How to Store and Serve

Guidelines for Storing, Serving and Drinking

Belgian beers are not like your average commercial lager. In fact they should be treated like wine rather than like beer, in that they must be stored correctly, poured correctly, and served at the right temperature.

How to store

beerCellar

Most Belgian beers undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle. Yeast is either left in the beer during bottling, or new yeast is introduced, and a small amount of sugar or other fermentables is added. The yeast continues the fermentation in the bottle, thereby preserving the beer, further purifying the beer by breaking down by-products of the earlier fermentation, and producing more flavour. Unlike a simple commercial lager, a good strong Belgian beer has a shelf life of at least several years, during which it will continue to improve.

Bottles of Belgian beer should be stored upright in a cool, dark place, and be left alone. Putting them in the back of a kitchen cupboard will do nicely. Storing them under wine cellar conditions (either in a true cellar or in a refrigerated wine cupboard at a constant temperature between 7 and 13 degrees or so) is ideal.

After transportation the bottles should be allowed to "rest" for at least a day (ideally several days) so that the sedimentation can settle back to the bottom of the bottle.

Like a good wine, a Belgian beer can be drunk immediately after purchasing, but will benefit from some storage. Most connoisseurs let their beers further mature for a minimum of six months before drinking, and often longer.

Temperature

thermometer

Just like one would not serve a fine wine at two degrees Celsius, a Belgian beer should not be over-chilled, either. Commercial lagers tend to be served ice-cold, which essentially prevents one from tasting them properly. However, since they tend to have a very neutral flavour that is rather unchallenging to the palate, this is no great loss and sometimes even an improvement!

Belgian beers, however, should be served at slightly higher temperatures. The ideal serving temperature depends on the beer, but is typically between six and twelve degrees Celsius. The strongest, heaviest beers can even have a recommended serving temperature of around fifteen degrees Celsius. Check the label of your Belgian beer for the recommended serving temperature.

In any case, resist the temptation to serve Belgian beers ice-cold! Remember that Belgian beers are brewed to fill your mouth with flavour rather than with cold and carbon dioxide gas.

The Glass

Each Belgian beer comes with its own glass. While this is not critical, it does pay to serve the beer in a glass that is as close to the original as possible. Some beers have a huge head of foam, and the corresponding glass is designed to accommodate this. Other beers have a very aromatic nose, and the shape of the glass is designed to maximize the experience while drinking. Some beers should loose some of their carbonation after pouring, and the low, wide shape of the glass reflects this. There are many possibilities, but in general the proper glass does contribute to the experience of enjoying the beer in its proper form.

While it is difficult and expensive to obtain each specific glass for every beer, a few rules of thumb do go a long way. First of all, the size of the glass should be sufficient to pour the beer out of the bottle all at once. Therefore the glass should be large enough to hold the full amount of beer and the head which, on a Belgian ale, can be quite high. Second, a tulip shaped glass is preferable to a straight lager-type glass, because it preserves the nose better, as is the case with a wine glass.

The glass should be rinsed with clean, cold water before pouring. This prevents the beer from "foaming out of the glass" in case it has become slightly over-carbonated during bottle conditioning-- something that occasionally does happen. Pouring beer into a wet glass offers much more control over head formation than when the beer is poured into a dry glass.

How to Pour

Belgian beers are often brewed "naturally", which means that they are not designed for clarity and neutral flavour the way most modern, large-brand commercial beers are. They tend to be unfiltered, and are often bottle conditioned.

Unfiltered beer still contains some solids that result from the brewing process. This adds flavour, body and mouthfeel to the beer. Over time these solids settle to the bottom of the bottle. This is normal, and should not be taken as an indication of spoilage or problems during the brewing process.

pouring

As mentioned above, bottle conditioned beers undergo a secondary or tertiary fermentation in the bottle. When the beer is bottled at the brewery, some sugar (known as priming sugar) is added to the bottle. There is still a small amount of live yeast cells present in the beer (as is normal for a naturally brewed beer), and this yeast ferments the added sugar in the bottle, thereby producing carbonation (the "fizziness") and more flavour. The yeast also acts as a natural preservative, giving the beer up to several years of shelf life, and during storage continues to improve the flavour of the beer. The yeast forms a deposit at the bottom of the bottle.

When pouring a Belgian beer (or any unfiltered and/or bottle conditioned beer), care should be taken to leave the deposit of solids at the bottom of the bottle. Store the bottle vertically, and let it "rest" for a few days before pouring, to allow the solids to settle to the bottom of the bottle. Pour the beer in a large glass with plenty of "head space" in one smooth pour, and do not tilt the bottle back during pouring, in order to prevent stirring up the solids. Leave the last centimeter or so of beer in the bottle, as pouring out the entire bottle into the glass will result in a cloudy beer.

How to Drink

Finally... Belgian beers are meant to be enjoyed! They are properly savoured as a fine wine. Sit down, relax, and enjoy. Observe the colour of the beer, and the way in which the fine bubbles are released from the bottom of the glass and rise up to add to the fine filigree of the head. Hold it up against the light and enjoy the colour of the beer. Sniff, smell, and let the nose work its magic. Sip carefully, and hold the beer in the mouth for several moments before swallowing. When tasting a beer, one always tastes the second sip. The first sip clears the palate and removes whatever taste still may linger in the mouth, so that the second sip can be tasted properly and savoured to the full. Swallow, and draw a little air over the tongue, while the finish develops and fills the body with its warmth.

Belgian beers are usually quite strong, and should be enjoyed for their quality, and not in quantity. In character they are closer to fine wine than to a simple lager, and should be enjoyed accordingly.

Cheers!