More Belgian imports are likely in the wake of InBev’s deal for Anheuser

More Belgian imports are likely in the wake of InBev’s deal for Anheuser
By CHARLES FORELLE and JOHN W. MILLERJuly 19, 2008; Page W4

Amid all the patriotic tub-thumping about the recently sealed takeover of Anheuser-Busch, maker of all-American King of Beers Budweiser, by Belgian-Brazilian InBev, one vital fact has gotten lost. Americans could soon get to drink a lot more, and more unusual, kinds of beers.WSJ’s Charles Forelle and John Miller travel to Belguim to speak with Joris Pattyn, one of Belgium’s finest palates, as he weighs in the beers owned by InBev, including Budweiser. (July 18)

InBev already was one of the world’s biggest beer companies before it bought Anheuser-Busch. It makes hundreds of different brews around the globe, but exports only about two dozen to the U.S.. That’s likely to change, the company says. For the $52 billion it paid for Anheuser, InBev gets access to the U.S. company’s many-tentacled distribution network that can spread its brews into convenience stores, markets and bars across the country.

InBev says it’s looking at “brand strategies” before deciding which new beers to ship across the pond. “Maybe we’ll sell a Russian beer in the U.S.,” says spokeswoman Marianne Amssoms. InBev owns four breweries in Russia, including one called Tinkov and one called Tolstiak.
It’s hard to say which new beers may come over, but one can never be too prepared. So as a service to our American readers, the Journal’s Brussels-based beer-testing squad sampled some of the Belgian brews InBev doesn’t yet export Stateside.
InBev already ships some Belgian beers to the U.S. — chief among them are the Stella Artois pilsner, two Leffe abbey-style beers and the Hoegaarden wheat beer. But its Belgian line is far broader than that, including unfiltered and raspberry beers, and Hoegaarden’s Forbidden Fruit, which packs about double the alcohol punch of a Bud.
We ventured up to Ghent, a medieval city half an hour’s train ride from Brussels, to spend an afternoon — and evening, it turned out — at one of its standout beer bars, the Kaffee de Hopduvel. Our guide was Joris Pattyn, full-time dentist, part-time beer judge. Mr. Pattyn estimates he’s tasted some 8,300 different beers in his lifetime. He’s a frequent judge at international beer competitions and is co-author of the forthcoming “100 Belgian Beers to Try Before You Die.” (None of the InBev brews is in Mr. Pattyn’s book.)
Many Belgian aficionados look down their noses at InBev beers, labeling them as corporate creations that homogenize taste and crowd out more complex products from smaller brewers. Mr. Pattyn keeps an open mind and graded the beers for us out of a possible top score of 5. He says he never makes pronouncements before a careful tasting.
Mr. Pattyn’s cardinal rule of beer tasting: Start with the light stuff, end with the heavy stuff.
It doesn’t get much lighter than this recent addition to the InBev lineup, a spinoff of the classic white beer meant to lure younger drinkers with its sweetness. Mr. Pattyn sticks his nose in the glass. The lemon scent seems partly artificial. “It reminds me of a children’s lemonade.” But, he says, it’s “not badly made.”
Too sweet for us, but you could do worse at the ballpark on a hot summer’s day.
Strength: 3% alcohol by volume (abv) Style: Fruit-flavored wheat beer Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.3 Our verdict: This isn’t really beer. Coming to America? Americans are used to drinking their Hoegaarden with a slice of lemon. This skips a step.
Belgium has a long tradition of cherry and raspberry beers. The best of them play the fruit against a sour backdrop and layer on complex tastes. This isn’t the best of them.
Mr. Pattyn sniffs. “At least a small part of what is in there eventually came from raspberries,” he says. A very small part, we’d say. He initially pronounces it sort of refreshing, but changes his mind a few minutes later: “I still have a feeling of stickiness in my mouth.”
Strength: 4.2% abv Style: Fruit-flavored wheat beer Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.1 Our verdict: The day’s worst. Coming to America? Light beer and candy seem to sell well.
At first whiff, Mr. Pattyn pronounces it “very sweet, caramelly,” probably with added brown sugar. Some mineral-water notes.
Water indeed. This chestnut-brown beer was bland. A hint of fruit and sugar sweetness made itself known, but it faded quickly.
Mr. Pattyn considered it. “The taste is more toward the neutral.” A few sips later he threw in the towel. “Very, very bland.”
Strength: 5.2% abv Style: Belgian Speciale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.1 Our verdict: At least there’s no raspberry syrup. Coming to America? Can’t imagine why.

Supposedly, this beer is based on an old recipe from the Hoegaarden brewery, hence the archaic spelling. It’s a slightly hoppy ale, with a soft foam. Mr. Pattyn finds mineral notes. He keeps searching. “Yes, now I have some esters from the yeast,” he says. The Das is an unfiltered beer, and the yeast remains in the bottle. “Stale cookies,” he says. And “coriander, no doubt.”
Coriander is a common thread in many Hoegaarden beers; indeed, it’s often thought of as a typically Belgian beer spice. Mr. Pattyn thinks it’s overboard: “A very big emphasis on the spicing.”
Strength: 5% abv Style: Unfiltered Belgian Speciale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.9 Our verdict: Unexciting, a little fizzy. Coming to America? Weird name, undistinguished taste — hard sell. 

