Here’s a beer-related new year’s resolution for you (no, it’s not too late): Get to know Belgian ales. And here’s an easy way to do it: Get to know Allagash Brewing Co.
Allagash’s best-known product also happens to be one of the most popular Belgian ales: Allagash White. But Allagash White, as good as it is, is one of the least interesting beers Allagash makes. It’s a great witbier; don’t get me wrong. But too many people mistakenly think that all Belgians are witbiers. (This was clear to me over the holidays, when I offered a guest a few different Belgian beers. He replied that he doesn’t like light, hazy, white ales that taste like lemons.)
Allagash Brewing Co., just two hours up the road, in Portland, Maine, makes some of America’s best Belgian-style ales, and all manner of them. It brews a strong stable of what one might call “regular’’ Belgian beers - a dubbel, a tripel, and of course its witbier - and packages them in 750-milliliter bottles as well as affordable four-packs of 12-ounce bottles (around $10 each). But Allagash’s premier beers - the more interesting ones - can run far more, from $18 to $23 per 750-milliliter.
Pricey? For beer, yes. But when you consider that a bottle of good wine costs about the same, one could argue that these beers are worth it (once in a while, as an extravagance). In the spirit of discovering Belgian excellence in America, here is a six-pack of my favorite Allagash brews:
FOUR: Allagash Four gets its name from its classification - Allagash considers it a quadrupel - and from its brewing process. It was made with four malts and four hops, and fermented four times. But whereas most quads are nearly black and opaque, this one is translucent burgundy. It looks more like a Belgian strong dark ale; the lines between these styles are blurry anyway. There is no way to avoid pouring this beer with a huge head. You get more head than liquid even when you pour the beer slowly down the side of the glass. A sweet aroma of dark fruit - plums, raisins - emerges from the glass. The taste is deep and complex, with suggestions of dried fruit, spices, warm alcohol, and that distinctive Belgian yeast. It goes down exceedingly easily, which is dangerous for a beer that is 10 percent alcohol by volume.
CURIEUX: A tripel aged in oak bourbon barrels, Curieux is one complex beer. It’s a big beer, too, containing 11 percent alcohol. Poured into a tulip glass, Curieux gives off an aroma of tropical fruit - mangos, bananas - and boasts a long-lasting, creamy head. There’s a big alcohol bite in the first sip, and the warming effect of the bourbon accent soon takes effect. Wood is absent in the aroma but very much present in the taste, along with notes of apples and pears - especially pears. One of the most unusual tripels I’ve ever tasted.
HUGH MALONE: Allagash named Hugh Malone for a fictitious Irish immigrant who supposedly cultivated hops and settled in Maine. In fact, the name is a play on “humulone,’’ a chemical compound found in hops. And indeed only serious hopheads should go near this beer, which is like a Belgian-style version of an imperial IPA. No matter how slowly you pour it, Hugh Malone (7.8 percent ABV) erupts with a towering head of foam that spews forth tropical fruit aromas and lingers in the glass, clinging to the sides and sitting on top in chunks like little icebergs. Hazy golden with tiny bubbles shooting to the surface, this beer is all about the interaction between the hops and the Belgian yeast, which yields lemon-banana esters. A wonderfully intense beer.
ODYSSEY: Allagash calls this an oak aged dark wheat ale, but I would have had a hard time discerning the style without the brewer’s help. It could easily fall in that vague “Belgian strong dark ale’’ classification, and its color and woody notes could trick you into thinking it was some sort of Belgian stout. Appearing black but thin with a creamy, off-white head, Odyssey (10.4 percent ABV) emits a complex aroma that involves oak, chocolate, apple, and general earthiness. With an unusual combination of Belgian yeast and dark roasted malts and wheat, it has a unique, tart taste and an oaky aftertaste.
CONFLUENCE: This unusual ale is fermented with Belgian yeast and Allagash’s strain of Brettanomyces, a yeast that is usually considered a contaminant in beer but is highly valued for the aromas and flavors it contributes to wild ales. (Its qualities are often likened to barnyards or wet blankets; in the right circumstance, that’s a good thing.) Confluence (7.4 percent ABV) is the color of pineapple juice, and its sweet-and-sour aroma indeed suggests tropical fruit. Bitter and well carbonated with a slightly sour funk, Confluence is a daring, complex, immensely satisfying beer intended for adventurous palates. The judges at the Great American Beer Festival must agree - they awarded it a gold medal at this year’s event.
FLUXUS 2011: Every year Allagash brews a special beer called Fluxus to mark its anniversary. The style changes from year to year, and 2011’s Fluxus was a bière de garde, an elegant French-style farmhouse ale. (No, it’s not strictly a Belgian, but it originated just over the border in northern France.) Copper colored with a small, tightly beaded head, the beer gives off a funky aroma that exhales cloves and cherries. Slightly sour and well carbonated, Fluxus 2011 (8 percent ABV) tastes nutty, fruity, and somewhat floral, and brings lager-type qualities into the fold. An exercise in contrasts, this complex beer combines sour and citrus elements, but it’s not entirely sour like a lambic, and it’s not as citrusy as an IPA. Nowhere does it go to extremes. It lulls you in.