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“We gathered Belgian golden ales and their foreign relatives as if they were snowflakes, aware that each was so unusual, and often so beautiful in a singular way, that it would resist any but the roughest categorization.”
So writes Eric Asimov in tasting-note piece on Belgian golden ales in The New York Times. Of course to every thing there’s a season, and all good beers are but different colors of the gods’ rhapsodous spectrum, etc., etc. But what is it about Belgian-style beers in particular that seem to make beer writers wax so? Mostly, it’s the yeast.
Put simply, fermentation in beer happens when yeast critters eat up sugars and burp out booze. Among the byproducts of this process are esters and phenols, chemical compounds that, in proper amounts, impart pleasant, nose-tickling aromas of banana, pear, peach, strawberry, bubblegum, and so on. And the yeast strains prized by Belgian brewers (and their disciples abroad) — they’re particularly productive in this department.
That’s the main reason Belgian-style beers ascend drinkers to Rapture and send them on effusive, booze-fueled monologues. They’re not better than other styles of beer. But these, um, personality-driven yeasts (Type A, safe to say), bring flavors to the party that you can’t find anywhere else. For foodie types who love to discuss and describe what’s in their glass, this means volumes of new tastes and descriptors for them — I’ve had Belgian-style beers that smell and taste like rhubarb, apricot, Band-Aids, gym socks, seawater, mildew, and the sweet, corn-syrupy red sauce from a can of Spaghettios. And I’ve enjoyed them (especially the Spaghettios one).
Point being, next time you open a bottle of Belgian-style beer, don’t forget about your yeast critter friends. They’ll be the life of the party.