Belgian-Inspired Craft Beer—Old World Inspiration Meets American Innovation

By Stan Hieronymus

It wasn’t long into the first session of the 30th Great American Beer Festival before brewers were telling other brewers they should head over to booth C10 to try the St. Dekkera sour beers from festival newcomer DESTIHL Restaurant and Brew Works. By then, attendees had discovered the same secret and the line stretched across the aisle to the other side.

The scene was repeated Friday evening, and founder Matt Potts was still having just as much fun Saturday afternoon when he spotted a brewing hero in line for DESTIHL beer. He turned to fellow brewer Fred Morissette with a “Did you hear what I just heard?” look after New Belgium Brewing brewmaster Peter Bouckaert practically guaranteed the brewery would win a medal at the awards ceremony that was about to begin.

Bouckaert turned out to be wrong, but for Potts the praise was worth as much as a medal. Bouckaert, of course, grew up in Belgium, formerly worked at Rodenbach and brewed some of the first intentionally sour beers in the United States. That pretty much punches all the right buttons for somebody producing sour ales in Normal, Illinois.

Only a half dozen years ago, the Brewers Association hosted a presentation during GABF to educate the press about the growing number of American breweries taking inspiration from Belgium. “Belgian-style ales are hot,” said Ray Daniels, then director of the Brewers Association Craft Beer Program. “I’ve begun to refer to them as the Third Wave.” He explained German and British styles were the first two waves.

DESTIHLDESTIHL might be riding the crest of that wave, but plenty more breweries are on board. Thursday evening at GABF, Boulevard Brewing Company brewmaster Steven Pauwels set out with me to sample a few beers that take their inspiration from his native country of Belgium. We never had to walk more than a few steps to find another option. Some breweries brought a single Belgianesque choice—for instance, the medal winning Le Serpent Cherise from Snake River Brewing Company in Wyoming, a Flanders sour ale packed with Washington cherries— while others filled all their taps.

At  the Captain Lawrence booth, brewmaster Scott Vacaro talked Pauwels through five of his New York beers. Pauwels’ favorite was Rosso e Marone, a sour brewed with grapes and aged in oak barrels. “Well made and very complex. Layer upon layer,” he said. “An amazing sipping beer . . . Brett(anomyces), wine notes, oak and malt sweetness play nice together.”

Not every beer we tried was sour, but Pauwels often drew the skin on his throat tight as he discussed the importance of the finish, about balance and acidity. He remembers finding many more over-spiced and under-attenuated beers when he first came from Belgium in 1999. “Now, I think there are some really fantastic beers made with Belgian yeast strains,” he said.

Funkwerks Saison, which would win a silver medal, was “drinkable, refreshing, a pleasant blend of hops and fermentation esters with the right acidity.” Pauwels complimented Nebraska Brewing Company’s Melange a Trois, which would medal for a second straight year, for the way the strong blond ale blends with flavors from the Chardonnay barrels it is aged in. “It’s a delicate balancing act and they know how to do this very well,” he said.

Steve PrauwelsTwo days later, GABF judges confirmed just how well Pauwels (pictured right) balances recipes at Boulevard, awarding the brewery two gold medals and two bronze. Three won in categories labeled “Belgian,” including Collaboration No. 2 White IPA. That was brewed from a recipe Pauwels and Larry Sidor of Deschutes Brewery created to meld the white ales of Belgium with the hop-accented beers of the American Northwest.

With several breweries opening across the country each fortnight, it’s not surprising the evolution continues. Just south of Hood River, Oregon, operating out of the same barn in which he started Wyeast—the yeast supply company he ran for more than 20 years—Dave Logsdon operates Logsdon Farmhouse Ales in partnership with Charles Porter. They are using yeast that Logsdon collected in travels throughout Belgium; and including ingredients like local organic peaches, cherries grown on Logsdon’s 20-acre family estate, and of course Oregon hops.

In St. Louis, Perennial Artisan Ales founder Phil Wymore served beers made with three different yeast strains sourced from Belgium in the first weeks after the brewery opened this fall. However, he’s shied away from using the words “Belgian” and “style” together.

“I have been telling people that we’re brewing our own versions of Belgian-inspired beers,” he said. “One reason for this is that we do not want to be limited by tradition,”

His accent may not be Flemish, but he sounds a little like a Belgian brewer.

StanStan Hieronymus has traveled the United States many times over while writing about beer for numerous publications. He’s author of seven books, including Brew Like a Monk and Brewing With Wheat and has contributed to many others.