No One Does It Like the Belgians

We know the Brits make fine beer, and have been brewing it since the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s pilgrims tippled extravagantly at the Tabard Inn before setting out to Canterbury to petition their favorite saint. The Anglo-Saxons discovered beer even earlier and built great halls in which to guzzle mead―a sweet, heady brew fermented from honey that makes the head swim and provides the drinker with the biggest, baddest headache ever. The Germans, of course, with their bratwurst and steins transformed the ancient mead hall into the modern beer garden. But for my money, the Belgians have been making the best beer on earth for centuries, at one point offering over four hundred different brands from as many breweries in both northern and southern Belgium, a country divided by two languages and an uncommon past.

My first experience of this superior brew occurred one year when my wife and I (full disclosure: she’s Belgian) were invited to a wedding in Antwerp at which kegs of Maes Pils were served following the ceremony. Friends of ours were getting married and we wanted to be there for the celebration. The groom, poet, essayist and editor Herman deConinck, drank almost nothing but Maes Pils, sometimes at the mantel over his fireplace while scribbling lines of poetry with the stub of a pencil. When I drew a mug of Maes out of the keg and tasted it, I knew I had found a beer that I could love―a fresh, crisp pilsner bristling with character and a clean, snappy flavor. But there’s no need to be a snob. Maes Pils, along with Jupiler and Stella Artois, is as common in Belgium as Budweiser or Coors are in the United States. Unlike our mass-produced beer, however, Maes Pils is richer, deeper in taste, more full-bodied than our waterlogged national brews. In addition, the Belgians (and most other Europeans) swear that chilling beer kills its taste, and serve it only at room temperature. Try that at any American baseball stadium on a hot Sunday afternoon: “Warm beer, here! Getcha warm beer now!” But it’s also true that the tastier the beer, the less it needs to be refrigerated. We prefer cold, carbonated, thinner beer with our hot dogs and sauerkraut. Belgians prefer their beer at room-temperature with moules frites.

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