Food lovers agree that some of the finest food in Europe is served in the homes and restaurants of Belgium.
The major influences on Belgian food came from the French, but you can also taste elements that came along during the years when Belgium was ruled by the Spanish and the Austrians.
Belgium’s beer is even more famous than its food.
During the Revolution of 1830, the Flemish emancipated themselves from the Netherlands, an event we celebrate as Belgian Independence Day (or Feestdag, which means Party Day) on July 21. Many a toast was raised Thursday night in Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., pubs and restaurants to mark a free and independent Belgium.
in Clarendon paid special homage to these exquisite Belgian beers and breweries during a meeting of their Pint Club, an enthusiastic tasting conducted by aficionados who speak of their Flanders libations with a reverence typically associated with sommeliers pouring their finest vintages.
Julie Mann and Julie Siegel, both on-premise sales managers for Guiffre Distributing, shared a broad swath of knowledge about Belgian styles and backed it up with samples of their products.
About 50 beer-curious guests showed up, including John Woodell, who has been a Pint Club member at Ri Ra since its beginnings in 2007.
“Clarendon is a beer mecca for craft beer and imports enthusiasts, and the Pint Club has opened me up to beers I normally would not have tried and saved me from spending my cash on a bottle or six-pack I may not like,” he said. “Also, I have learned a great deal about beer in the process. And, hey, for a one-time initiation charge of $5, you can’t go wrong.”
We tried Stella Artois (the best selling Belgian beer in the world) and Hoegaarden White Ale (a witbier or biere blanche). The latter, brewed by Brouwerij van Hoegaarden, is a cloudy, light glass of goodness that is fruity and spicy with hints of orange and coriander at 4.9 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV. In Belgium they call it a “woman’s beer,” but you can enjoy this summer refresher all day.
Also on the menu was Leffe Blonde, a refreshing pale ale perfect for a hot summer’s day – maybe not an all-day beer at 6.6 percent ABV – but definitely a solid Belgian choice for any occasion.
Next was the newcomer to the neighborhood – Palm Speciale – marketed by Latis Imports, which also markets the world renowned Flemish Sour Ale by Rodenbach. This best-selling Belgian ale is a top-fermented, amber-colored beer – and an easy-to-drink beer at 5.4 percent ABV, with hints of citrus and a light, malty flavor.
During Belgian Restaurant Week, which wrapped up Thursday, Latis Imports was especially active, holding about a dozen local promos and hosting glassware giveaways all over the greater DC area. That includes R.F.D. Washington, Brasserie Beck and Bier Baron in the district, and in Northern Virginia both Rusticos and the Mad Rose Tavern on Belgian Independence Day.
The final sample was Steen Brugge Tripel, one I hadn’t tried before. The label bears a picture of St. Arnold, the patron saint of brewers, who is credited with spreading the brewers’ art throughout Belgium. The secret that makes this abbey-style beer so special and unique is that it is the only beer to use a traditional herbal mixture called “gruit” in place of hops, just as female brewers did in bygone centuries in the Middle East and Europe, when brewing was a household chore.
“Today, Belgium has more styles and varieties of beer than any other country in the world and beer experts have chosen some of them as best of class, worldwide,” said Mann.
The beer brewers of Belgium are the great artists in the business with a history that dates back to the beginnings of the monastic period, when Trappist monks brewed beer to serve thirsty and weary travelers. Today, the monks of six Belgian Trappist monasteries still sustain themselves by brewing.
Only these six monasteries – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle, and Achel – plus one other in the Netherlands are allowed to use the name Trappist on their bottles. All except the reclusive Westvleteren export beer to our area.
To qualify as a Trappist product, the brewery must be in a monastery, the monks must play a role in the ale’s production and the profits from the sale of the beer must be used to support the monastery and its social programs. Abbey ale, on the other hand, is brewed by commercial brewers, typically under license from an existing abbey, or branded with the name of an abbey ruin or religious figure.
“You simply cannot have a beer program without paying homage to the Belgians. The heritage and quality of beers from Belgium – up to 8,700 individual beers are produced there – is unparalleled and has proved inspiration to the blooming American craft scene. We carry Belgian favorites such as Leffe Blonde, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and newer arrivals to Virginia such as Palm Speciale and Steen Brugge Triple to our customers,” said Brian Fennell, beer manager at Ri Ra.
Matthew Heffernan, senior manager at in Ballston, celebrated Feestdag with a Palm Speciale on tap and a giveaway of proper Belgian stemmed goblets.
“We adore Belgian beer here at Rustico and are psyched to be able to celebrate Belgian Independence Day. We have a ton of Belgian beer offerings on our menu and try to get labels that you don’t see everywhere else when we can,” he said.
One of Heffernan's favorite regular offerings is Ename Triple, brewed by Brouwerij Roman in Mater-Oudenaarde.
“It has a full spectrum of Belgium characteristics, like great floral and fruit notes and even sweeter tropical fruit notes,” he said.
“Everything Belgian is always beautiful,” he added.