After visiting the UK, let's take a trip through the Channel Tunnel to, well... an enigma: Belgium. How is it that such a small country which, let's face it, keeps a pretty low profile in just about every other walk of life (can you hum the Belgian national anthem? Me neither--see below for a primer) and at the time of writing hasn't had a functioning government for 540 days, is one of the most hallowed places in beerdom? There's nothing in the world like Belgian beer, except maybe Belgian style beer brewed elsewhere.
One of the oddest aspects of Belgian beer has to be the sour. Sourness is the mouth-puckering taste that is triggered by acidity, which is why you'll find it in abundance in certain citrus fruits, and it's put to good use in confectionery such as Sour Patch Kids and lemon drops, which have malic or citric acid added to them. The souring agent in beer is usually a type of yeast called Brettanomyces bruxellensis, and the sharp-eyed among you will already have made the connection between the name of the critter and the capital of Belgium. Despite not sounding particularly appetising, a good Belgian sour is actually pretty nice, as long as it's not overdone, and there are many excellent examples brewed in the US.
Then there are those beer-brewing monks. In centuries gone by it was a relatively common thing for abbeys in several European countries to brew their own beer and to sell some of it to the locals as a way of making a little extra cash to keep lead on the roof and stained glass in the windows, but it's Belgium that's best known for the practice these days, with six of the seven accredited Trappist breweries being Belgian (and the seventh is only a few kilometres across the border in the Netherlands). One of the largest and most respected American craft breweries, Sierra Nevada, has recently started brewing a range of abbey ales in conjunction with some Trappist monks in California.
And how about beers brewed with wild yeasts? To most brewers, who keep a tight control on cleanliness and sterility in all aspects of the brewing process, the idea of letting local wild yeasts get at their brew is anathema, and yet Belgian Lambics (beers brewed by this method) are loved, and indeed, prized by beer geeks. Austin's own Jester King brewery is currently experimenting with local wild Hill Country yeasts.
It's quite astonishing how many Belgian beers are to be found at or near the top of so many 'best of' beer lists, with one in particular - Westvleteren 12 - often cited as the best beer in the world. And Douglas Adams had the nerve to use the name of this country as the most foul and despicable word in the galaxy!
There's nothing foul nor despicable about today's beer - Corsendonk Christmas Ale, a Belgian strong dark ale. This style's kind of in the same ballpark as the winter warmer but its spiciness comes naturally from the yeast, and the sweetness is derived as much from the candi sugar which is added to beer, imparting more in the way of a barley sugar flavour, as opposed to the kind of caramel sweetness that comes from malt.
Okay everyone, loosen your vocal cords with a little Belgian ale and sing along!