Saturday, August 20, 2011

Belgian Beer Tasting at Bin 41

When I was about fifteen years old, extended family of mine from D.C. came to stay at my house one summer. This capital-dwelling clan consisted of five members during that trip: my cousin Nicole, her husband Pat, their two daughters and a German au pair girl. I can't quite seem to remember the foreign visitor's name now. But for all intents and purposes, let's just call her Frau.

Frau, it turned out, wasn't the best full-time babysitter Germany had to offer. She didn't much enjoy the company of children, or interacting with the family in general. Makes one wonder, then, why she chose the job of 'au pair' - which, by its very definition, states that the purpose of your employment is to "take care of children in exchange for room and board." Well, Frau certainly took care of one thing: her room and board. But the children, I came to learn, pretty much took care of themselves.
Alas, I digress. The purpose of this segue into the past is to recall, and reaffirm, one very true and important fact that Frau relayed to me one night. I will present the situation below:
Me: (handing Frau a Hershey's kiss over the dining room table): "Here Frau, have some chocolate.”
Frau: (shaking her head in disgust, and putting her hand up to stop me): "Oh, no thank you Kelly. No offense, but the chocolate is horrible here. I miss the stuff back at home."
Me: (shrugging shoulders in defeat): "Oh, sorry to hear that. What else do you miss from home?"
Frau: (lets out a big sigh): "Oh, just the four main things: chocolate, coffee, cheese and beer. They’re all so much better than the crap you guys have over here."
Me: "Oh. That's nice." (Exit stage left.)

That five-part dialogue just about concludes my entire interaction with Frau. But, interestingly enough, it is Frau's words that pop into my mind as I head into Bin 41, a wine bar in Pearl River, NY. I am giddily anticipating the Belgian beer tasting that is taking place here tonight. I find the card that has my name scripted on it and dutifully take my seat. Lovely, I think, as I glance over the bar and see an attractive display of individual cheese plates that contain thick slices of creamy Brie, thinly-cut strips of Manchego (a Spanish-made sheep's milk cheese) and some kind of pear fruit preserve. Beer and cheese tonight?! Winning!

Armando, owner of Bin 41 and the Portuguese steakhouse across the street, is hosting the beer tasting himself. As I learn from my father, who is also in attendance, Armando has had wine tastings in the past but doesn't host them; the distributors do. Tonight’s subject, however, is his specialty: he knows his Belgian beer and wants you to become familiar with it too. Considerate as always, he (or one of the many baristas that he employs) has typed up a list of all six beers that our taste buds will be scrutinizing tonight. First victim: Wittekerke.
I am introduced to this beer as a barista named Jackie pours it into my wine glass. (Side note: you will feel much fancier when drinking beer out of a wine glass.) She tells my father and I that the American version of Wittekerke is Blue Moon Belgian White. I taste it and find that she is right, but there are some fundamental differences between the two. Blue Moon’s taste of orange is way more prevalent, and the color is much darker than the one I have in my hand. But both beers sit around a 5% ABV level, which make them light enough to drink and not get too full off of. But we remember that we are at a beer tasting and must move on to beer number two. And I am certainly not complaining after I read the name of our next contestant: Steenbrugge Blond.
Now, going in, I may be a bit biased toward this beer. Its relative, Steenbrugge Witbier, is one of my most favorite foamy beverages, ever. I assure you there is nothing else quite like it. But I come to learn that the Blond is just as tasty, with more of a kick to it. The flavor is sweet, malty and spicy, with notes of citrus here and there. This beer, like the previous one, sits at around 5% ABV. Once again, a tasty beer that is light enough to drink more than a few of but not lacking in flavor and, most importantly, spice!

The next one on our list (almost halfway there!) is Duvel. Armando tells us that many Belgian beer lovers consider Duvel to be the country’s most delicious brew. I have to admit, it is quite good, albeit a bit too plain for my liking. It presents a fruity-dry aroma accompanied by a slightly bitter aftertaste. I like it and wouldn’t push it away if given to me, especially if it was free. But, as I said, it’s pretty basic as beers go. On to the next one!
I hope you enjoy the name of the next beverage as much as I do: Grimbergen Double Ale. I have no idea what ‘Grimbergen’ means in Belgian-speak, and it’s probably not as interesting as what I have in my head, so I won’t make it a priority to find out. What is not uninteresting, however, is the taste of this beer. Dark amber in color, the smell is packed with notes, and I quote, “of molasses and grain.” I couldn’t have told you that myself, mind you. I consulted the handy-dandy beer list that was conveniently typed up for us. But I can confidently say that this beer contains a sweetness to it that is well-balanced, and doesn’t make you feel like you’re drinking fruit syrup. (We’ll get to that later.)
Our next beer, Chimay Blue, has acquired the honorable rating of an A+ on Beer Advocate. The Alstrom brothers, who created the site, know their brew, and very rarely do I come across an A+ for any beer on there. But it is not surprising to me that they have bestowed this much-envied grade upon a product of Belgium. Chimay Blue pours out of the bottle a dark copper brown and settles into my glass nicely, topped off with a thick, creamy-looking head. Armando informs me that I will taste notes of caramel in the beer, and once he mentions that, it’s the first flavor that comes to mind. I enjoyed this beer, but probably not as much as I’ll enjoy it in winter, sitting next to my fireplace, basking in its warm glow. Corny, but the truth!
Ah, we’ve made it. The last beer. Well, more like a fruity beverage than a beer, but appropriate in the sense that we finish with something sweet. Lindeman’s Framboise is the lambic beer that concludes our tasting. Framboise means raspberry in French. (There are many languages spoken in Belgium by the way. The three most common, besides English, are French, German and Dutch. If you want to sound more articulate like me, you can just refer to all of them as Belgian-speak.) But back to the aromas and flavors. In all honesty, this beer is much too sweet for me, but can be taken in small quantities.

Armando informs us that having a piece of dark chocolate with this particular lambic beer would pair both tastes nicely. I acknowledge that he’s probably right, but decline to order one of his many chocolate desserts from the menu. I know a good salesman when I see one.

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