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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
LEFFE VIEILLE CUVÉE
This Leffe was harder to find than the others, so we had hopes that scarcity bespoke quality. We were disappointed.
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.
HOEGAARDEN VERBODEN VRUCHT
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.
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.