Tuesday, 8 September 2015

What's in a name? Belgian IPAs always in style

At the risk of offending legendary beer writer Stephen Beaumont, I love Belgian IPAs.

I love how the spiciness from the Belgian yeast melds so beautifully with the indulgent lashings of West Coast hops to produce something ridiculously delicious. I love how, when done well, Belgian IPAs are hoppy and bitter and yet taste so clean.

It's an IPA but it's not and I love it. But I said that already.

Categorizing this style has been difficult for some, who use the argument that Belgium has so many different types of beer it would be impossible to call one "Belgian-style." Beaumont, who has been called a personal hero and his "favourite Canadian" (with William Shatner) by my second favourite Kiwi, reigning New Zealand Beer Writer of Year Neil Miller, is one of those critics.

Beaumont is quite passionate on the subject, declaring that Belgian beer is beer that is "brewed and fermented in Belgium. Period." In case he wasn't being clear, he added that even calling it Belgian-style is wrong as the phrase is a "largely meaningless and belittling adjective."

I can agree with him on the second point - 'Belgian-style' is over-used and somewhat trite - but the Belgian IPA label is in fact a perfect way to describe them.

The style is fairly new and did originate in Belgium when a few local brewers, inspired by the American India Pale Ale, began brewing hoppy ales for the U.S. market. The Belgian IPA style really took off when American brewers (and Canadian, as well as others) began brewing super hoppy beers using west coast hops and Belgian yeasts.

The result was spectacular awesomness, particularly for the North American iteration, the only examples of the style I've enjoyed so far.

(The complicated and convoluted history of the Belgian IPA breaks down thusly: It is an American (or Canadian) style inspired by Belgian beers, which were inspired by American IPAs, which were in turn inspired by English IPAs. I feel inspired already.)

So what's in a name? I'll give you five, each representing a legendary (or legendary-in-the-making) brewery: La Formidable from Beau's (Ottawa Valley) and Gigantic (Portland, Oregon); Princess Wears Girl Pants from Sawdust City (Gravenhurst); Catherine Wheel from Bellwoods (Toronto); Cali-Belgique from Stone (Escondido, California); and Derniere Volonte from Dieu du Ciel (Montreal).

(Derniere Volonte - which means Last Will in French - is the clear winner for me. It ticks off all the boxes and it is so smooth on the tongue it  tastes like a spicy, seven per cent alcohol creamsicle. A world class beer from a world class brewery that I have enjoyed just twice, and not once this year. Please LCBO, apologize to Dieu du Ciel - or whatever you have to do - and bring this beer back to Ontario.)

Montreal's finest - Derniere Volonte from Dieu du Ciel
Each of my Fab Five beers are called 'Belgian IPAs' at Beer Advocate, a grassroots network of beer enthusiasts based in Boston (Motto: Respect Beer). Belgian IPAs are described as having a "cleaner bitterness" vs. American styles, and a "pronounced dry edge (very Belgian), often akin to an IPA crossed with a Belgian Tripel," with alcohol generally on the high side. "Many examples are quite cloudy, and feature tight lacing, excellent retention, and fantastic billowy heads that mesmerize."

Sounds tasty.

Rate Beer, the world's largest consumer-based beer rating network, takes a different approach. The organization does not classify any beers as Belgian IPAs.

Princess Wears Girl Pants is listed as a Double IPA on Rate Beer, Derniere Volonte as a Belgian Ale and the other three as simply Indian Pale Ales. Score one for Mr. Beaumont.

It's hit or miss with the category at major beer festivals. At the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Belgian IPAs fall under the American Belgo Style category, while there is no mention of the category at all at the Ontario Brewing Awards.

The U.S.-based Beer Judge Certification Program, for what it's worth, describes Belgian IPAs as "an IPA with the fruitiness and spiciness derived from the use of Belgian yeast" and classifies it as  a Speciality IPA.

The aforementioned Mr. Miller, the standard bearer for beer writing on the planet (despite admittedly not being a big fan of Belgian IPAs), once referred to the style as a "USA/Belgium IPA." That works for me as well.

I should point out that I am a huge fan of Mr. Beaumont - one of the world's foremost authorities on beer and the author of numerous books on the subject (including The Pocket Beer Guide, which he co-authored with Tim Webb and is now in its third printing) - and would never want to irritate a man who, in the one and only social media thread we participated in together, sang O Canada (sort of), simply because I challenged him to prove his Canadian status.

Stephen Beaumont: Canadian. Neil Miller: Honorary Canadian
Damn if he didn't come through on the dare, so long as you consider "Da, da, da da...da, da da da da da...Da, da, da da..." to be called 'singing.'

Full points for the effort, though.

No matter how they're classified, Belgian IPAs will always hold a special place in this lover of IPAs and their friends' heart. They are hoppy, they are spicy, they are delicious and I love them.

But I'm sure I said that already.


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