What is it about Belgian beer that commands so much attention?
Innovation and complexity factor strongly, but not in the same way we’re accustomed to here in the States. You won’t find extreme beers modeled after our hop-heavy double IPAs lining store shelves in Brussels. What you will find are brewing techniques that date back to the Middle Ages, spontaneous fermentation methods, and beers that live in the bottle and improve over time rather than expiring after the “best by” date.
Of course some have ventured over and experienced the difference for themselves, but still, what exactly it is that sets these beers apart has remained relatively obscure. Only in the last decade have American brewers really begun to embrace the centuries-old traditional styles that Belgium is renowned for. The most interesting takeaway lesson is that malt and hops are not the only ingredients that can drastically alter a beer’s flavor and aroma. Belgian beers demonstrate that tampering with yeast — or not tampering with it at all — can produce all kinds of wild combinations.
Nothing offers a better example than the famously sour lambics. Brewed with stale hops, left open to airborne yeast and bacteria, aged 3-5 years in tainted casks, and left smelling like a horse blanket, these definitely require a leap of faith for first-timers. They're also delightfully refreshing, and the most fun to play with when it comes to food pairing.
All of these beers can and should be enjoyed with food. Not just with it, but in it and on it as well. As you explore the different characteristics of each style, experiment with incorporating them into your own pairings and recipes. Look to traditional Belgian food for classic combinations. You won’t be disappointed.