If asked to name European countries, you’d probably hit double digits by the time Belgium came to mind. It can be tough to stick out when you’re sandwiched between the beauty, culture and cuisine of France and the... uhhh, mmm... German-ness of Germany. If further pressed to name Belgian beers, you might say Stella Artois or Hoegaarden, but the landscape of Belgian beer is broader and richer than the country’s size may suggest. And for a tour, you don’t have to cross the Atlantic.
The British Beer Company (BBC) Pie and Ale House in downtown Bristol is a place for beer lovers. It’s the only Rhode Island location for BBC, a 13-pub chain concentrated in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. GM and self-proclaimed “beer geek” Adam Couto helps curate the beverage menu, a diverse selection of international beers.
Having worked at BBC’s larger pubs, Couto describes the unique vibe in Bristol: “Our customers are diverse – young and old, knowledgeable and experimental – and we draw from Fall River to Newport. Since we’re a smaller venue, it really allows us to talk to customers about beer.” On this day we were talking about Belgian and “Belgian-style” (brewed outside Belgium) beers, and I entrusted Couto with the sampling menu.
Belgian-style beers are generally defined by their yeast and malt characteristics, as opposed to hops, giving many of them a light to medium effervescence. One of the lightest options on tap is Allagash White from Maine, a mild wheat beer brewed with coriander and orange. I preferred the Six Point Harbinger, an earthier “saison”, or “seasonal” beer, for those who still want golden color.
Beer in Belgium has a long, monastic history. A modern-day example is Chimay Grand Reserve Blue, a strong, dark “Trappist” ale. For a beer to be “Trappist,” the brewing must occur in a Trappist monastery with involvement from the monks, and profits must be used to support the monastery or social programs. Beers that fall outside this official definition may be referred to as “Abbey”-style beers, such as rich, dark Brother Thelonious from North Coast Brewery in California.
Any tasting menu has its dessert, and it’s no different when the menu is beer. Framboise Lambic is a fruit beer fermented with raspberries that give it a juice-like, bright red color. Sweet and tart, it’s perhaps not for everyone, but an interesting sample nonetheless. Last but not least was Goose Island Madame Rose, a Belgian-style brown ale from Chicago brewed with cherries in chardonnay wine barrels. This was a selection from “the Vault” or BBC’s off-menu, high-end collection, which on this day was opened and shared with patrons at the bar – an example of the care and discourse that bonds BBC with its beer-loving customers.