Dubbel knocked our socks off with its rich malty flavor and hints of sweet chocolate. We picked up a couple of four packs and have been doling them out sparingly like fine truffles. The Triple was also excellent, with a fruit and honey flavor, but we were more intrigued by a beer we didn’t get to taste, Allagash’s Curieux.
The name, Curieux, means ‘curious’ in French, which couldn’t describe our reaction any better. To make Curieux, Allagash cellars their terrific Triple in oaken Jim Beam barrels for eight weeks, a process that has us ‘curious’ to say the least. We know what oak does to wine, softening Chardonnay and giving it a buttery vanilla flavor. But we’ve never experienced it in a beer before. We imagine the Triple picks up hints of vanilla and bourbon from the casks, but at this point, we can only imagine.
We were curious enough about this brew to snatch two 750ml (wine sized) bottles without ever sampling it. So far we’ve remained disciplined and haven’t yet gobbled them up. We don’t have a special occasion in mind to crack them open, but eventually our Curieux will get the better of us, no doubt.