Belgian-style beers are the holy grail of beer-making, according to Eric Brusewitz, brewer at the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company. "These beers are not for everyone," he says. "But the more of them you try, the more you learn to like them, and your appreciation just grows."
Belgian beers are unique in their fruity, spicy, warming flavors, and over the centuries, the monks of Belgium have perfected their brewing and left an indelible mark on the beer world. At roughly one-fifth the size of Wisconsin, Belgium has contributed more original beer styles than any other nation.
Finding Belgian-style beers brewed here is a bit like a scavenger hunt, though, because few local renditions are bottled, making a trip to the brewery or brewpub necessary.
One of your first trips should be to the east side's Ale Asylum. Brewmaster Dean Coffey is considered the dean of local Belgian beer making, with three standard ones at his brewery. "I fell in love with the Belgian tripel style," he says, "because it's the opposite of what one expects, with light color, mild body, yet lots of flavor and very high alcohol."
Coffey has been brewing his tripel for more than a dozen years, and it is my favorite of the three, with a light-golden body and a soft, white head. It is spicy, sweet and very warm - from its 9.5% alcohol content.
Coffey's Happy Ending, meanwhile, is an abbey beer. (Abbey refers to the tradition of monastery brewing and is not a defined style.) Happy Ending has a deep reddish copper color and a bubbly marbled head. It's sweet, with a caramel malt underpinning with notes of cloves and spices.
As for Ale Asylum's Diablo, it is a Belgian dubbel, darker in color and full-bodied, with a silky texture that seems to accentuate the wicked sweetness. As this beer warms, it acquires hints of fruity sourness in the finish.
Tripel? Dubbel? There are several schools of thought regarding the origin of these numerical names. As the tradition of brewing in Belgium emerged in the Middle Ages, the monasteries likely had a single brew house, and one to three batches were thought to have been made from a single mash. The terms double and triple may have grown from this practice, or they may also have referred to taxation levels. Contrary to what some believe, though, these beers are not double or triple in alcoholic strength.
Another local brewer of Belgian beers is New Glarus Brewing Company, whose prizewinning Wisconsin Belgian Red is made with Door County cherries. In addition, the brewery makes Stone Soup, an amber-colored abbey that is a springtime favorite.
New Glarus brewmaster Dan Carey also makes special- release beers in what he calls his "unplugged" series, and these have included an occasional tripel. Currently, the series' Belgian Quadrupel has a bold, malty sweetness with a smooth, warm, oak finish. This is a great beer to age for a year or two in the cellar, which allows it to mellow yet gain strength. Some quadrupels may exceed 10% alcohol content.
(In the Trappist brewing tradition, the quadrupel is typically very dark, stronger and bolder than the dubbel and tripel. By the way, for a beer to be a true Trappist beer, it must be a product from one of the six brewing monasteries in Belgium.)
Elsewhere in the region, Arena's Lake Louie Brewing makes Brother Tim's Tripel, a light, hazy golden beer, with an emphasis on a spicy finish.
In Mount Horeb, the Grumpy Troll produces what it calls a Belgian IPA (India pale ale), which is currently on tap. It offers great spicy flavor with a hoppy bite. Belgian IPA is not a recognized style, as such, but give Grumpy Troll brewmaster Mark Duchow credit for creativity, especially if you like hops.
If you are looking for authentic Belgian beer, the new restaurant Brasserie V (1923 Monroe St.) is the place for imports. But at $6.50 to $7 each, single beers there can cost as much as or more than a six-pack or half-gallon growler of local, Wisconsin-made Belgian. Brasserie V does take care in serving its Belgians in glassware like goblets, snifters and tulip glasses. You can also try a Belgian tradition by pairing your selection with a plate of mussels.
At any rate, you'll be seeing more locally brewed Belgian beer soon. Great Dane owners Rob LoBreglio and Eliot Butler, along with Brusewitz and brewers Pat Keller and Michael Fay, returned two weeks ago from a trip to Belgium, where they did some research.
The Great Dane regularly features dubbel, tripel and Belgian pale ale in its lineup, so the five attended the Brugge Bier Festival and toured four breweries. Among their studies were lessons in making Flemish Sour Ale, a unique, oak-aged beer that ferments nearly two years before it's blended with younger beer and served. Guess that means we won't find it anytime soon at the Great Dane, but Brusewitz says they are planning a fall release of their latest Belgian pale.