For the last few hundred years, Germans brewed mostly lagers, the English brewed mostly low-alcohol ales and stouts with understated hops, and Belgians brewed higher alcohol ales fermented with spicy yeasts. These were the major brewing cultures, and there was minimal cross-pollination between them.
But in the mid-20th century, two important things happened. One, in 1965, Fritz Maytag purchased a majority stake in the failing Anchor Brewery, saving it from bankruptcy and salvaging what was then America’s only indigenous beer style: Steam beer. Thus saving small-batch local American beer from total extinction. And two, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill into law that exempted home-brewed beer from taxation, which had the practical effect of legalizing it.
And it was home brewers that began a brewing renaissance in the United States. Sierra Nevada Brewing opened in 1980. Bell’s sold its first beer in 1985. In 1986, Alaskan Brewing followed. Both Rogue Ales and Goose Island opened in 1988. Then came the craft explosion of the 90s. Flying Dog in ‘90, Avery in ‘93, Dogfish Head in ‘95, Stone in ‘96 and well, you get the picture. These notable breweries are just the tip of the iceberg. In the late 70s there were less than 50 breweries in the U.S. By 2008 they numbered over 1500 and that number continues to grow.
While beer styles in Europe had remained largely static for almost the entire 20th century, these American craft breweries were interested in experimentation and blazing new trails, just as their forbears had done when settling the North American continent. This led to the creation of the American pale ale, American IPA, and American barley wine, all of which are far hoppier and more intense than their English counterparts. And there was even more experimentation as brewers added unusual ingredients like coffee and used grains like oats and rye in ways Europeans never had.
After 20 years of watching American craft brewing from afar, perhaps shaking their heads in consternation at the ways our brewers were bastardizing the beer heritage we’d stolen from them, Europeans finally started taking inspiration from us around the turn of the 21st century. One of the first fruits of the new wave of American-inspired brewing in Europe was the Belgian IPA.
Belgians are not known for their love of intensely hoppy brews. Their beer is heavily centered around the very spicy and phenolic flavors produced by Belgian yeasts, and it often incorporates spices such as cloves and adjuncts like beet syrup. Hops, not so much.
But in recent years they have been producing gems like Urthel Hop-It and Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel. These are the hoppiest beers ever produced by Belgian brewers, and of course Americans have taken the style even further with brews like Stone Cali-Belgique. All of these have that trademark spiciness from Belgian yeasts, but they combine the potent floral, herbal, and citrus flavors produced from generous amounts of hops.
The base style used by the Belgians is a tripel, which is a very light-colored, high alcohol beer.
Americans tend to throw some darker caramel malts in as they do with purely American IPAs. Also, Belgian brewers tend to stick with mostly European hops in this style (and all others), which are typically more earthy, herbal, and floral. Americans are of course inclined to include American-grown hops, which are marked by flavors of citrus, pine, and grapefruit.
The Urthel and Chouffe varieties mentioned above are available in Birmingham, albeit with extremely limited distribution. You might have trouble tracking them down. Piraat is usually now put into this category. Great Divide brews a summer seasonal Belgian IPA called Belgica of which there might still be a little bit on tap somewhere around town. Terrapin also produces one seasonally called Monk’s Revenge which might still be lurking on a shelf or two around these parts. Of course the local guys at Good People have dipped their toes in these waters, producing a couple of small batches of what they call Stepchild. They consider it a Belgian India red ale—pretty much an IPA with a darker, reddish hue. They haven’t produced any yet at their new brewery on 14th Street; maybe it will hit the rotation soon.
Beware that I have several friends who love craft beer as much as I do but who don’t care for this style. I, however, can’t get enough of it. Belgian IPAs seem to be polarizing, inspiring hate in some and devotion in others. You won’t know which side you’re on until you try a few.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com