Today we leave Germany behind and visit Belgium. As I recall, the process to brew both German-style and Belgian-style beers is similar, but the Germans are precise whereas the Belgians just sort of wing it. Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time certainly knows I am on board with the Belgian’s style.
In a nutshell, Belgian beer history is steeped in the Catholic Church. For centuries, the Church allowed abbeys to brew beer to earn needed cash. People wanted beer because in those days a low-alcohol version was a substitute for impure drinking water. Today, a number of popular beers once brewed in abbeys continue to be made following those traditional methods.
What’s more, monks at seven monasteries continue to brew and sell beer to meet their living and maintenance expenses. Six of these seven Trappist breweries are found in Belgium: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. The remaining, La Trappe, is located just across the border in the Netherlands. An eighth Trappist brewery exists in Germany’s Mariawald, but they have not brewed beer since the 1950s.
It’s been noted Westvleteren brews the best beers in the world. But they are not available in the United States. And the monks only brew the beer when they need money. So I guess I will stick with the second best beer in the world: Bud Light.*
A fairly tiny country, Belgium boasts the largest number of breweries per capita than any other country. A few Belgian beer types you should try when you visit include:
Dubbels – Malty! Rich and dark as well.
Tripels – Strong! Also brewed with a lot of malt, but the addition of candy sugar lightens its color to a pretty golden hue. It is worth noting the strong refers to alcohol content, not to taste. A good Tripel should actually go down pretty smooth.
Saison – Fruity, but more dry than sweet. They were brewed in the winter for drinking in the summer.
Witbier – A light, spiced “white” beer brewed with wheat.
Labmics and Gueuzes – Delicious. To be discussed in further detail in an upcoming post.
Let’s talk about food. I picked a recipe for Belgian Beef Stew seen in Ted Allen’s In My Kitchen. At the time, I thought it was a good alternative to the knee-jerk Belgian waffles I considered. Pretzels were pretty obvious for Germany, so I thought I should go off the beaten path with this one. About half-way through, I was seriously reconsidering the waffles.
While I can appreciate the art of cooking that requires one to braise beef in the oven for over two hours, the way in which the recipe was written was overly complicated. It involved cooking meat multiple times and layering things in a Dutch oven to cook both on the stove and in the oven. I was so frustrated with trying to figure out just what should be going on that I recognized recipes like this are why people say they can’t cook.
We all can cook. Though a cookbook might call something Belgian Beef Stew, at the end of the process, it’s a soup. How can you possibly mess up soup? It might boil over, but it won’t burn. It might not taste quite right, but that’s nothing a little salt and pepper can’t fix. I’m fairly certain that unless you throw a handful of dirt in the pot, you are not going to mess up soup.
So let’s do as the Belgians do and throw caution to the wind. The original recipe for Belgian Beef Stew calls, obviously, for beef. I just happened to have two cans of fully cooked beef from a local farm near my hometown (which is another story altogether), so I used that. Typically, I do not buy beef, so I do not even know how to suggest a cooking method for the beef called for in this soup. But since we are all traveling along our own paths with the recipe as a guide in this one, I know you will figure it out.
I happened to throw in some carrots and celery. If you do not want to eat beef, throw in some beans. Vegetarians can omit the meet altogether and substitute vegetable for the beef stock. The important thing here is the focus on is the beer because that will affect the taste of the broth. I used New Belgium’s Abbey. For a lighter broth, you might opt for a golden ale. Serving suggestions include pouring the concoction over boiled potatoes, rice or noodles. I used some of my beer pretzel dough to bake the bowl you see here.
Incidentally, this year’s June/July issue of Saveur included a nice write-up of Belgian beer and breweries. There is also a Conde Nast Traveler article out there about one man’s quest to visit Belgian’s Trappist breweries. Cheers!
*I’m totally kidding.
- Day 1: German Beers & Pretzels
- Day 2: Belgian Beers & Soup
- Day 3: Dark Beers & Chocolate Stout Bread
- Day 4: Lagers, Ales & Huevos Rancheros
- Day 5: Beer Spiced Cupcakes
- Day 6: Sours & Cherry Lambic Cookies
- Day 7: IPAs & Beer Battered Apples
- 4 strips bacon, diced
- 1 pound beef, fully cooked
- 1 pound yellow onions
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon thyme leaves
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- ¼ teaspoon allspice (optional)
- 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
- 2 cups Belgian golden ale or Abbey ale
- 2 cups beef stock
- 1 tablespoon packed light brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 cup carrots (optional)
- 2 stalks celery (optional)
- Brown the bacon in a large pot over medium heat.
- Once cooked, remove the bacon and allow it to drain on a plate lined with a paper towel.
- Toss the onions into the now empty (except for the bacon grease) pot and cook until soft and golden brown, about 10 minutes.
- Add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf, cayenne and allspice (if using) and cook until fragrant, one to two minutes.
- Add the bacon and the (fully cooked) beef.
- In a separate bowl, mix the beer with the beef stock, brown sugar and vinegar.
- Pour the mixture into the pot to cover the meat and onions.
- Bring to a simmer, then add carrots and celery if using.
- Allow to simmer for an hour or so.
- Discard the bay leaf before serving.