Monday, January 10, 2011

Belgium Without the Airfare!

Beer: Trois Pistoles
Brewery: Unibroue (Chambly, Quebec)
Type: Belgian Strong Ale
ABV: 9%

A professor and friend of mine has long maintained that in order to find quality Belgian-style ales, one need not actually go to Belgium, because Quebecois brewers are doing the job just as well.   A fairly bold statement indeed, considering the history of Belgian brewing, the skills and innovation of Belgian brewers, and the cultural obsession with all things beer that seems to be a defining attribute of the land of Hercule Poirot.  As Michael Jackson observes in Eyewitness Companions: Beer, "Belgians have more than 25 indigenous styles with countless regional variations, and choose their beer the way the French choose wine."  Making a trip to Belgium is like a right of passage, a pilgrimage for anyone who loves beer; with so many abbeys, small brewhouses and beer cafes, you can literally see the history of brewing unfold in front of you.  Belgium has long since surrendered its monopoly over the great styles of the Belgian Pale Ale, the Wit, the Dubbel and the Tripel, but there remain are a few styles and brewing methods that are truly native to Belgium, or at least are difficult to replicate overseas.  Authentic lambics, for example, rely upon local yeast cultures to spontaneously ferment the beer - anything of the kind attempted in North America wouldn't quite be the same.   The Trappist monestaries of Chimay, Achel, Rochefort and the legendary Westvleteren have developed unique abbey ales that have captivated the beer-drinking world - but have also vigorously defended their exclusive right to the 'trappist' insignia.   So it appears there are some things that will remain exclusively Belgian in origin.

This doesn't mean that craft brewers aren't trying.  American and Canadian brewers have been inspired by Belgian ales and have attempted to recreate their unique brewing styles on this side of the Atlantic, adding their own personal touch to each brew.   No style has been left untried; even the mysterious lambic has been successfully produced by a few American craft brewers like New Glarus of Wisconsin, although Belgians still produce the vast majority of the world's lambics.   But other unique Belgian creations have been given the North American treatment, from spicy tart Oud Bruins (Flemish 'Old Brown') to the dry yet potent Quadrupel, which usually boasts over 10% ABV.   And they're usually fantastic.  Displaying faithfulness and reverence for the original styles, yet boasting creativity and innovation of their own, North American brewers have truly done an admirable job in producing their own versions of Belgian beers.  Though the Belgian influence can be found in breweries across the continunet, some of the very best examples of this trend can be found in the province of Quebec.

While (generally), Ontario brewers have tended to follow English and Scottish brewing methods, Quebec craft brewers have opted to follow the Belgian schools, and well they should.   It's almost an unwritten rule that some of the best Belgian-style brews come from Quebec, and indeed, many of these are rated amongst the best brews in the world.   Although smaller breweries have earned a reputation for quality Belgian ales - like Dieu du Ciel!, Charlevoix and Brasseurs RJ - the real giant in Quebec brewing is Unibroue of Chambly, which has a more generous distribution network, a result of its purchasing by Sleeman in 2004.  Fortunately, the quality of Unibroue's wares has not diminished because of this partnership; La Fin du Monde, a Belgian-style Tripel, remains among Ratebeer's and BeerAdvocate's top 100 beers in the world (#31), with Maudite and Trois Pistoles (the subject of today's review) not too far behind.   These are truly fantastic beers.   Let's dig in to one right now!

Though I've had Trois Pistoles many times before, this was one of the few opportunities I've had to enjoy this out of the corked bottle.  In fact, I had to get this bottle size from a friend of mine who visited Quebec over the holidays.  La Fin du Monde, Blanche du Chambly and Maudite are often available in the LCBO in these tall bottles, although rumor has it that these will be phased out and replaced with uncorked six packs.

As always, fantastic bottle artwork.  There's something about Quebec brewers and their devotion to great bottle design.  I support this!  Trois Pistoles is a Belgian strong ale, which are usually dark, moderately spiced, fruity and with a nice high alcohol content.   Poured into a Leffe chalice.  A deep chestnut brew, almost the colour of a beer bottle, and with a slight ruby-auburn tinge when held to the light.  A few chunks of yeasty sediment collect near the bottom of the class, which means that this kind of brew is excellent for cellaring.  The head isn't this brew's strong suit; after a few moments it dissolves into a thick ring, which creates some nice sheeted lacing; later attempts after warming didn't see much improvement.  Not uncommon for the style, apparently.

Nose is yeasty and bready, with additional whiffs of cherry, chocolate, grape and spices.

Sweet, yet dry; rich, yet easily drinkable, Trois Pistoles is a brew full of wonderful contrasts. Begins with a bready, yeasty punch, which is followed by notes of dry white wine, caramel, chocolate, grape, cherry and spice.  Finishes dry and tart, with a nice spicy fruit aftertaste.

Mouthfeel is creamy, slick, a touch watery, but still enjoyable. The carbonation crackles nicely on the tongue.

A bit thinner than Maudite, both in flavor and consistency, but nevertheless, this is another fantastic offering from one of Quebec's finest breweries. Perhaps the most drinkable Belgian Strong you're ever going to encounter. While not as rich and hearty as others of the style, Trois Pistoles more than makes up for this in terms of sheer drinking pleasure.   Belgian ales are often described as being as satisfying and complex to drink as a good red wine.  Of course, I'll always argue that beers are more complex and satisfying than wines, but the comparison is intended to be a compliment, as well as encouragement for non-beer drinkers to give Belgian pale ales a try.  In this regard, they are certainly correct.  This is a great brew to slowly sip at over the course of an evening, or to enjoy with some nice cheese and cold meats.

The more I sample Quebec craft beers, the more I tend to agree with my friend's assertion.  Stand one of these brews next to one of the same style from Belgium proper, and I doubt there would be much to separate the two in terms of quality.  Pit this brew against Chimay Red or Blue and I'm sure you'll be happy with both.  Don't agree with me? Try for yourself!  (Grade: A)

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