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The Great Beers of Belgium: A Complete Guide and Celebration of a Unique Culture.

The U.S. publication of Michael Jackson's new book, The Great Beers of Belgium is reason for celebration among American beer enthusiasts.

Jackson has won deserved renown as a beer writer, employing great diligence in his pursuit of sublime beers. The fruit of these labors can be found in his World Guide to Beer (reprinted & revised in 1988, Running Press) and the Simon & Schuster Pocket Guide to Beer. Both have become standard reference sources for beer enthusiasts.

Belgian beer was allotted a chapter in each of these previous books, but the richness and diversity of the subject tugged at the margins, and begged for a more comprehensive treatment.

Jackson's new book, Great Beers of Belgium fills the bill. The book was initially printed only in Europe, since American publishers thought the subject too esoteric. Fortunately, however, it is now being reprinted and distributed in the U.S. through the offices of Vanberg & DeWulf, a Cooperstown, NY-based importer of Belgian specialty beers.

Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium begins with a brief history of Belgium, and follows with a discussion of classic beer ingredients; a chapter each on barley, hops and yeast.

After the preliminaries, Jackson tackles each Belgian beer style, from lambic to Belgian pils, and everything in between. He discusses white beers, brown beers, red beers, saisons, Belgian ales, Trappist beers, abbey beers, and golden strong beers.

In steering readers through the thickets of Belgian beer style, Jackson offers his usual entertaining commentary, a mixture of fact and informed speculation, leavened with dry humor. He has visited many of the breweries mentioned, and provides information on the brewing equipment and the methods used, while not neglecting tasting notes on the finished products.

The book provides a fascinating glimpse of a very traditional beer culture, one in which brewing practices have changed little in the last few centuries. Latter-day American brewers may recoil in horror from the idea of fermenting in wood, but there are Belgians who still do it, and they make some remarkable beer.

In that vein, the volume includes a section on lambic brewing, a process little changed since medieval times. Jackson relates how a proportion of unmalted wheat is used in the mash, producing a "milky-white" wort, and large quantities (six times the typical quantity) of three-year-old hops are added. The hops are aged to reduce their flavor, bittering and aromatic qualities, retaining only their preservative value. The boiled wort is then cooled in a shallow open vessel, located in a loft fitted with vents and louvers.

Just as other brewers take pains to exclude wild yeasts, lambic brewers encourage them. As Jackson points out "|lambic brewers~ work with nature rather than fighting it. They welcome the wild yeasts, and let them help determine the character of the beer. In a lambic brewery, windows and vents are left open, and even the odd tile may be allowed to go missing, in order to allow in the wild yeast."

The brew is then fermented and aged in wood for up to two years. The result is a beer with its own special character. Very dry, with fruity and sherryish flavors. As Jackson puts it, "there is no more enigmatic drink."

In further chapters, Jackson describes the last working Trappist breweries, and also provides guidance to secular abbey beers and regional specialty brews. The book closes with a guide to specialty beer cafes where consumers can sample the nectar that flows from Belgium's historic brewkettles.

The book is a valuable tool for classifying the panoply of Belgian beers, whether in preparation for a trip to Belgium or just down to the corner store. Great Beers of Belgium is a timely addition to the Jackson canon, and a great boon to American consumers.
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Publication:Modern Brewery Age
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 23, 1992
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