Belgium: Perfecting Wine Pairing in the Heart of Beer Country

It might be small, but Belgium is mighty for the many big flavors it creates from beer to chocolate, and everything in between. As one of the biggest producers of beer in the world, it would be remiss to gloss over that fact. Belgians do so well with beer that they even aptly merge it into their own cuisine, resulting in complex textures and flavors.

You most certainly could pair them with Belgian beers effortlessly. While the states is now having a craft-beer movement, Belgians have always had an upscale love affair with their beers. Never canned, almost every single beer in Belgium has a specific glass for serving which is said to enhance the flavor of the beer. That’s how seriously beer is taken in the country that gave us all giant waffles for brunch and fries.

While you’re probably well-aware that Belgium produces many different styles of beer, you probably didn’t know that it produces more distinct types of beer per capita than anyplace else. Brewing in Belgium goes far back into the Middle Ages, and even today, Trappist Monasteries continue to produce beer. It was something they started to raise funds for themselves.

With such an emphasis on beer, Belgian cuisine truly encourages one to relish each course of a meal and pair it with one of it fine selections. Belgian wheat beer is a beautiful treat with fish and other types of seafood. Belgium’s famed eel dish goes amazing with blonde beers. Dark beers pair best with dark meats, and fruit lambics are divine with dessert.

That’s easy enough. Or is it? For, what if you’d prefer a glass of wine with your Belgian cuisine instead? And furthermore, what if you’re trying to pair anything with a Belgian dish that is made with beer as one of the ingredients?

wine & beer
wine & beer

These complex questions make it difficult for even top sommeliers to discern what to pair with revered Belgian beer dishes. A prime example is that of carbonnade flamande. It’s incredibly similar to the French dish of beef bourguignon, though instead of simmering in red wine, the Belgian version simmers in beer.

Fascinatingly, the idea of cooking with beer came from France. Recipes found in 18th-century cookbooks (like François Massialot’s Nouveau Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois for example) have cuisine cooked with beer listed in them. With Belgium being the land of beer, it became a fitting trend. While cuisine à la bière isn’t quite as common now in Brussels, other eateries are keeping the tradition alive. If you’d like to do so yourself, the easiest way is to replace the addition of water or stock in any meat recipe with beer.

In the case of carbonnade flamande, this Belgian beer dish comes out with rich flavor that tends to vary slightly depending on the region since each Belgian region will choose its own beer to add to the famed dish. While it’s made with beer, don’t let that throw you off. Beer drinkers can happily pair it with a dark beer, though wine drinkers can do well with a good red. The beef in this dish has a deep flavor which means the wine has to match it bite for bite. California reds are ideal for this, like a sultry Cabernet Sauvignon or even a Petite Syrah.

Another interestingly application for beer in food can be found at the Trappist monastery at Chimay. It is here that they create a cheese that they bathe in beer, called Chimay à la Bière, to bring out the flavor. They are first molded and subjected to a day of brining. Then they head to cellars where they are washed in Chimay Trappist ale.

The cheeses are then taken out of the brine and placed in maturation cellars.  These cellars are kept at a constant temperature between 8-12°C with 90 to 95% relative humidity.  Once in these cellars, the cheeses are washed with brine at least twice and turned over four to five times so that they mature evenly.  It should be noted that the Chimay “ale cheeses” (with “” in the name) are washed in Chimay Trappist ale.

Since Belgium is all about being Beer Country, that makes it slightly more difficult to determine a proper pairing when it comes to Belgian cuisine and wine. Look anywhere and you’ll find endless suggestions about pairing the variety of beers. But wine? While you surely won’t want to miss a proper pairing with beer, that doesn’t mean that you must fully commit to beer every time you enjoy Belgian cuisine.

In the case of the carbonnade, those California reds mentioned above will be sublime. Mussels with fries is another simple yet extraordinary dish where the mussels are cooked in in beer and that will greatly depend if you are on the Flemish or French side of the country and even then it will drastically change from town to town. The broth is an ideal clue to go with a white, but which one? To complement the flavors aptly, choose a Pinot Grigio or an unoaked Chardonnay.

When it comes to the eel in green sauce though, the fresh herbs in the dish need a suitable companion. A nice white Priorat wine is a safe bet for a harmonious pairing. A casual lunch of Américain, essentially a steak tartar sandwich, is pure bliss with a good Cabernet Sauvignon.

While a bit trickier due to the beer culture in Belgium, it’s still very possible to find sublime partners with wine and the cuisine found there. All it takes is a willingness to explore.