When people think of Belgian beer they usually think of one of the many local Belgian-themed beer cafés and their big bowls of mussels with pomme frittes (a fancy term for fries) with mayonnaise. Some people may think of the fact that the beers are generally quite high in alcohol, should be approached with caution, and are somewhat “funky” (I’m sure the odd business lunch has turned into a rather funked up afternoon).
In truth, the beers you taste in the Belgian-themed bars, besides one (sometimes two or three), are about the least funky beers Belgium has to offer. Nonetheless they are usually excellent beers and well worth an investigation.
Tap beers at these bars are generally the decent Stella Artois (a better local drop than its green-bottled nemesis and European neighbour), the deliciously quaffable Hoegaarden, the lightly-spiced and highly-drinkable Leffe ‘brothers’ (Blond and Brune) and the cherry-infused Belle-Vue Kriek. All good beers, usually served in smart glasses and in very good condition.
The bottled range branches out through some of the more interesting drops (and interesting glasses) from Hoegaarden, Chimay, Westmalle and Belle-Vue, as well as the omnipresent Duvel, the funnily named Kwak and its unusual glass, the marching elephants and crocodiles of Delirium Tremens, and the dangerously drinkable Gulden Draak (a 10.5% liquefied Christmas cake). Thinking about these beers makes me want to sneak down to my local Belgian-themed bar and sip the afternoon away, with a few friends and a whole lot of conversation.
For the more adventurous, the funkier beers in these bars are Orval and – very occasionally – a beer from the Frank Boon range or Rodenbach Grand Cru (I was once told by staff at Wellington’s Leuven that Rodenbach had been removed from the beer list because it was returned too often - it seems that its fruity “balsamic vinegar” character was not appreciated by the average drinker). We’ll look further into the more funky Belgian ales next time.
It is a shame that corporate practice prevails and these bars don’t have a policy of stocking some of New Zealand’s better Belgian-styled beers, such as Emerson’s JP (an annual release), Tuatara Ardennes or Mac’s Great White. They’re all as good, or better, than most of the imports. Another top New Zealand ‘Belgian’, though only available at the Mt Eden brewpub is Galbraith’s Resurrection – it even comes served in a chunky Belgian-style goblet.
When I was last in Auckland (earlier this year to see an excellent PJ Harvey make mediocre piano-playing a fantastic experience) I felt almost ashamed for having done a “30-something version of McDonald’s” by lunching at Occidental. In reality it was anything but – I had a couple of glasses of Orval, undoubtedly one of the very best (and most remarkable) beers in the world, and a very competent meal.
Many of these beers are available in the better supermarkets and bottle stores around New Zealand, while an even wider and more interesting range is generally available at the more specialised liquor stores. My picks are Rumbles in central Wellington, Regionals Wines and Spirits by New Zealand’s best test cricket venue, New World in Island Bay and the online Beer Store. Do you go Belgian and, if so, where?