Our ongoing series on the essential craft beers that everyone ought to know.
There was once a time when you could only get a Belgian-style ale by actually going to Belgium. Sure, one might be able to find a Hoegaarden or Duvel on occasion, but we in the U.S. were missing out on so many of the Belgian ales we now take for granted. I knew of one bar in Berkeley, California, in the early 2000s that had Belgian ales exclusively on tap and, in my youthful mind, it was simply beer nirvana.
Today, not only are you able to find ales from remote Belgian monasteries at your favorite beer store, there are a slew of local breweries that produce Belgian-style ales*. We can’t get enough of this stuff.
Back in 1995, Rob Tod of Portland, Maine, recognized the dearth of Belgian-style ales in the U.S. (or in Maine at least) and decided to brew a Belgian-style wheat ale. This was ALLAGASH White, and it became the flagship beer for the fledgling brewery. Today Allagash produces a number of award-winning Belgian-inspired ales, but the Allagash White is probably still the best-known and most widely available.
It’s safe to say that Allagash (and later Ommegang) illustrated the possibilities of U.S.-brewed Belgian-style beers once the craft beer scene took off. Even macro-breweries came out with their own less-than-’stella’r versions, indicating that Americans were adventurous enough to try something other than adjunct lager more often than once in a blue moon.
While relatively rare in the United States, wheat beers are prevalent all over Europe. Whether called a Weiss (White) beer, Hefeweizen or Wit, wheat beers are a popular, lighter bodied, and often lower-alcohol beer with a zesty citrus essence that make them easy to drink. In other words, wheat beers are a perfect style to introduce to Americans raised on light, flavorless lagers.
So how does the Allagash White hold up after 20 years on the market? It’s still a great example of a Belgian Wheat and a delicious beer. True to style, it pours a pale, straw yellow, with a color akin to a Sauvignon Blanc for you wine drinkers. If you remember to give the bottle a good swirl before emptying the bottle into your glass, thereby picking up the yeast settled at the bottom of the bottle, you’ll have a beautiful HAZY straw yellow color. It’s a Belgian-style beer, so include the yeast!
The aromas are light and spicy, dominated by the characteristic smells of lemon and orange peel, coriander, hints of black pepper, and fruity yeast. Unlike malted barley, wheat imparts a much lighter body and crisper flavor that really allows the citrus and spice flavors to shine through. This is one crisp and refreshing beer—perfect for warmer days. As the beer warms, the carbonation mellows, giving the beer a bit more complexity; you’ll pick up more of the coriander and pepper notes. The yeast adds an earthy element that doesn’t overwhelm but leaves a pleasant taste on your palate that adds to the refreshing quality of this beer.
While I’m not a big wheat beer drinker, the Allagash White does give me an appreciation for the style and makes me wonder why I don’t have more wheat beers in the fridge. Who can go wrong with a crisp, light, refreshing AND flavorful beer, one that won’t overwhelm the hop-fatigued tongue? Such is the beauty of a Belgian White ale done correctly—it doesn’t forego complexity just to give you crisp and thirst-quenching.
There are a lot of Belgian-style wheat beers on the market today, including two made by each of the leading macro-brewers. Don’t be fooled by their slick marketing campaigns trying to sell you on their Belgian-style “craft beer” products that were most likely produced by a marketing panel. Go for the authentic version, something like the Allagash White, which was inspired by actual Belgian ales and which has set the very impressive bar for the current crop of domestically-produced Belgian-inspired brews. —J.A.
*In Southern California, try Monkish and Brouwerij West for great Belgian-style ales.