Monday, January 20, 2014

The millenium has arrived: I like a beer

The packaging got me. I took a field trip to a large local liquor store and, while browsing, couldn't resist a little brown bottle of beer with a pretty picture of a medieval lady on the label. It's called Duchesse de Bourgogne Belgian ale, made by Brouwerij Verhaeghe, Vichte, Belgium.

And it is so very good. Of course I know next to nothing about beer, so you have no reason to trust my judgment. Come to think of it, there seem to be as many kinds of beer in the world as there are wines, so when you further consider how daunting a prospect it is to learn a bit about the latter, and then further muse on how little time I devote to the former, well -- all of it should further illumine the awful depths of my ignorance.

The few beers I have tried have disappointed, being either very strong, black-brown porters or stouts resembling a besoured liquid pumpernickel bread with foam on top; or faintly inoffensive paler brews tasting more or less like a handful of aspirins dissolved in water; or very crisp, very light, fizzy concoctions tasting like one or two aspirins only, dissolved perhaps in a pitcher of very weak and heavily carbonated lemon-lime soda. Every time, it has been the bitterness I can't cope with. Some people rave about loving "hoppy" beers, and those who know much more than I do have listened to my complaints and then recommended to me brands which they consider "not too hoppy," or as exemplifying "the malt flavor more than the hops" -- just what I'd like.

Still no luck. No luck until now, when, let loose unchaperoned in the wilderness of a megastore beer aisle, I picked entirely by label. Why not choose the pensive, veiled Flemish princess, all garbed in gold and black?

I brought it home, chilled it in the fridge, forgot about it for a few days, and then opened it and poured. Wa-la, as bad novelists say when they want to be insufferably cute.

The beer's color is a beautiful clear amber-red, the head frothy, enormous, and long-lasting. (This is said to be a measure of quality, I believe?) The taste, thankfully, was entirely sweet without a hint of bitterness that I could sense. It reminded me of a very delicate, thoughtful, and grown-up cola, a comparison which I hope will not be taken amiss. More astute drinkers have reviewed Duchesse de Bourgogne elsewhere and have noted its fruit and chocolate tastes and its pleasantly sour, dry finish, reminiscent even of balsamic vinegar. Needless to say I did not recognize anything like that. I only found it rich and delicious, actually finished the entire bottle with my lunch (and felt strangely as though I'd like a nap afterward), and now look forward to returning to that store for more. I'll have to remember to bring money, to be sure, since an adorable 11.2 ounce bottle costs $5.99 plus tax.

Technical details are spelled out simply on the label and at the website of the U.S. importer, D&V International. Duchesse is a combination of 8- and 18-month old beers, the 18-month old portion having also been aged in oak barrels. 

Its being named for a late-fifteenth century duchess reminds me of old testimonies we read, in histories and biographies, of ale being a major part of everyone's diet when water was unsafe, wine unreliable and expensive, milk reserved for cheesemaking, and coffee and tea unheard of. Ordinary families brewed their own beers, while the lord of the manor hired an ale-wife to brew for a great household's needs. Even children guzzled their daily pints or more, we are told, beginning with breakfast and carrying on. I have never understood how children in any era could have been prevailed upon to drink down, every day, the flagons bitter stuff that I don't like. Now, having tasted the Duchess, I begin to understand. If the ales of centuries past were anything like this, I'm sure any four-year-old and I could happily imbibe at the crack of dawn, and lunchtime too, for pleasure as well as calories, carbohydrates, and necessity. And the low alcohol level meant -- and means -- that getting a "buzz" would be among the least of its attractions.

I'm pleased also to report that, according to good sources, not only are Flemish red ales "the most wine-like of beers," but Duchesse de Bourgogne specifically is "the high priestess of Flemish reds" and enjoys "a cult-like following." How thrilling. Induct me.

"Smart Tarts," Tasting Table, March 2009
Flanders red ale, Wikipedia

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