Champagne is synonymous with New Year’s Eve toasts and celebrations. But craft beer offers many other flavorful options for festive holiday imbibing. If you find yourself looking for bottles of brut before heading to your New Year’s Eve party, leave the Chandon on the shelf and pick up a couple bottles of Belgium’s best beers.
From bottles designed to appeal to Champagne lovers to delicately balanced and deeply complex sour brews, here are a few suggestions for imported beer that go (far) beyond Stella Artois.
Biere de Champagne
Also known as Biere Brut, a bottle of this ale is a natural choice to stand in for Champagne. The style was developed precisely to provide a barley-based beverage every bit as festive, refined and effervescent as its namesake sparkling wines. Biere de Champagne is usually a pale golden color (though darker versions are available) with a delicate malt complexity and bone-dry finish. Look for bottles from Brouwerij Bostells or Brouwerij De Landtsheer, and expect to pay around $30 for a Champagne-bottle of the strong brews. Serve chilled in a flute.
Sour beers are undeniably trendy, and 2015 saw an ever-increasing awareness and thirst for brews that fall well on the wild side of the flavor spectrum. The Flanders Red and Oud Bruin styles are closely related traditional brews that harmonize sweet malt flavors of toffee, nuts and toast with a sharp, acidic twang. It’s easy to see why Flanders Red ales are known as “the Burgundy of Belgium.” Brands such as Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach and Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge are easily found at bottle shops and even corner liquor stores. Examples of the Oud Bruin style are typically a bit more robust and complex than their Flanders Red cousins, and bottles from Liefmans, Petrus and Monk’s Cafe are also widely available (often at Whole Foods locations).
One of a family of Trappist beer styles developed in Belgian monasteries in the early 20th century, these golden ales are built to show off the aromatic punch of signature strains of Belgian yeast. Clove spice and subtle smoke aromas interplay with hints of banana, bubble gum and pears, and a dry finish and deceptively light body accentuate the flavors. Belgian candi sugar is added to the brew to boost the alcohol levels and provide a lively effervescence, but these are sneaky beers. The boozy punch (sometimes over 10% alcohol) is well masked by the complex flavors, dryness and a well integrated hop bitterness.
Look for bottles from the secular Belgian brewers at St. Bernardus and Brouwerij Bosteels (makers of Tripel Karmeliet). Brouwerij Bosteels adds wheat and oats to the grist for added weight and complexity, and St. Bernardus is simply one of the best of Belgium’s exports, available in 750ml cork-and-caged finished bottles.
Not a style, but a singular brew from one of Belgium’s six Trappist breweries, Orval is unassuming and unforgettable in equal measure. Orval begins its life as a finely-crafted Belgian pale ale. The beer is resplendent with zesty European hops and the delicate aroma of fruit and spices. Then, when Orval is bottled, the brewers dose the ale with a wild yeast called brettanomyces, and the bottles are matured for several weeks. The local strain of wild yeast continues to metabolize residual sugars in the beer, further drying out the finish and providing a racy carbonation, as well as a myriad of complex earthy aromas and flavors. This in-bottle maturation can last for years, and Orval’s flavor will subtly evolve over time. The distinctive bowling-pin-shaped bottles should set you back between $6 and $8, and Orval makes for a wonderful aperitif or accompaniment to a festive cheese and charcuterie board.