- Mike Riedel
I dare say that Belgian-style ales are the most difficult beers for people to get to know. There's something primal yet refined in these beers that breaks all of the molds. Two local breweries have crafted two very different examples that show how interpretation and inspiration can go hand in hand.
Level Crossing - Eternal Pursuit: This beer pays tribute to the Belgian strong styles, and features Level Crossing head brewer Chris Detrick on the label, striking his best New Testament monk pose. The Belgian-style ale Detrick decided to emulate is Dark Strong Ale—and the name pretty much says it all. It pours a medium to dark mahogany brown with red highlights. Thin off-white foam dissipates slowly to patches and a ring around the glass. The aroma features that distinctive sweet, bubblegum and clove aroma, with notes of cocoa and brown sugar sweetness. Notable bitterness from European hops rounds out the nose.
The beginning of this interesting-tasting beer features a good dose of caramel that possesses some nice vine qualities. These flavors transition into a more bready malt flavor. Mid-palate is yeast driven, driving the clove and coriander spices that can only come in Belgian yeast strains. Back of palate notes an assertive European hop bitterness as the yeast spices dwindle. Aftertaste is of sweet brown sugar, affixed to a fairly strong European hop bitterness with a slight herbal character. This 8.0 percent beer is medium to medium-heavy in body, with carbonation of medium-low intensity.
Overall: This is a very nice interpretation on the style—an ale that is smooth, does not foam upon the palate, and flows nicely along the tongue. This is a Belgian-style that few brewers in our market have attempted, and this one fits the bill nicely.
SaltFire - Serafina: Spontaneously fermented beers aren't exclusive to Belgium, but those clever monks and nuns pretty much perfected the techniques over the centuries. Now, we reap the benefits of their devotion. Saltfire's head brewer Mike Dymowski went with a hybrid interpretation on the wild ale, adding Syrah grapes to the mix creating a half-beer/half-wine, all fermented with Utah air. The glass is as clear as a Coke bottle, allowing the deep purple beer to entice you before it's even poured. There's not much in the way of foam once in the glass. You will get loads of funky brett character, though, with balsamic fruits and juicy citrus (not sure if these are from hops or yeast). Some jammy dark fruits from the Syrah emerge, plus hints of light oak (probably from some blended foeder beer), a touch of vanilla, leather and musty attic.
The taste has spicier oak, peppery farmhouse yeast, and dirty balsamic vinegar flavors present, particularly in the finish. It's sweeter than the aroma, with more earth and bitter citrus peel present. I don't think I would have guessed this was a beer from the start; the 51/49 ratio of beer to wine is style-bending. The finish has some light lemony sourness, musty brett, and wet oak, which makes things a tad overwhelming. Still, the result is quite complex and rich. Medium body, with plenty of tannins present, and the warming quality of the 8.0 percent alcohol suggests that this picked up some heat from the foeder. There's some light residual stickiness that suggests the funky yeast didn't manage to scrub all the sugars.
Overall: This is an exciting and complex beer. Mark my words, you'll soon start to see more brews like this, as local brewers yearn to push the boundaries of what beer can be. Until the other hybrids arrive, you'll just have to enjoy this one.
Serafina is a pretty small-batch offering, but the market isn't huge for funky sour beers, so you may still be in luck. Eternal Pursuit has a much larger batch size, and will find its way into your fridge easily. As always, cheers!