The Hopduvel doesn’t serve this one, the Bud of Belgian beers. We snuck out to a corner store and reappeared with the familiar red can. “Oh dear,” Mr. Pattyn said.
This is a not a beer for contemplation. The pale yellow liquid goes down easy, and there’s just enough kick. Mr. Pattyn gamely puts on his taster’s hat. “A very grassy nose,” he says. “Metal sulfates.” A sip. “It sometimes has an aroma that is slightly salty, like seafood, like shrimp or vegetables. In lesser quantity, reminds one of cooked vegetables.”
At the end, “the taste falls flat,” with a “faint metallic bitterness.
Strength: 5.2% abv Style: Pilsner Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.3 Our verdict: Hey, it’s better than Bud. Coming to America? The last thing America needs is another watery pilsner.
Hoegaarden is known for its ubiquitous white beer, a not-too-boozy summer quaffer. The Grand Cru is more serious, far less wheaty and nearly double the strength.
“I think of a ripe banana,” Mr. Pattyn says. “There are some meaty esters.” He keeps sniffing, and it’s clear he’s warming up to this one. “It speaks of balance-sweet, sour, a little touch of bitter.” The coriander is here, but “it doesn’t dominate.”
Mr. Pattyn’s bottom line: “Technically, it is excellent.” He adds, “There are many more beers in Belgium with more character, but you cannot call this a characterless beer.” We concur.
Strength: 8.5% abv Style: Strong Golden Wheat Ale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 3.5 Our verdict: The day’s best. Coming to America? That would be nice.
In the early part of the last century, the monks at the Trappist abbey of Westmalle brewed up a strong beer with pale malts, not the dark roasts typical of high-alcohol recipes. They called it Tripel, the strongest of their three, and it is widely regarded as a masterpiece of Belgian brewing. Naturally, it’s had a long line of imitators. This one is Leffe’s take.
“Rice,” said Mr. Pattyn, his nose well into the glass. “Yes, Rice Krispies. That’s what I’m smelling.” That coriander, again. Some citrus notes. “It is striving for balance,” he says. It doesn’t quite get there: “Too much ester from the yeast.”
We suppose that’s the problem. The beer looks a bit murky. Mr. Pattyn dubs it an “easy drinking” beer. Yikes — it’s 8.4% alcohol.
Strength: 8.4% abv Style: Strong Golden Ale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 3.2, maybe Our verdict: Not bad, but pour a Hoegaarden Grand Cru first. Coming to America? Would be a good introduction to this stronger style for drinkers not accustomed to it.

This Leffe was harder to find than the others, so we had hopes that scarcity bespoke quality. We were disappointed.

“A certain saltiness,” Mr. Pattyn said. “A bit of parsley.” The beer has the chestnut color of Belgium’s rich Trappists, but it was a shadow of those brews. It tasted thin. “Inoffensive,” he said. That’s kind, we thought. This one isn’t worth seeking out.
Strength: 8.2% abv Style: Strong Dark Ale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 2.8 Our verdict: No reason to drink this. Coming to America? Doubtful.

Similar in style to the Vieille Cuvée, but things were looking up. “Much less bland,” says Mr. Pattyn. As with many dark, high-alcohol beers, it has pronounced nutty flavors. Mr. Pattyn picked out hazelnuts, though we couldn’t be so variety-specific.

Also, the Radieuse is clearly less thin than the Vieille Cuvée. It felt full to us. “This would be an excellent beer to start somebody who is not accustomed to craft beers,” Mr. Pattyn said.
Strength: 8.2% abv Style: Strong Dark Ale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 3.2 Our verdict: Best of the Leffes Coming to America? A good candidate. Leffe abbey beers are easy to market.

This being Belgium, a drizzle forced us to leave the cafe garden and take refuge under the eaves of the Hopduvel’s roof. After nine beers, though, we didn’t really mind.
The Verboden Vrucht—Forbidden Fruit—is true to its name. It’s a strong beer, but it plays with the fruity, sour-sweet balance that makes many Belgian beers so beguiling. Oh, and it’s spiced with coriander.

Mr. Pattyn was getting annoyed. “I like coriander in my Thai dinners,” he said. We enjoyed this beer—it had a bundle of complex flavors, including wheat and spice and fruit. “Mushroom,” Mr. Pattyn added. OK, but it’s still tasty.
Strength: 8.5% abv Style: Strong Dark Ale, unfiltered Mr. Pattyn’s score: 3.3 Our verdict: Be tempted Coming to America? There’s a naked lady on the bottle (Eve).

This is the top of Leffe’s range—the strongest and fullest brew.
Mr. Pattyn cracked it open and sniffed. “A lot of alcohol in the nose,” he said. And that was the story. “Very much alcohol in the taste.” He picked out almonds, a sign of overly expressed alcohol. “If you have a cheap brandy, it tastes of almonds,” he said. The 9 was also heavy on the caramel, but Mr. Pattyn didn’t find much else.

He gave the Leffe 9 one last sip and pushed away the glass. “It’s a muscle — ‘Taste me!’ — that’s all it’s got to say for itself,” he said. His work was done. He speared an olive.
Strength: 9% abv Style: Strong ale Mr. Pattyn’s score: 3.0 or 3.1 Our verdict: All brawn, no brain Coming to America? Maybe too strong.
Write to Charles Forelle at charles.forelle@wsj.com1 and John W. Miller at john.miller@dowjones.com2