The best Belgian beers

Brews take their cues from the monks

Churches may consecrate their wine, but only beer can be holy.

Trappist ales are made by monks to fund charitable work. Once produced in their abbeys, modern demands mean modern breweries.

Monks still have the final word, says Dan Frengs, California regional rep for Chimay, the most-popular name in Trappist brews. Only seven monasteries carry the official Trappist seal and many other Belgian beers take their cues from the monks.

“Belgium has a beer culture the way the French have wine culture,” says Tom Nickel, co-founder of the annual 12 Hour Belgian Beer Party in Carlsbad, Calif.

The wine comparison isn’t much of a stretch; Belgian beers often contain fruit flavors and its brewing process is similar to Champagne production. Yeast and sugar are added at bottling, prompting the beer to re-ferment and develop natural carbonation. Like its vinous cousin, this also allows the beer to age in the bottle.

However, where wine drinkers might count on Robert Parker for advice, beer enthusiasts largely rely on each other. Online databases Ratebeer.com and Beeradvocate.com give top honors to Westvleteren 12°, made by 30 monks at the Abbey of St. Sixtus.

Want to try it? Book a flight to Brussels, then travel 90 miles west to Westvleteren; these monks don’t ship their beer anywhere, for anyone.

St. Bernardus Abt 12 Smells and tastes like homemade applesauce; crisp acidity and precise carbonation

Trappistes Rochefort 10 Cloudy, brown, almost dirty-looking brew; deerskin leather on the nose and nutty sweetness on the palate

Scaldis Prestige The most wine-like beer we tried, with a sherry nose and an unexpectedly tannic grip on the palate; notes of seawater and oyster liqueur

Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze Vintage 1998 Mineral and fruit nose; intense acidity, hints of sour green apple. The U.S. importer is letting it age, so it won’t be available until 2008.

All beers were tasted March 25 at the 12 Hour Belgian Beer Party in Carlsbad, Calif. Tasters included Daily Variety staffer Andrew Barker and Eden Canyon wine representative Jeremiah Henderson.

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