Beer Run

Why Chimay and Belgium remain the benchmark for craft beer

We interrupt this wondrous boom time of American craft brewing for an important announcement: Belgian beer is still vital.

We may be living in the Golden Age, but don’t be so eager to chase all those new and innovative beers that you neglect the gold standards.

On a recent weekday afternoon, we were reminded of that once again as I tasted my way through four Belgian trappist ales from Chimay with world-traveler and beer aficionado Louie Toro and Belgian transplant Dorus Van Goidsenhoven, who gave us some insights into the difference between the American craft beer geek and the Belgian beer enthusiast.

First, they have a head start over there. The legal drinking age is 16 – yes, I said 16 – and beer is much more a part of the culture and identity of the Belgian people.

Chimay is the best known and most widely available of the trappist beers – made by monks at a monastery. Its labels are color coded according to style. For this tasting, we moved from lightest to strongest and compared tasting notes as we progressed.

During the 90-minute session, I asked Van Goidsenhoven if he noticed a difference between the American and Belgian craft beer drinker. There’s a huge difference.

“Once a Belgian beer drinker is set on a certain beer or brand, they’re going to stick to that,” he said. “American beer drinkers, they will drink every new beer that comes out and are constantly experimenting in their beer tasting. It might change over time, what they’re drinking and what they’re liking. With the Belgian beer drinker, that’s never the case.”

That’s a rather nice way of saying that we’re still in the puppy phase of craft beer. I have a 1-year-old puppy and see the similarities – to Norman, everything is new and exciting, his attention span is short, his enthusiasm boundless, and he can never get enough. Like Norman, American craft beer enthusiasts are too worried they are going to miss something new.

For better or worse, the maturing of the industry – and the evolution of beer culture – will see a slowing of new and experimental offerings. Someday beer geeks may have favorite beers they drink all the time and – shudder the thought – the beer trades, bottle shares and lining up for new can releases will be a thing of the past.

Toro has visited hundreds of breweries throughout the U.S. and in many parts of the world. I asked him what Chimay means to him. For many Americans, Chimay was their introduction to that elevated beer experience that showed them just how good beer could be.

“It’s pretty much the classic Belgian brand. If you want to get a good broad tasting of Belgian beers, Chimay seems to always have the gamut of styles,” he said. “Chimay is a solid benchmark.”

“Chimay is one of the more important trappist abbey beers. When you want to drink a solid abbey beer, Chimay is one of the first ones to go to. Rochfort might be the second pick. Of course, the best in the world is Westvleteren,” Van Goidsenhoven added.

As we tasted the blond ale, brown ale, triple (or tripel) and the renowned Chimay Grand Reserve strong dark ale, there were several commonalities running through the lineup. There’s an overall elegance and balance to these beers, with aromas that are rich and nuanced, and a drinking experience that is delicate, complex and dry.

Van Goidsenhoven, who learned to appreciate the full-on explosion of hops in beer since marrying an American and settling in Sacramento, says his beer palate has changed. Still, he counts Mraz in El Dorado Hills, which embraces Belgian traditions, as his favorite local brewery.

During our tasting, he found himself perplexed by the Grand Reserve.

“It’s definitely too sweet, now that my palate is Americanized these days,” he said. “This actually used to be my favorite beer out of the whole Chimay lineup, and now that has changed. (My palate) absolutely has shifted. The reason why was because I started drinking hoppy beers and the bitterness of those beers, it’s just more enjoyable, so I’m steering away from my more traditional Belgian sweet beers.”

To hear more of our thoughts on the Chimay tasting, check out the accompanying video.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob