This is my first time participating in the session and what could be a more appropriate topic than “My first Belgian”. I became conscious of the craft beer movement in the mid-nineties during what was to become the first of ten Christmases spent in Vermont. Unable to drink due to the unnecessarily restrictive drinking age of 21, I had to make do listening to conversations about beer by enthusiastic drinkers. Whilst some of the Von Trappes were living close by, it wasn’t Austrian beers that seemed to be lusted over but Belgian ones. Indeed, this trend continues today when US breweries are so influenced by different styles of beer produced by a country 28 times smaller.
I can’t recall for definite when I first tried a beer from Belgium. The older brother at times was gifted beers chosen more for their alcoholic strength than style or origin. At times he’d share some of these when I was under-age but that being said he also gave me Buckfast at one time too. It is possible that an early introduction was via Leffe and Stella Artois would’ve been a likely candidate as well. Unfortunately, I never did get to go to Belgo while it was open in Dublin.
This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War One and it is fitting that my first Belgian beer is coincidentally linked to a trip to see the battlefields back in 1999. It was the Easter weekend during my Leaving Cert year and I spent it in Brussels. Dinner with my parents on Good Friday required the observation of no meat (on my mother’s orders) so it consisted simply of a plain-enough pizza. Back in the hotel with the parentals retired to their room, I visited the bar. The bar of the Gresham Belson Hotel was non-descript, functional and modernist. The counter was small with space for a solitary barman behind.
Wondering what to drink, the barman was quickly on hand to make some suggestions. This is a feature of Belgian bars. Their suggestions on the other hand may not be always welcome (a friend is just back from Antwerp where a barman tried not to serve her Rochfort 10 because it might be too strong for her). However, suggestions offered may lead visitors discover some rare treasures. It was one such suggestion in Delirium, back when it was just the one bar, which led me to discover Saison Dupont almost ten years ago now. So what did the barman offer me on this occasion? Well, given that Easter is a time for reverence and observance, he felt it was appropriate for me to try a beer produced by monks.
My first real Belgian beer experience was a bottle of Chimay Rouge. The barman was Flemish so addressed it as Chimay Dubbel. I had great fun the next morning asking at the front desk how to get to Yprès, only for the reply to be a mini-lesson on how to pronounce Ieper (from recollection it’s like eeeee – p – rrrrr). The barman told me the importance of decanting it into a glass, the right glass of course. This glass was a chalice. It was so different to Dublin where people were still getting excited over consuming Miller from bottles as the height of early Celtic Tiger sophistication. The beer was different to any dark beer I had tried before. The sweetness and pleasant carbonation grabbed hold of me. Instantly you could get a sense of localism in their beer and cuisine. I had a waffle or two and come chocolate of course earlier that day.
Was this beer a game change for me? Well, it would be over-stating it if I said it was because of previous experience watching people around me trying some American craft beers, trying some that would be purchased on my behalf and some limited special beers available in Ireland in the late ‘90’s (it wouldn’t be until that autumn that I would venture into the Porterhouse in Temple Bar). However, I still remember it. Clearly. This was before I was into photographing unusual beers or ticking them off a list. It was a beer that I would go on to having a fair few of when I could get my hands on them in Dublin. There were times when I could be found consuming them in the Buttery Bar in Trinity. It wasn’t quite the same experience as back in the Belson but enjoyable none-the-less. I would get a bottle or two from the Dunnes Stores on Stephen’s Green and sneak them into the bar. I couldn’t get away with using a glass. It clearly looked completely different to any beer on sale and there was the fear of attracting the attention of concerned patrons or worse, the bar staff, that I got a “ropey” Guinness. I had to settle for the next best thing a Styrofoam cup but whilst doing little to the enjoyment of the beer, it did have one useful advantage. The beer’s tan head gave the impression for any inquisitive eyes that I was merely having one of the god-awful cappuccinos from the machine in the canteen next door.
I then must admit that went on to ignore this beer over the years as different and more exotic beers became available. Chimay Grande Resérve being one of them. I recall the popularity of Duvel in the early noughties and becoming almost the international standard-bearer for Belgian beers. However, for me Duvel is sadly not as good as it once was. I rekindled my interest in Chimay Rouge when I moved to Brussels in 2005, which came as part of a wider exploration of Belgian beers once the day’s work finished. Tripels are easy to get people interested in them and people overlook dubbels due to factors such as colour and lower alcohol content. I like using both in beer tastings because it can open people’s eyes to two styles, and the dubbel I tend to use over others is what has become my longstanding companion, Chimay Rouge. I even served it during the main course during last year’s Christmas dinner. It has become a mainstay of my drinks list for Easter and Christmas and my wife has even managed to source a few bottles for when I spend Christmas over in Nashville.
So that’s the story of my first Belgian…
Thanks to Breandán for arranging this session and for inviting me to participate. He’s an Irishman living the Belgian beer dream. Read more from him & Elisa at http://belgiansmaak.com/