Saturday, January 19, 2008

Duvel and Diabolique

I think it's interesting that the beer department in any store is one of the few things in life that's openly ordered in a honest social spectrum.

Start at one side, and you've got your bottom-feeder beers like Wiedeman, Falls City, Busch, Milwaukee's Best, and other such undrinkable swill. The light beers tend to gravitate to this end of the aisle as well. (Why would anyone pay money for Milwaukee's Best Light when you might as well drop a hot dog bun in a glass of water for ten minutes and you'd have the same thing? But I digress.)

In the midrange area, there's beers of low-to-medium quality like Icehouse, Michelob, etc. This is the cutoff point for me. In general, I can't drink any beer any lower on the evolutionary chain than Michelob. Anything to the left of that in the beer aisle is piss. Not that I'd ever walk out of a package store with any of that junk anyway - I'm talkin' like if I walked into a diner and the only beer they had was Michelob, I'd drink it. If the only beer they had was Coors, I'd say forget it, give me a Coke or something.

Which brings us to the other end of the beer aisle, which in a bourgeois supermarket might end in Corona or Red Stripe. In a fancier place, it's likely to end in the upscale belgian ales. If you think this means Blue Moon, you need to get out more.

For my money, the finest belgian ale on the planet - nay, the finest beer, period - would be Duvel, brewed by the Ommegang folks. It's super clean, rich, and golden, without the fruity-ish taste you find in a lot of Belgians like Three Philosophers, Delerium Tremens, Gulden Draak, etc. Best of all, it has a very high alcohol content and delivers, in my own personal experience anyway, a very clear, warm, healthy, glowing buzz.

Duvel should always be imbibed from the special Duvel glass, which you can pick up in any liquor store. Note the frosted etched letter D inside the bottom, which makes the beer give off a constant stream of effervescence while drinking. Some aficionados say you should pour it extremely slow and avoid getting a big frothy head (which it has a dangerously high tendency to do with even the slightest motion), but I spoke to an Ommegang spokesman during a trade show who told me that actually, it's desirable to have the head fill the top half of the glass. Well, it's their beer, so I guess they know what they're talkin' about, but me, I pour mine excruciatingly slow and avoid any head at all if I can. I find it makes the beer taste better and last longer. I also pour in the yeast sediments at the bottom, which some people avoid. It's all good.

Now, Hennepin is what I buy when I'm either feeling like a cheapskate or the store's out of Duvel and I'm too lazy to shop elsewhere. Hennepin (also made by Ommegang) is basically the Duvel formula with a few of the steps left out and the aging process shortened considerably. It's still a great beer, almost as good as Duvel itself (especially for the price) and many palates might not even really notice much of a difference. The buzz is somewhat dirtier though.

Recently I was in Whole Foods Market and happened upon what I thought was a deliberate Duvel knock-off. Diabolique's packaging and color scheme mimics Duvel's closely. However, it's a mixed blessing, this Diabolique: the taste is of that aforementioned slightly fruitsy and raisiny kind, and I usually just can't go there. But the wallop that this stuff packs outdoes even Duvel. If you honestly couldn't care less about the taste but want to get a high-class ale buzz from one big bottle, reach for Diabolique. But for combined buzz and taste, Duvel is and always will be the brew for me.

Your results may vary, of course. I tend towards what I call "strong but uncomplicated" beers, but my personal beer terminology has little or nothing to do with all the kooky folks who talk about beer like they're describing a witches brew, with "notes" of charcoal, tobacco, cloves, pears, and god knows what else.

- - JSH

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