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Beer Paradise

02-15-2011

It's fascinating for me to imagine that I would ever have the opportunities that this industry has provided me. This past week was one of those "pinch me" moments.
A week ago today, I boarded a plane to head to the beautiful country of Belgium. I was filled with anticipation, as we were scheduled to see and taste history.
For beer lovers, Belgium is "Beer Heaven". I would dare say that there are few places on this earth where, with every sip of a locally made brew, you discover flavors on your palette that are rarely found in beer.
For centuries, Belgian brewers have enjoyed the ability to express art in fermented form. They have not been held to strict brewing guidelines, as it relates to the use of brewing ingredients. Obviously, water, yeast, malt, and hops are used, but items such as spices, candied sugars, and fruit are also utilized in many of the historical Belgian styles.
Each day was filled with discovery of new people, places, and things. We were scheduled to visit three distinctively different breweries during our visit.
The first was Boon Brewery. Boon is located in the city of Lambeek. In 1978, a gentleman named Frank Boon acquired the "R. Di Vits" Lambiek Brewery, which origins date back to the year 1680.
At Boon brewery, they brew Lambiek and Gueze beers. These styles use 100% spontaneously fermented yeast. Spontaneous fermentation makes use of yeast and fermenting bacteria present in the environment, for the process of fermenting sugar of malt in to alcohol of beer. These beers ferment inside of large wooden barrels, all stored in cellar like conditions. The oldest barrel still in use for holding liquid is from the 1870's. Each barrel is numbered and coded with chalk to let the brewers know what types of beers sit inside and whether a mixture of old and new lambieks have been blended. Frank Boon communicated that, because of the use of spontaneous fermentation, tastes will vary from one batch to the other. He also stated that many people relate the term "Lambic" to fruit. This is not the case. Lambiek (Lambic) is the style. When certain types of fruit are added, then it becomes a fruit lambic, such as a Kriek (Cherry) or a Framboise (Raspberry). My visit to Boon was a major highlight for me in my 16 years inside this profession.
The next day, as we were still buzzing (talking) from the Boon trip, we made our way to the Palm Brewery in Steenhuffel. Palm is the largest independent brewery in Belgium. Here we learned and experienced the history and flavor of Belgium's largest selling amber ale, Palm.
The history of Palm Breweries dates back to the year 1747. Around 1900, the popularity of Pilsner beers began to grow. In 1908, a gentleman named Arthur Van Roy created his own "Special Belge" Ale to combat the increasing popularity of the easier drinking Pils style, coming in from the Czech regions in Europe. Special Belge was an ale that had a copper-orange color, a roasted caramel malt flavor, and was extremely drinkable. After great success in Belgium, he renamed the beer "Palm" as a sign of victory by top fermentation (ales) over bottom fermentation (lagers).
During the visit, I was able to get a first class tour of the historical brewery and the surrounding area. This is an independent brewery that takes great pride in the brewery's rich history and contribution to the Belgian beer culture.
Our final brewery visit took us to the town of Roeselare, West Flanders, in which the Rodenbach Brewery resides. Rodenbach was founded in 1836. This brewery optimizes beer maturation in casks made of French oak. These casks are enormous and they house over 294 of these at the brewery, some over 150 years old.
They use a mixed fermentation process which is a symbiosis of mainly "top-fermenting yeast" with a limited quantity of "lactic acid flora". The acids convert into fruity esters and its intensity increases during maturation (up to 24 months). The beer's brownish red color comes from the tannins in the oak storage vessels. They incorporate a blending of young and old beer to reduce the acidity and give the beer an almost sour-sweet "wine-like" flavor.
Michael Jackson, the famous beer connoisseur, described Rodenbach beers as "the most refreshing beers in the world". I very much agree.
It seems surreal to me that I am sitting here entering a blog about places that beer passionate people only read or hear about. For just under a week, I was able to see, smell, and drink Belgian History. These experiences helped developed a greater perspective of not only beer but of world history for me.

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