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The Belgo-American

April 13, 2011

It’s no secret that American craft beer is heavily influenced by the Belgian brewing tradition, in more ways than one. Many popular styles in craft beer today are imitations of Belgian styles, like Quads, Dubbels, Tripels, and sour ales, to name a few. All of these styles make use of a specific kind of yeast, usually just called Belgian yeast, that imparts a distinctive flavor profile to the beer. The Belgian brewing tradition is also rooted in the work of monasteries, with groups of monks producing by hand small batches of well-crafted beer. By comparison, the American craft beer scene is kept alive and vibrant by small microbreweries producing innovative beers for the love of the craft.

The good ol’ U.S. of A. has a distinctive brewing tradition of its own, though it’s sometimes hard to define because we are watching it unfold before our very eyes. American craft beers, though they vary widely in style and borrow from so many other brewing traditions, do share some common qualities. Hops play a huge role, and it’s a common view that American beer lovers are “hop-heads”. It’s not unwarranted either, with hoppy IPAs being undisputedly the most popular style with brewers all over the country. In fact, many of the most well-known American craft breweries (Stone, Sierra Nevada, Dogfish Head, etc.) have made names for themselves based on the generous use of hops in their beers. Americans love hops so much that we invented some of our own. For example, Amarillo are aroma hops that originate in Washington State, while Cascade hops (the most widely used hop variety in American craft beers) were developed in Oregon in the 1970s.

Contrast this hop-centric attitude with almost any other brewing tradition, like the Scots with their malty, smoky Scotch ales, Germans with their lagers and wheat beers (and a strict adherence to the Reinheitsgebot), England with its bitters and porters, and it becomes clear that American beers are a whole different animal. Sometimes, when two distinct cultures influence and inspire one another for long enough, a whole new style is born. There is a growing category of beers out there that blur the line between Belgian and American styles, and for lack of a better word, can be called Belgo-American. I’m not talking about all “Belgian-style” beers, because there is no shortage of those, but instead those beers that don’t fit neatly into any established style.

The Stone Brewery seems to have embraced this concept, with their Cali-Belgique IPA being one of the most notable examples of this kind of dual-citizenship beer style. Stone has also just released their Old Guardian Belgo, a Belgian-ized (?) version of their Old Guardian Barley Wine. At 12% abv, it’s boozy up front with a sharp, citrusy hop bitterness, but once you get past that there are some sweet malts and a hint of soft Belgian yeast to smooth it out. Given its strength and complex hoppiness, this is one of those beers that seems to evolve as you’re drinking it, with various fruity flavors and spicy hops mixing together to create all kinds of subtle tastes and aromas.

The Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project (based in Massachusetts) has practically defined itself on being indefinable, taking various styles (many of them Belgian) to a whole new level by adding their own tweaks. Their Fluffy White Rabbits, for example, is an interpretation of a Belgian Tripel, but it is uncharacteristically hoppy for the style, with a kind of sweet orange blossom finish. At 8.5% abv, it bears only a passing resemblance to a traditional Belgian Tripel with a hint of Belgian yeast in the background, but the spicy hops are what really shine in this one. In a similar vein, and just in time for Spring, their Baby Tree is a take on a Belgian Quad, but its Belgian qualities are subdued with caramel malts and flavors of fresh, ripe plums. At 9% abv, its strength is well-hidden under sweet malts and plum flavors, with only the slightest hint of Belgian yeast. If Belgo-America were a place, I’d nominate Pretty Things as its flagship brewery.

The White Birch Brewery, based in Hooksett, NH, has been quietly plugging away at creating some very interesting beers, including some that qualify as Belgo-Americans. Being New Hampshire’s first nanobrewery (producing only two or three barrels a day), the people at White Birch have tried their hand at a surprisingly wide array of styles, including the only Berliner Weisse I’ve ever come across. Their Hooksett Ale definitely qualifies as an excellent Belgo-American, with a similarity to a Belgian IPA, but with enough going on in the background that it’s hard to pin down. At 9.5% abv, it’s a golden-amber colored brew that has prominent flavors of bubblegum (yes, bubblegum), spicy hops, and a little clove, with just a hint of smooth Belgian yeast. This is a beer that tastes like nothing else that came before it, though you can tell there is some Belgian influence. Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Belgo-American.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul Raimondi permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:25 pm

    It should be noted that the Belgians have taken note of this craze for belgian beers with hops. Duvel created a special limited edition with crazy hops in it (Duvel Tripel Hop). Would you call this a Belgian-Cali?

    • Deron permalink
      April 13, 2011 1:52 pm

      Maybe, especially if it uses typically American hops like Cascade or Amarillo. I’m actually not familiar with the Duvel Tripel Hop, but I think that exceptionally hoppy Belgian beers are definitely taking a cue from American craft beer culture. Cultural influence goes both ways!

  2. April 13, 2011 2:47 pm

    Thanks for noticing our small brewery in NH. Love the pic. Cheers, Bill

    • Deron permalink
      April 14, 2011 6:37 pm

      Thank you for brewing great beer. When is the Berliner Weisse coming back?

  3. Amy Galvin permalink
    April 19, 2011 2:01 pm

    I haven’t tried any beers from White Birch yet so I’ll have to grab one this week.
    I’ve been in love with all things Pretty Things for a little over a year now and i’m delighted that I’m not the only one who can’t define their beer. Whenever I’m compelled to describe Pretty Things beer I feel silly getting into the flavors rather than saying, “o it’s just a nice .”

    • Jonathan Maher permalink
      April 20, 2011 1:00 pm

      Great article! White Birch makes fantastic beers. As a hop-head it has taken me sometime to come around with traditional Belgian brews such as Dubbles and Triples. But traditional Belgian Lambics are some of the most delicious beers in the world. I love to see American brewerys taking chances with brewing those types beers to see what they can offer.

    • Deron permalink
      April 22, 2011 6:44 pm

      Yea I hear ya, it can be hard sometimes trying to accurately describe the subtle flavors in a beer. With Pretty Things I can never think of anything to say besides “it’s really good.” With some beers you’ve just got to take a chance and experience them for yourself. I think that’s the fun of it.

  4. Jonathan Maher permalink
    April 20, 2011 1:52 pm

    Great article! White Birch makes some fantastic beers. As a hop-head it’s taken me a while to come around with Belgians such as Dubbles, Triples, etc. But Traditional Belgian Lambics are some of the most delicious and complex beers in the world. It’s exciting to see American brewerys take thier chances in creating these styles to see what they can put on the table.

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