RateBeer Weekly Magazine > Craft Beer Introduction
Beer Geography Part Two Western Europe
OAKES WEEKLY - APRIL 15, 2004
April 15, 2004
Last week I guided you around the British Isles and Ireland, to all the beerologically important places. This week I’m going to look at Western Europe. The biggest influence that this land has had on the world of beer was almost certainly the popularization of the hop. Hops were used in Central Europe as well, but the Dutch were highly influential in getting the hop into English beers, thus permeating the last bastion of unhopped ale and making that beloved flower the universal beer seasoning.
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Starting in the southwest, France is known for two main brewing regions. No, Strasbourg isn’t one of them, unless you’re the type of person who thinks that Golden, Colorado is an important brewing centre in the US. The first area of importance is Brittany. This is one of the ancient Celtic lands, and Celtic peoples have always been lovers of malt beverages, be they fermented or distilled. Brittany has seen a resurgence of its brewing traditions in the past decade or so, and has even spawned a substyle of ancient spiced ale dubbed Cervoise.
Further north, French Flanders is the region of the country that borders on Belgium. The land of this area can support both hops and barley, and on at least one farm-brewery, both are grown for use in the farm’s product. This region is also home to the Bière de Garde style, which is probably the toughest style to pin down, given that it can be either top or bottom fermented, and examples range widely in colour and character. Basically, any farmhouse or farmhouse-style ale from the north of France ends up characterized as a Bière de Garde, and most of them are quite good, so you’ll enjoy drinking this style even if you never quite figure it out. Champagne, of all places, is known for its malting barley.
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Immediately north is Flanders, one of Belgium’s three main brewing regions. Each local area in Belgium at one time had its own beer style, but many of the ones that existed at the turn of the last century disappeared by the end of the second World War. Some of the local Flemish styles that still exist today are witbiers, from the Hoegaarden area and various forms of sour ale - the browner examples originate from West Flanders (Bruges), redder ones from East Flanders (Ghent).
In the north, the province of Antwerp has contributed three of Belgium’s newest, and most-evolving styles of beer. The oldest of these is the basic Belgian "ale", a style that is essentially without a name but based on the city of Antwerp’s local favourite De Koninck. The Trappist abbey of Westmalle contributed in the post-war years Westmalle Tripel, the first of the now-famous Abbey Tripel style. In 1970, the Moortgat Brewery launched a golden version of its Duvel beer (the darker version now long-since consigned to history), and the tremendous success of this product has lead to many imitators, thus spawning what is often referred to as Strong Golden Ale.
The second major brewing region of Belgium in Payottenland, that being the rural hinterland surrounding Brussels. In the area of the Senne Valley, you’ll find the lambic breweries. Lambic is the ancient style of sour wheat beers, produced not with modern contrivances such as fresh hops and pitched yeast, but with stale hops, wild yeast and a fermentation process that can take years. For newcomers, this is the most exotic of beer styles, from perhaps the least exotic location.
The third area of Belgium is Wallonia, the French-speaking southern part of the country. This area is not as famous in brewing terms as the other two areas, but is notable for the saison style of beer, a refreshing, often spiced, rustic brew - another of the world’s most challenging styles.
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In the Netherlands, the majority of ancient styles have been lost, and Belgian-influenced beers are more commonplace, but some revivalist brews like Jopen Koyt and Mestreechs Aajt can be found. In the north of the Netherlands, the region of Friesland begins, and stretches along the coast into Germany and Denmark. In Germany, Friesland is known for very hoppy pilsners, Jever Pilsner being the most famous example.
Further south in Germany is the densely populated area around the Rhine. Three cities in this region have their own local beer styles. Köln (Cologne) has Kölsch, a light, delicate golden style of ale. Kölsch in the form that is recognizable today is a new style, developed in the 1960’s.
A few miles northeast is Düsseldorf, Germany’s other main ale centre. Altbier is the style, and it is a reddish session ale. In both of these cities, the style is ubiquitous. Northwest of Düsseldorf, in the city of Dortmund, their local style is not so. Dortmunder Export is the name given to the style, and it is a malty pale session lager, typically brewed to a higher standard than typical macro lagers. Many people get confused though, because a) many beers are called "Export" that are not in this style, and b) not every beer from Dortmund is in this style, though they all will bear the legend "Dortmunder" on the label.
To the south of Stuttgart, the area north of Lake Constance is known for its Tettnang hops.
Next week - Central Europe.
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