International Beer StylesYears of Brewing Tradition Yield Delicious Imports
The exploratory beer drinker has so many local options in the stores these days that it’s easy to overlook the dozens of delicious imported brews that are still regularly shipped to Alberta from Europe.
It’s also easy for the modern craft beer drinker to forget the debt of gratitude he or she should pay to traditional brewing nations such as Belgium, Germany and the United Kingdom. The styles of beer brewed in those countries−often for centuries−laid the foundation for most of the craft beer styles we see today.
IPA and Other English Ales
This is probably most evident in the case of India Pale Ale(IPA), the flagship style of North America’s craft beer revolution. Yet, the style is very much English. IPA first appeared around the turn of the 19th century, designed as a highly-hopped, higher-alcohol pale ale to survive the long sea journey from England to India, where colonists were thirsty for ale.
Thanks to IPA’s late-1980’s reinvention in North America, the traditional English style is receiving more attention and is still exported across the world. It’s interesting to try a traditional IPA alongside its modern, aggressively-hopped descendant: the English style has more malt character, with caramel and toast aspects, while the hop profile is more floral and spicy. It’s a delicious alternative.
There’s a variety of other English ales in the Alberta Market, from classic, easy-to-drink, malt-forward pub bitters to dark-brown porters. This latter style is all about the grain as well, and features roasted malts that can impart chocolate and coffee flavours. Porter is the forefather of stout (originally called “stout porter”) but is lighter in body and less roasty.
Golden ale is a more modern British style that’s making more of an appearance on these shores.
Designed to compete with the popularity of lagers, they are more hop-forward in character−often with floral, herbal or citrus notes−and fall somewhere between North American blonde ales and pale ales. Again, the use of more traditional English hops can make them quite distinctive.
For the country that’s had the most far-reaching impact on brewing, look no further than Germany. The pilsner may have been invented in the Czech Republic (then Bohemia), but it was German immigrants who took the style to the world along with their exacting brewing traditions. Sadly, the quality of the style declined due to the effects of Prohibition, World Wars and the consolidation of breweries, thus today’s globally-marketed pilsners are pale shadows of their ancestors.
It’s worthwhile trying some imported German pilsner to see what it should really taste like: dry and quite bitter, with a distinct spicy or herbal hop note. There are few styles more refreshing. If you want to go right back to the source, several Czech pilsners are imported to Alberta as well. These are softer and slightly maltier yet retain a distinctive spicy hop character.
Bocks and other German Styles
Importers are realizing that there’s much more to German beer than pilsner. On the heftier side, there’s the family of bocks. The first bocks were actually brewed by monks to sustain them during Lent. When you taste the rich, bready, fruity flavours of a darker bock, you can almost see why; though you might wonder how those monks did anything but sleep during days of drinking 6-7% ABV beer. Doppelbocks are stronger and richer still, a winter favourite in Germany, while maibocks were traditionally brewed to celebrate the arrival of spring. They’re pale, grainy and toasty, sometimes with a herbal and spicy hop profile.
Hefeweizen is deservedly enjoying more popularity outside of its native Bavaria. It’s a wonderfully refreshing beer style, highly carbonated, cloudy and with yeast-derived aromas and flavours of fruit (banana, orange, lemon) and spice (clove, white pepper). There are variants, including the darker, breadier dunkelweizen and the clear, arguably even more refreshing kristallweizen.
These German styles haven’t changed too much over the decades and centuries, thanks in part to the federal Reinheitsgebot, the purity law that allows only water, grain, hops and yeast as the ingredients for beer. Comparatively, neighbouring Belgium is the Wild West of European brewing, where additional fruit, herbs, spices and sugars are regularly added to recipes.
Belgian Ales and Saison
Happily, a good range of Belgian ales are imported into Alberta, from light, fragrant witbiers to dark, powerful Trappist brews. Almost all Belgian styles make great play of their distinctive yeasts, which can create aromas and flavours of citrus and stone fruit, peppery and earthy spice, and in more extreme cases, surprisingly pleasant farmyard aromas.
Saison, another hugely refreshing style, is a great place to start exploring Belgian beer. Generally, saisons are pale, highly carbonated (pour carefully!) and very dry, with flavours of citrus fruit and pepper being common. It’s very versatile for food pairing and will match almost anything savoury.
Belgian Trappist Brews
The Trappist beers are probably the most famous of Belgian ales. “Trappist” is a special appellation that decrees that the beer must be made in a monastery by monks and not for profit. There are currently only 12 Trappist breweries in the world; half are in Belgium. While some make unique products, Trappist breweries have given rise to three distinct styles: dubbel, tripel and quadrupel.
Dubbles generally have caramel malt and dried fruit flavours, along with a distinct spiciness, and can hit up to 7.5% ABV; tripels, by contrast, are pale, citrusy, grainy-sweet, spicy and floral and can pack a punch at up to 9.5% ABV; quadrupels tip the scale at up to 12% ABV, and are rich, dark, complex ales full of bready and toffee malt and dark-fruit flavours such as raisin, plum, cherry and figs. You’ll want to experiment pairing these mighty ales with a variety of cheeses.
More Belgian Styles
Although more rarely exported, some classic examples of Belgian sour styles are beginning to appear in Alberta as well. These beers are soured by bacteria that are deliberately allowed to infect the beer during fermentation. The resulting tartness can be pronounced, but is most often balanced by sweet malt, bittering hops or yeast character.
Sour styles to look out for are wine-like Flanders red ales, malty “oud bruin” brown ales and gueuze, a complex and effervescent blend of the wild-fermented wheat ales known as lambics. Lambic and gueuze are also commonly fermented with fruit, giving rise to delicious specialties such as kriek (cherries) and framboise (raspberries).
The Belgian brewing tradition has been a huge inspiration on the modern craft beer industry in terms of its diversity, ingenuity and desire to experiment. Belgians really were the first craft brewers, so it’s more than worthwhile taking the time to explore their original craft beers.