Sure, Belgian beer is big in America. And American brewers have been making their own versions of Belgian styles for a handful of years. But did you know that Belgian brewers are equally impressed with American beer? That's the word on the street.
Unfortunately, none of the Belgian brewers I contacted responded to my emails, so I was left to consult with some experts on the matter. British beer expert and author Tim Webb confirmed: "Yes, it is happening"—Belgian brewers are making American-style beers.
So what does that mean, exactly? One word: hops. If Belgian brewing is known primarily for its yeast strains, American beers are notable for their hops, particularly ones from the West Coast—Cascade, Centennial, Columbia—that have powerful and distinctive flavors. Although a few older, famous Belgian beers are known for hop character, like Duvel and Orval, they pale in comparison to the hop bombs American brewers make, such as Pliny the Elder. That's changing.
Jeff Alworth, the Portland-based author of the Beervana blog and the forthcoming book The Beer Bible, pointed me toward some newer Belgians that are taking hops to a more extreme, American level. Houblon Chouffe from Brasserie d'Achouffe is labeled as a Dobbelen IPA Tripel. Tripel is a classic Belgian style, and Dobbelen IPA means "double IPA."
The Houblon Chouffe (Houblon meaning "hop" in French) has that piny, floral burst on the nose that's a signifier of American hops, and indeed, according to this report, it's brewed with Tomahawk and Amarillo hops, two classic American varieties (as well as Saaz, which is Czech).
Because the most famous Belgian beers are brewed by Trappist monks, it's easy to think of Belgian brewing in general as tradition-bound, unchanging. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is, in fact, a great deal of experimentation and creativity going on in Belgian beer—and some of it has an American ring. How to tell? Follow the hops.
The most aggressive experimentation is being done by some of Belgium's newer breweries, a phenomenon Alworth has dubbed "international extreme," which is "a kind of stateless brewing buoyed by über beer geeks" who favor flavor- and alcohol-heavy styles like imperial stouts, triple IPAs, and quadruple abbey ales. In Belgium, De Struise Brouwers fits into this category. Its Black Albert is a strong stout in the style favored by American brewers like Surly (and in fact De Struise has done collaborations with Surly). It even makes a variation of Black Albert that is aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels. How much more American can you get than that?
Why, with such a strong native tradition, would Belgian brewers be interested in such things? Beyond the general curiosity that drives brewers everywhere, there's the question of economic motivation. As Wendy Littlefield, a partner in the Belgian import firm of Vanberg & DeWulf, told me, Belgian brewers' local market is shrinking. The traditional center of Belgian beer drinking is in the country's beer cafés. "The number of cafés is declining rapidly, and 80 percent are owned by AB InBev," she said—InBev being the world's largest brewer (owner of Stella and Budweiser, among many others). With InBev selling primarily its own products on those lists, "if you're a young brewery trying to get a start, you will not get it in the cafés. There's just not enough distribution there." Littlefield added: "And you're not going to be sold in supermarkets, because they've been cutting back on the number of brands."
So what do brewers do? Export. To America.
And while I'd be concerned if Belgium started ditching its traditional styles, a little global blending of styles can yield compelling results. Littlefield turned me on to a beer she imports, Hop Ruiter. It's a bottle-conditioned, strong golden ale of classic Belgian proportions but aggressively brewed with three kinds of hops. Yet none of those hops are American varieties, so the beer becomes a lovely blend of rich, sweet maltiness with hops that add structural bitterness and spice without completely taking over. It's delicious, original, and an incredibly tasteful expression of influence.