Ramon Narvaez likes to think that his beer taste has evolved tremendously since his college days. Back then it was pilsners and light lagers at parties, while today he conducts daily tastings of some of the finest Belgian beers that are offered at Brasserie Beck and the Mussel Bar & Grille.
Brabo: The Perfect Palate Cleanser
Brewed in Belgium by Brouwerij Huyghe, this light and refreshing lager has lots of flavor and won’t weigh you down. It was created exclusively for Chef Robert Wiedmaier and takes its name from a mythical Roman soldier who slew the giant Antigoon in ancient Antwerp. Expect big, oatmeal malt flavors; soft, hoppy, bitter, but not too much; and a golden straw color.
Belgians take their beer and their traditions very seriously. The Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mash Staff is an ancient and noble guild of the brewing industry. In 2012, during its annual celebration of Belgian Beer Weekend in Brussels, none other than Chef Robert Wiedmaier was officially “enthroned” as an Honorary Knight. Wiedmaier spent his formative professional years in Brussels, and raised his glass—several times—in gratitude for the honor!
“My first deeper interaction with beer was in the ’90s, during the first wave of American craft beers.” After working his way through several front-of-house positions and serving as wine director for Alain Ducasse, Narvaez found himself back at Brasserie Beck faced with the daunting task of curating their beer program, a heady list of more than 100 choices heavily based in Belgian beers.
“Now I taste beers for a living every day. I recently became a Cicerone Certified Beer Server. This is the first part of a rigorous course given by an American-based institution that is equivalent to being a Court of Master Sommelier on the wine side, where I am also a Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommelier. It helped me to gain a good understanding about basic styles of beer, origins, and how it is made—the technical part.”
Belgian beers are a natural fit for both restaurants given the food that is served and, of course, Chef Wiedmaier’s heritage. “What is so unique about these beers is that they really reflect the spirit of the people of Belgium,” explains Narvaez. “To many, the Belgians are considered a little eccentric, and that allows them a lot of creativity. These are people who live in the hub of commerce and culture in Europe. They had been exposed to Dutch, French, and German influences, as well as the commerce and trading routes on the coast. They don’t follow a lot of rules unlike, say, the Germans, who strictly adhere to a purity law, known as the Reinheitsgebot, that states only barley, water, and most recently hops can be in a beer. Likewise, the English, being old-fashioned and traditional, have very definite styles that don’t vary much from one brewer to another. But with the Belgians, anything goes. Over the centuries, they have created certain styles that loosely follow a pattern and profile, but that’s about the extent of it. They add just about anything to a beer: coriander, orange peel, clove. They ferment for an extra long time to create super high levels of alcohol. They open ferment, exposing the beer to naturally occurring yeasts, sometimes to everything in the air in a barn-like atmosphere. And this results in some very funky styles of beer: strong, assertive, and not extremely regulated. Only in Belgium can you find a Tripel blonde ale that is also highly hoppy. In most other countries, beer profiles hardly deviate.”
So the good news is, there’s a beer to satisfy any palate, and one glance at the Beck and Mussel Bar beer lists reinforces this. But where do you start, and what do you choose? Should you approach beer the same way you do wine? “Absolutely,” states Narvaez. “Talk to your server. Give them parameters—what you like or don’t like, what you want to spend, and whether you want to pair the beer with food, or if you are thirsty and just want a quencher. Even if we don’t have a beer guru in house, we train our staff constantly. They taste at line up twice a day, so they are well educated. Why spend half an hour pouring through a menu, at least for your first drink of beer, when you can rely on your server’s knowledge Then you can either leave it in their hands or take it from there.”
The Mussel Bar & Grille beer list includes a description of each beer, style, and category. “We always try to state the alcohol percentage because when it comes to Belgian beer, one bottle might well be the equivalent of two or two and a half bottles of another. In comparison to a Stella or Budweiser with a four percent alcohol level, a Belgian Tripel or Quad might have 11 or 12 percent, because they actually use ingredients such as candy sugar to drive up the levels during fermentation. We are always careful when serving these types of beers so no one gets caught by surprise.”
Rounding out the list, you will find some classic German beers and American ones as well. “American experimentation has brought it around full circle. Now everyone is trying to copy American styles of beer making.”