Brewing a taste for Belgian beer

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HERZELE, Belgium – Spend a few days in forests of East Flanders with the world’s most insatiable beer hunters, and you quickly understand one thing about this tiny nation’s phenomenal ales:

America is barely scratching the surface.

You say your town’s favorite Belgian bar has 75 different bottles? You boast that your local beer distributor now carries six different Trappist ales? Big deal! The pros are tracking down even more exotic specialties.

“There’s always another great Belgian beer, right around the corner,” said Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk’s Cafe in Center City, as we geared through a muddy road toward the De Ryck brewery in this village 25 miles west of Brussels.

Along with Daniel and Will Shelton, beer importers from Massachusetts, we would spend several days in the Belgian countryside, sampling selections in search of something to bring back home for beer lovers in Philly and beyond. I’m not sure if we found the next great ale, but we drank some tasty contenders that you’ll see on store shelves in the coming months.

Belgian beers have been hot since beer writer Michael Jackson first popularized then-unknown labels like Chimay, Duvel and Hoegaarden 15 years ago in his syndicated column and guidebook. (The latest edition of “Great Beers of Belgium,” by the way, just hit bookstores and was featured this week at the annual KitchenAid The Book & The Cook restaurant festival.)

Just a quarter the size of Pennsylvania, Belgium has about 125 breweries that produce some of the most unusual beers in the world, including tart, fruit-flavored lambic, sweetened abbeys in corked bottles and colorful varieties of red, white, brown and strong golden ales.

Belgian beer is beyond a singular definition (and it is not, most assuredly, defined by the patently pedestrian and unfortunately ubiquitous Stella Artois). Yet, its beers have such a distinctive allure that importers and specialty bar owners are looking for almost anything that says “Made in Belgium.”

For those on the front lines, the rendezvous point is the annual Zythos beer festival held each March outside Antwerp. On its face, it’s a typical, noisy beer-drinking affair with taps pouring everything from the classic Kwak and De Koninck to the obscure (St. Pieters Taras Boula and D’Ecaussines Cookie Beer).

But behind the scenes, Zythos is a huge networking opportunity, with thirsty importers stalking the festival floor, slipping business cards to brewers and distributors eager to expand into America.

Last year, brewer Dany De Smet showed off his powerful Slaapmutske Triple, and the Sheltons quickly scooped it up for distribution in America. “I think people in America appreciate Belgian beer more than we do in Belgium,” De Smet told me, explaining his interest in exporting. “The U.S. is so big – it’s such a big market for me.”

This year? I was drawn to Pico Brewery’s Melchior, a hoppy head-banger that rang in at 11 percent alcohol. But the Sheltons and Peters were looking for something with less horsepower.

“Some of these brewers,” Daniel Shelton said, “all they’re doing is adding extra sugar to pump up the alcohol. I want something with less alcohol and a more complex flavor.”

In Herzele, a couple of days after the festival, we found just the ticket: De Ryck Special. It’s a relatively low-alcohol (5 percent) ale made by An De Ryck, one of Belgium’s few female brewers. Her great-grandfather established the brewery in 1886.

With its open courtyard and red brick buildings, the facility would look right at home in Fishtown. Most of the equipment goes back 50 years, installed to replace vessels confiscated by the Germans in World War II.

De Ryck and the Sheltons sorted out the mundane but often troublesome details of shipping beer across the Atlantic: pallet sizes, freshness dating, label registration, payment schedules.

Brewery worker Henk De Bruyckere caught me stifling a yawn, so he helpfully poured me another Special. Before long, the Sheltons and De Ryck were lifting glasses, too.

The deal was done.

And like that, an ale that until now had been available in perhaps a few dozen cafes within 15 to 20 minutes of this town would be headed to bars and beer shops 3,500 miles away.

The next great Belgian beer? Maybe. But even if it isn’t, there’s still another one right around the corner.

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