Spiritual home of the world's beer drinkers

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 February, 2007, 12:00am

BELGIUM IS AN illustrious beer nation. In terms of quality, its brews match the best of Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic.

However, for sheer diversity, Belgium is a world champion.

Here in Hong Kong, one doesn't have to travel very far for a foaming draft or glass of something refreshing and distinctly Belgian.

The lager-style Stella Artois - 'Serving Gentleman And Rogues Since 1366', as one of its ad campaigns explained with typical Belgian elan - can be found across the city.

Beyond this global mega-brand there's a much more specialised range of Belgian beers, many of which make the taste-buds of even the most indifferent drinkers sing with joy.

Unique to Belgium are its lambic beers, brewed only in the Payottenland region of the country.

Lambic beers are not created by conventional methods using brewer's yeasts, but by a process that involves 'spontaneous fermentation': the beer is exposed to naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria, thereby delivering a distinctive flavour that is tart and malty and, like Guinness in Ireland, the subject of perennial debate in city pubs.

Mort Subite (Sudden Death) is a famous brand with Belgian lambic beer drinkers.

As its name playfully suggests, this special brew needs to consumed responsibly.

Wheat beers, hugely popular in Germany, are in Belgian known as witbieren ('white beers') and have seen their popularity surge far beyond the North European Plain thanks to the global success of Belgium's Hoegaarden brand.

Hoegaarden has a curious but agreeable flavour that is derived of coriander and dried Curacao orange peel.

Kriek, the most popular of Belgium's fruit beers, is fermented with cherries. Almost as popular is Framboise, which is fermented with raspberries.

Of Belgium's famous Trappist beers - traditionally, and still, mostly brewed by monks - the best-known in Hong Kong and other export markets is Chimay, which hails from the Chimay Monastery in the Walloon Province of Hainaut, one of the six approved monastery breweries in the country.

The Belgians treat their beer with the kind of reverence the French accord to wine and, indeed, in some parts of the country, such as the Ardennes, beer is commonly kept in large bottles and corked, as if it was made from the grape rather than the grain.

When, on returning from a trip to Brussels, a Belgian friend inquired about my impressions of the capital, I mentioned the guilty pleasure of quaffing Chimay Bleue beer and munching on fried potatoes and mayonnaise (Low Countries style) at a cafe near the Grande Place.

He arched an eyebrow reproachfully. 'You should have had the Chimay Rouge. With pommes frites, certainly.'

Beer is a serious business for Belgians, for which beer aficionados around the world are most grateful.