Monday, June 2, 2014

Beer in Europe ~ le cinquieme part

My conversation with Don The Oracle continues...
... it looks like my beverage selections 
have dwindled from a week ago... is it time
to restock...?

A quick look at a Wikipedia page about the History of Belgium Beer reveals a vast array of potentially confusing names and beer styles. Not one word about how taxes and The Church influenced choices of what to drink.  Yet, as Don The Oracle notes, One can imagine that over the centuries just about everything that can be taxed has been taxed and people have evolved strategies to avoid the tax.

What with the Church having been the vast, all pervading political and economic engine here in Europe, I can understand how Gruut fell out of favor as lower priced, tax evading, beer preserving, taste enhancing alternatives were developed.
On a different note, there seems to be little or no mention on the Wiki of Belgium Rocket Fuel called "Quadruple".  Many breweries ferment the stuff.  The alcohol content is typically between 9 and 14 percent.  A great example of this one of my All Time Favorites is Trippiste Rochefort #10 which has an ETOH level of 11 percent.  All malts.  No hops.

... the Real Stuff, this...
brewed only on Pleine Lune (full moon)...
hops are not used, either...

Meanwhile, a little closer to home, I find it fascinating that beer made in France is now predominantly industrial.  Ninety percent of everything brewed here is from one of the huge brewers.  It seems that with the Terror came a diaspora of Beer Making Monks.  They seem to have headed for Belgium and other points east.  The exception appears to be Bretagne. 
That Celtic region of what would later be included in the country we now know of as France was never, ever conquered by the Romans.  There is a wonderful series of graphic novels about the region which remain in print.  Asterix et Obelix books are Required Reading in the original language on the topic.  It's hilarious stuff, this.   With such a strong independent spirit, I suspect the Breton had more than a few things to say to the Clochards when they arrived, too.  In any event, I see I need to study the Beers of Bretagne a little more closely.
I've come to realize that the chief reason I enjoy beer to the degree I do is that it Tastes Great!  Wines, to me, while certainly very nice, just don't have a certain "body" to them that brew does.  I call it "chewiness." My taste buds being what they are, I know a good wine when I taste it, but I have no ability to predict which wines are "good" and which are not prior to uncorking the bottle.

The Gates of Heaven
The Bootlegger has a good selection of Belgium beer.

Which leads me to Don the Oracle's enlightening comments about the construct and depth of beer as compared to other ETOH-laden beverages -
The problem with preserving beer has to do with the amount of sugars, dextrin, and proteins left in the final product. Distilled spirits are almost entirely water and alcohol. The flavor components are probably in the range of parts per million. Wine is also more than 99% water and alcohol.  The flavor components being much less than 1%

Beer on the other hand can have a relatively large (couple of percent) amount of complex sugar, dextrin, even some protein left in the final product,Beer starts out as grain.  The grain is mostly complex carbohydrates, starches and protein.  To get anything fermentable the grain is malted.  It is soaked in water until it just starts to germinate. This releases a number of complex enzymes that start to metabolize the grain's stored energy to allow the plant to grow.  The germination is stopped to produce malt.

The malt is then mashed.  Mashing involves carefully heating the malted grain in water.  At various temperatures different enzymes become active and covert the proteins and starches into various forms of simpler carbohydrates (eg. sugars).  Depending on the malting and mashing processes the amount of grain converted into simple fermentable sugars can vary a lot.  Ultimately the mashed grain is boiled to dissolve out the sugars and add other flavorings such as hops.

Beer yeasts can only eat certain fairly simple sugars, there can be a lot of other more complex carbohydrates left behind.  Those remaining components contribute to the beer's flavor and texture.  There are things that can still eat those other sugars and those things are the ones that can spoil the beer.

Modern industrial brewing can pretty much convert all the grain's potential sugar to fermentable forms, plus they pasteurize the beer after it is bottled.  You can imagine that this form of complex chemistry was beyond the range of pre-industrial brewers.

... Nectar of the Gods...
There you have it.  A reminder of the common types of fermentation (Lager, Ale, Lambic).  A nearly rational understanding of how Belgium beer is made and labeled.   A rational explanation for why I like beer (finding that "chewiness" is real and that beer is more complex than, say, wine).  A clear understanding of what to try next and why.  Beers from Bretaigne are high on my list of things to seek out.  Gruut beer from Belgium must be found and sampled too.

So much to experience.  So little time to experience it in.  Don't you agree?


  1. Great set of postings about beers in France! You may get a kick out of my co-worker's lunch today - he braised pork chops in Monk's Blood (a 'Belgian-style dark ale') for two hours, torturing everyone in the office (yes, we have a convection oven in the break room). At least he shared...

    1. He shared the braised pork, eh? So... how was it?? Delicious, I hope. :-)

    2. Yes indeed. And today it was braised pork and beef and lamb. Braising from about 9:00am until about 3:00pm. It sure is nice to work with a former chef... ;-)