Monday, January 25, 2010

FoodTrek: Raising a Glass to Belgian Beer in Seattle

Belgium has a long-associated history with beermaking in Western Europe, with records dating as far back as the 6th century, where there are descriptions of barley being brewed and fermented in ceramic pots. Wait, what's that...? I hear a dissident voice from the crowd saying, "But, Wasabi, this is a food blog, what's with all the brewski-talk? Beer ain't food!" Well, let me explain myself before I release the hounds on you -- breweries were particularly popular with the Belgian Trappist monks, who during their Lenten fasting periods, would drink beer to keep themselves from wasting away to the Sweet Hereafter. Those commercials showing the goofy cut-out beer glasses for the low-cal beers aren't just a gag -- beer is primarily of a mixture of grains, and therefore high in carbohydrates. It's essentially liquid bread, and it was a hearty enough beverage to be nutrient-rich and the alcohol probably helped sleep off any serious attack of the munchies. No one's advocating an all-beer diet fad, but one can't discount the history of beermaking and its influence over human civilization. The history of Belgian beers carried itself from the past and into the present, at the Belgianfest in Seattle, and the Prime was pleased to raise a glass to the occasion!

Who's house? Brew's House! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

Presented by the Washington Beer Commission, Belgianfest was held in the appropriately historic Engine Room at Georgetown Studios. The whole Georgetown neighborhood in the south downtown area of Seattle is marvelously industrial, and the atmospheric Georgetwn Studios, once the original Rainier Beer brewery building, couldn't have been a better fit for a celebration of beermaking.

I've got a Golden Ticket ... I mean Token! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The sold-out event drew large crowds who gathered into the high-ceilinged main room, light pouring in from the giant windows surrounding the space. Beer fans were given small tasting glasses and tokens to trade for samples from over a dozen local brewers who were offering fifty different Belgian style beers. The usual suspects were all in attendance, including brewers like Elliot Bay Brewing Company, Dick's Brewing Company, Naked City Brewery, Pike Brewing Company, Scuttlebutt Brewing Company, Redhook, Two Beers Brewing, and several others. The full list is available here, if you want a comprehensive list of Washington brewers in general.

Rainbow of Belgian beers from Elysian Brewery - Photo by Wasabi Prime

So what the heck makes a beer "Belgian style," since obviously, Washington State is not Belgium? It mostly comes down to the yeast that's used. The Brettanomyces strain of yeast is what gives Belgian beers their distinctive tart or sourness of flavor. A wild yeast, it lives on fruit skins, feeding on the glucose, producing the high levels of acetic acid. Considered a fault in winemaking, what threatens spoilage for wine becomes the boon for Belgian style beermaking. When first trying a Belgian beer, people often make the "ewww" face, wondering if it's gone bad or why its flavor is reminiscent of vinegar -- that's the Brettanomyces or the "Brett" talking, and it's by all means intentional, so embrace that tartness. Much like how the flavor profiles differ between IPAs and porters, Belgian style beers have their own distinctive impression on the palate. To begin developing a taste for Belgian beers, many start off trying Fruit Lambics, a fruit-infused version of the Lambic style, whose sourness may be a turnoff to some, so the fruity versions are great Belgian beer training wheels. Saisons, Tripels, and Dubbels are Belgian ales with varying depths of flavors, having a bit of tartness and a strong yeast flavor, reminiscent of the heady smell when you make bread. There are other varieties and subcategories, but this is just a basic introduction to some of the types of Belgian beers available, and the terms that are good to become familiarized with.

Boundary Bay, Georgetown Brewing Co, Elysian, and Dick's Brewing Company - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Since this was Washington and not Belgium, the local brewers put their own spin on the Trappist methods of ye olden days. Elysian Brewing Company made a Toro Oro Yerba Mate Tripel, infusing the Yerba Mate tea into their brew, producing a Tripel with nice earthy finish. Winter Beer Festival favorite, Black Raven Brewing Company, brewed a traditional Saison and then aged it in French oak Chardonnay and Viognier barrels for several months, creating their very pleasant-flavored Pour les Oiseseaux. For those looking for strong flavors, Dick's Brewing Company's Grand Cru was an intense mixture of the vinegar-like tartness, rounded out with a malty and deep fruity flavor. There was also Snipes Mountain Brewery's Dark Matter, a complex-flavored blend that reflected its complex process that included bourbon barrel aging, different strains of the Brettanomyces, and fermentation in a Bordeaux barrel.

