Don Feinberg seems accustomed to working ahead of the curve. When he started Vanberg & DeWulf Imports in 1982, there were only five Belgian beers available on the US market. Today there are over a thousand and Don has been responsible, over the last 25-plus years, for bringing in some of the best. He took a notable detour along the way as well, founding Ommegang, producer of Belgian-style ales based in Cooperstown, NY, in 1997 before eventually selling the brewery to Duvel in 2003. Since then he’s redoubled his efforts at Vanberg & DeWulf, where he continues to represent a small but high quality portfolio of Belgian beers.
Answering the Philly Beer Week call, Don came to the town he acknowledges as “the best Belgian beer city in the country” last Friday, pouring the stalwarts of his book along with some new releases from the same breweries in the context of a seminar at Tria Fermentation School.
Appropriately, the first pour of the evening was what I imagine must be the best selling beer in Don’s lineup, Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont. It’s the gold standard of the Belgian saison style for a reason. And it served as a good point of departure for one of the main discussion threads that wound through Don’s seminar: the question of alcohol levels, often high and rising, in Belgian beers. Though Dupont Saison is hardly high zoot – it’s pretty typical to style at 6.5% – it still stood in contrast to the next beer, Dupont’s bière de table called “Avril” that clocks in at only 3.5%. Very fresh and ever so slightly funky, with a not unattractive whiff of matchstick that Don feels is a typical aromatic profile of the extremely pale malts used in its brewing process, I really dug it. So did Don, though he seemed hardly surprised that, when hands were raised, it was one of the least popular beers of the evening.
The contrast between the duo from Dupont seemed subtle in comparison to the leap from Avril to the next pairing: two beers from Brasserie Dubuisson, both of which struck the 12% mark. Don did a good job of explaining what he sees as the problem with many high alcohol beers. Lack of versatility and drinkability aside (sound familiar, wine crew?), it’s not so much the question of alcohol itself as the side effect of sweetness of flavor that comes from high alcohol itself and from the heavy malt components necessary to achieve such levels. When choosing rich styles for the Vanberg & DeWulf portfolio, Don looks for full attenuation, beers that have achieved both their weight and balance with as little as possible reliance on residual sugar. Putting proof to his criteria, neither beer – in fact, none of those tasted over the course of the evening – came across as over-the-top or imbalanced.
Enough technical stuff for now. What about the beers?
Brasserie Dubuisson’s Scaldis (it’s called “Bush” on the Belgian market; the reasons for the name change should be obvious…) gave a nose full of caramel and peach preserve aromas and showed fine balance for its richness. The Scaldis “Refermentée,” though, was considerably more compelling, with its less sweet, earthier nose and fine, creamy texture, the result of a slow, natural refermentation in the bottle. It’s a brand new entry from Dubuisson, available in the US for only the last month or two.
Next up were two brown ales, the classic Moinette Brune from Brasserie Dupont and Brouwerij Slaghmuylder’s Witkap-Pater Abbey Dubbele, another new release on the US market. Moinette may deserve its classic status but Witkap stole the show, its rich nose contrasting with an entirely integrated, lingering caramel element on the palate.
The two most impressive beers of the night – intentionally so but no lesser for it – were two high-end bottlings from Brasserie Dubuisson: Scaldis Prestige and Scaldis Prestige de Nuits. Both hit the shelves at a suggested retail price in the $45-50 range, putting them soundly into the realm of rarefied specialties. Both were excellent. The “Prestige,” aged in new French oak, had a sweetly vanilla driven nose along with a flavor profile that made me think of a Meunier-driven Champagne crossed with an exotic style of Kentucky Bourbon. “Prestige de Nuits,” on the other hand, is aged in old foudres previously used for red wines in Burgundy’s Côte de Nuits. Here, a wild, lambic-like nose and distinct flavors of griotte were offset by a surprisingly low-acid profile. It’s not yet available in the US.
The formal tasting wrapped up with a comparison between two beers from Brouwerij Boon, a producer no longer in the Vanberg & DeWulf fold. If Don mentioned what led them to sever ties, I missed it, though it may have something to do with Boon pushing the alcohol level of their lambics by experimenting with higher than traditional malt content. Regardless, Mr. Feinberg was clear in his admiration of Boon’s beers, mentioning they own the “biggest and best” barrels in Belgium, the size of said casks inherently reducing the variability of their lambics from batch-to-batch. Boon’s Geuze “Mariage Parfait” struck me as less intensely aromatic as many other geuze, while the Lambic (un-refermented and entirely still) “Mariage Parfait” was much more clearly influenced by brettanomyces, giving up a snoot full of earthy, tangy aromas of the barnyard. Tasty.
Don snuck in a little homebrew for a final flourish, asking the group to taste and guess its alcohol level. Far from finished, his “Frankenbeer” was in a highly acetic state but very refreshing. I guessed high at 5%, off by a full degree-and-a-half. With that, Mr. Feinberg left everyone with a final question. Why do people gladly ante-up their hard-earned dollars for richer Belgian ales but balk at the prices requested for lower-alcohol bières de garde and bières de table? After all, the brewer at Brasserie Dupont considers “Avril” to be the most labor intensive, delicate and environmentally sensitive beer he makes.
It’s a question with implications that reach far beyond the confines of the Belgian beer world.