Image: Russell Lo

Sound Brewery founder Mark Hood says people who don’t like sweet, strong, malty Belgian-style beers are the drinking equivalent of a kid who rejects broccoli, then spends a lifetime hating it without trying it again. Hood’s Poulsbo brewery opened in 2011 to champion undersung European beer styles here in IPA country. Half of Sound’s lineup—its banana-scented Dubbel Entendre or biscuity Koperen Ketel pale ale—is made with strains of yeast from an actual Belgian monastery. 

Only a sliver of Washington’s breweries give Belgian styles the same year-round status as IPAs, porters, or hefeweizen. And yet the Washington Beer Commission’s annual Belgianfest, a celebration of locally made saisons, wits, dubbels, tripels, sour lambics, and abbey-style ales, is one of the hottest tickets of the beer festival circuit. In its first three years, the fest outgrew the original Rainier Brewery building in Georgetown, then an old hangar in Magnuson Park, before supersizing to the Pier 66 event space in 2012. Washington Beer Commission executive director Eric Radovich says female drinkers in particular go for Belgian beers (guilty as charged).

Belgian-inspired creations can range from cloudy, spicy, unfiltered wit, or wheat, beer to malty gold-colored ale with flavors of fruit and bread and power-house alcohol levels of about 10 percent. Or perhaps a darkly sour beer with a barnyard’s worth of funky aromas. Tying all these styles together: a notable absence of that hop bite we love so in the Northwest. However, more than 30 local brewers use the festival as an excuse to turn their attention to making boozy magic with Belgian yeast. Last year’s notables included a witbier from Fremont Brewing, made with cherries, pomegranate, and pink peppercorns, and Black Raven’s La Petite Mort, a clove-scented strong brown abbey ale that spent some quality time aging in bourbon barrels. Some brewers experiment with European hops, which have less acid and more subtlety than Washington--grown varieties. Others can’t help but marry Belgium’s flavors with our local hophead ways.

Most of these creations will only be poured within the walls of the Bell Harbor International Convention Center on the first Saturday of February. That’s a shame, says Tim Czarnetzki, whose Urban Family Public House in Ballard is a shrine to Belgian beers, because when Washington brewers tackle Belgian styles, the results tend to be awesome.

 

Published: February 2013