Smile, Pike and Port Townsend Breweries! - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I couldn't tackle the epic task of sampling all the beers alone -- I had the help of Mr. Wasabi and home-brewer friend, Mr. K, along for the ride. Our SWAT team efforts of beer tasting resulted in one particular standout brewery that produced a particularly noteworthy sampling of Belgian style beers, the Rogue Ales-owned Issaquah Brewhouse. Their Menage a Frog was a delicately-flavored, fragrant Tripel that had the bready tones of a Belgian beer, balanced pleasantly with a fresh honey and fruit sweetness to make it an easy crowd-pleaser. Their heavier Polywog Grand Cru had the deep flavor of Bing cherries with the aging of their beer in Pinot wine barrels to lend a bit of smokiness to the experience.

Hot diggity Dante-dog, it's time to eat! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

We don't have the religious fervor of Trappist monks, so we did not survive on beer alone this day, much to the relief of our livers. There were several food options, including beerfest veteran, Dante's Inferno Dogs, and delightful newbies, Sweet Iron Waffles and Bluebird Ice Cream. I regret not being able to provide a photo of Bluebird's stout beer homemade ice cream, made with Elysian Brewery's Dragon's Tooth stout -- it was too creamy-delicious for me to take a moment to pull out the camera and take a picture. Malty with a bit of a coffee-like bitterness, it was the ideal dessert to indulge in at a beer festival. With a menu of ice creams made fresh with local ingredients like coffee from Stumptown and chocolate from Theo, Bluebird really is a little herald of happiness, and deserves multiple visits to their Seattle shop, if you live in the area.

Belgian waffles at a Belgian beer festival? Genius - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Sweet Iron Waffles offered sweet and savory-topped Liege-style waffles to the beer-soaked masses. Made with a yeasty dough that crisped perfectly in their irons, the waffle we chose was topped with a sweet syrup, slices of creamy Val de Soane brie, and sprinkled with a chiffonade of fresh basil. Simple and satisfying, it paired nicely with the malty, tart Belgian beers.

Belgianfest was a great way to celebrate the history of Belgian beermaking, as well as showcase the local talent of Washington breweries. While there are certain ascribed styles to making beers, there's no reason brewers can't put their flourishes on time-tested methods, producing some truly blessed results.

It's not a Washington beer festival without a good sense of humor - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Many thanks to all the breweries, vendors, and sponsors who came out for the festival, and special thanks to the Washington Beer Commission for putting on yet another great festival and welcoming the Prime to cover the event. See you in March for the Cask Fest!

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  1. The moment I learned to love beer was wrapped in the moment that I learned to truly love food. While I've since gravitated to the loyalties of German styles and American microbrews, Belgian beer played a huge role in the discovery of that common thread of flavor.

    So, keep that brewski-talk coming! And if you're looking for a killer Belgian brew, try Monk's Blood by 21st Amendment. It ditches the floral and yeasty flavors of the typical brew for a heavy and diverse dose of sweet, almost red-wineish malts. I had it when I was visiting the East Bay, and it was absolutely incredible!

  2. ...not to say that 21st Amendment is a Belgian brewery, of course. Then again, I'm a much bigger fan of American spins on Belgian styles - 1550 and Fat Tire by New Belgium in Colorado have always been high on my favorites list, and their new Frambozen is a really great alternative to Fruit Lambics, which I find way too sweet for my tastes.

  3. Sounds like a great fest. Although I don't drink much, the dante's inferno hot dogs and the sweet iron waffels sound and look awesome. Wish I could see the blue bird ice cream photo too:)

  4. Loved your post. Beautiful photos. It was a great event, with much beautiful beer!

  5. The beer selection looks mouth-watering, but I have to admit it's the waffle that I can't stop looking at. With cheese and basil, too. How wonderful and different that is.

  6. Excellent post! Thanks so much for the history about Belgian beers. I personally love Belgian beers, but never knew what made them different from other beers. I agree with Carolyn - that waffle! . . . .

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  8. I feel drunk just reading this! Looks like an awesome time. MMMMMmmm Waffles

  9. oh my gosh, brie waffle, yes PLEASE!

  10. Nice post, in Belgium we eat the waffles with whipped cream ,sugar or chocolate. Certainly not with cheese. NEVER!

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  12. You have a great fest. Hope you post other blogs about this. You also have nice picture.

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