It would be fair to call me a beer snob, but not because I hate cheap beer. In fact, I love cheap beer and everything that cheap beer stands for. I am a longtime and avid drinker of PBR, have a fondness in my heart (but perhaps no longer on my palate) for the venerable 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor, and happily swig all manner of old-fashioned American beer at ball games and barbecues. But I also love the fancy stuff. My snobbery comes into play with middle-of-the-road, expensive yet boring imports and the overwrought microbrews -- there are some great microbrews out there, but there's also a lot of overpriced swill.
In July 2004, a whole new world of beer drinking opened up for Georgians with the repeal of the law prohibiting beer that contained more than 6 percent alcohol by volume. Many artisan beers, and particularly beers from Belgium, that had not been previously available to consumers because of high alcohol content are now here. There is a whole contingent of fans of these beers, and for those folks this guide will seem basic. But I am constantly shocked at the number of people I meet who have yet to do themselves a favor and discover the joy of these beautiful brews -- people with great taste who even think of themselves as beer connoisseurs. So for those of you who have yet to venture into the beer cave at Green's (or who have but were overwhelmed by the selection), here are a few beers to get you started:
Chimay Grand Reserve (9 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $8.99)
The good news for newcomers to Belgian beers is that one of the best in the world is also the most widely available. Chimay, made by Trappist monks in Belgium near the French border, can be found in restaurants and supermarkets these days. You will often see Belgian beers referred to as dubbels or trippels, meaning double- or triple- (and sometimes quadruple) fermented. This process increases the alcohol by volume. Chimay Rouge, with its red label, is a dubbel. Chimay Blue is the grand reserve, and at 9 percent alcohol, is a classic Trappist brew -- a dark, mellow, malty beer with both fruity sweetness and a satisfying dry finish. If you've never enjoyed this class of beer, Chimay is the place to start.
Ommegang Three Philosophers (9.8 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $5.49)
Ommegang is a brewery that opened in 1997 in upstate New York that is giving the Belgians a run for their money. Three Philosophers is one of its Belgian-style beers, and widely regarded as one of the best beers of this style in the world. This is quite an accomplishment, considering the Belgians have been brewing this type of beer for hundreds of years. And because the beer is not imported, American consumers get a nice price break.
Scaldis Noel (12 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $13.99)
Scaldis Noel is a seasonal beer meant for Christmas, but it's available year round at Green's. This is dark beer, full of rich fruit flavors (fig, raisin), molasses and brown sugar.
Cantillon Organic Gueuze (5 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $12.95)
Lambic beers have also become popular with U.S. drinkers in the past few years, but mainly in the sweet, fruit-flavored form. Purists will insist that brews such as the popular Lindemans' fruit lambics are not true lambics because they are made by adding fruit juice to the beer, rather than brewing with the fruit. Pure or not, they can be quite delicious. True lambics can also be fruit-flavored, but are not sweet. Gueuze is an unflavored lambic, and is often compared to fine wine. It can take some getting used to -- these beers are quite tart, especially if you serve them too cold. But serve this organic gueuze at cellar temp (approximately 50 degrees) and give it a chance to mellow and you will be rewarded with a pleasant, smoky, yeasty and refreshingly lemony flavor. It is a wonderfully complex beer.
St. Amand (5.9 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $7.95)
This French country ale has less alcohol than many of the Belgians, and is not quite as heavy. Belgian lovers will say it is inferior and less complex, but I love the refreshing spice notes and caramel finish.
Fantome Saison (8 percent alcohol, 750 mL, $9.95)
Saison beers are Belgian country ales, and are made especially for summer drinking. This beer is warm and fruity, with hints of orange rind and chamomile, and with a funky, peppery edge. Another great example of this style is Saison Dupont, probably the most popular saison in the world.
Where to buy
Green's (737 Ponce de Leon Ave., 404-872-1109, www.greensbeverages.com) has a room especially for specialty European beers, and the selection is huge. The store carries a huge array of beers, including some special (and expensive) reserve beers.
The Brick Store Pub (125 E. Court Square, 404-687-0990, www.brickstorepub.com) in Decatur was recently named by BeerAdvocate.com as the 15th best place in America to have a beer. The pub has a Belgian room with six Belgian beers on draft, and more than 120 Belgian or Belgian-style beers by the bottle.
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