Intoxicating outlook for emerging Belgian beers 0
Muskoka Brewery's strong ale Spring Oddity. (Muskoka Brewery)
Typically, when I write this column, I try to review products that are already on the market. This is a good model, because it might call to your attention something you should have tried that you haven't tried yet. This week, it's a little bit different.
There's a good reason for this.
In Canada, beer nerds usually have a sense that the market is incomplete. This is not without reason. The claim goes that U.S. microbreweries are about a decade ahead of us in terms of developing interesting beers. Part of it has to do with the fact that we're comparing whatever we produce to the best of whatever they produce. They have 10 times the population, decades of progress on us and, in some states, comparatively lenient liquor laws. It's a mug's game. It's like complaining that a competent first-time director with a budget of less than $100,000 didn't make "Inception".
For the last couple of years brewers have been focused on creating extremely hoppy beers. Whether it was a Pale Ale or an India Pale Ale, the inspiration has been the American versions of those beers and finding combinations of hops that create mind-bending citrus, pine and tropical fruit flavours.
Currently, I'm noticing an industry-wide change in direction towards Belgian styles that I suspect is going to continue for the next couple of years.
The departure point for this, at least in Ontario, was saison. Saison was historically a beer brewed in winter to be consumed in summer as a quenching beverage in Belgian farmhouses. The yeast tends to lend a peppery character, and the style usually has a pleasant citrus note and a long dry finish to it. Aside from that, it lends brewers an incredibly broad canvas to work with. The amount of alcohol could be anywhere from 4% to 8%. Some versions might have fruit or spices as ingredients. The amount of variation in terms of hopping is also extremely widespread.
While it was the case just six months ago that there might have been two or three examples of saison in Ontario, the number of breweries producing or working to produce a saison has increased dramatically. In addition to interesting interpretations from Amsterdam, Bellwoods, Nickel Brook, Beau's, Sawdust City and Black Oak, Great Lakes is producing an excellent rotating selection that is the result of more than a year's worth of trial and error. This year's flagship brand for Ontario Craft Beer Week was a Belgian farmhouse ale.
In addition, there are interesting Belgian strong ales coming down the pike. Muskoka Brewery's Spring Oddity may have been ahead of the curve by several months, because there's a trend towards the development of Belgian styles with complex flavours. Not only has Spearhead launched a Belgian Stout, but Beau's Belgian Imperial Stout, Sleepy Time, was recently included in an upcoming release at the behest of online voting.
Why is this happening now? The explanation can best be summed up by the recent appearance of a couple of Belgian table beers. While monasteries produce strong beer for consumption by the public, noted as dubbels or tripels, they typically reserve a beer that is fairly light in alcohol for themselves, referred to as an enkel or single. Although they're at the low end of the scale in terms of strength, they're complex in flavour and refreshing. They are, apparently, what the monks want to drink.
This is the sign of a maturing brewing scene: The brewers are now playing with more ingredients on a broader canvas. They know what they want to drink, and they're attempting to create a taste for beers that they know consumers will enjoy, even if the consumers don't know it yet.
With the way things are going, it's only a matter of time until these Belgian styles are released in large quantities on an unsuspecting public. It's going to be a good couple of years.
Jordan St. John writes about a number of different facets of beer at Saintjohnswort.ca.