Back in the days when I used the word “imported” rather than “craft” to describe what I called quality beer, I was sitting at a local pool hall that specialized in European brew. My young palate typically focused on UK lagers and the occasional Belgian, but I have distinct memories of a more informed customer talking with the bartender about the yeast that can linger in a bottle as he rolled the nearly-empty vessel back and forth, freeing—as he described it—the sediment from the bottom of the bottle after most of it had been poured into a tulip glass.
Now, I won’t profess that my appreciation of beer graduated from the stable-but-predictable to the wild and wandering world populated by today’s craft beer scene during that situation. That happened several years later.
But even if that moment had triggered a seismic shift, I would’ve still been several centuries behind the rest of the Western world.
Witness Affligem, the Belgian brewery who started making their signature blonde ales back in 1074. As in almost 1,000 years ago. With that legacy, you could almost view the U.S. mega-breweries’ brash indifference to flavor as a sign of their impetuous youth.
Affligem’s quality persists today, in large part because they established a holistic brewing process—not because of trends, but because that’s just how it should be done. They use water sourced from the wells near the main abbey, which they demineralize and then boost with calcium. Then they pair it with summer barley malt and hops from Germany, the Czech Republic, and Slovenia, adding live yeast from cultures that have been at the brewery since the 1950s.
And that’s just the first step. They then employ a method that rarified vineyards dub “method traditionanelle” (or what the rest of the beer scene now refers to as double fermentation). After completing the brewing of the beer, Affligem adds small amounts of sugar and yeast to the bottle and lets the beer in the bottle rest for two weeks in a warm cellar. The latter ingredient transforms the former into alcohol, amping the flavor profile within the bottle. They then flocculate the yeast, so it gathers in the bottom of the bottle, leaving the upper regions of the brew bright, crisp, and clear.
Affligem uses this process in the blonde, as well as its double and triple. And this double-fermentation also introduces three variations in how to enjoy each beer.
Option one? The classic pour. It was the same process I witnessed a decade ago at that pool hall: Pour 90 percent of the beer into the glass, then swirl the bottle to gather the remaining yeasty sediment (or “the soul” of the beer) and pour it into the glass. This melds the flavors into a bright and floral experience, with a mixture of fresh bread, banana, and spice. That comes as you taste some of the yeast sediment as it floats in the golden-hued liquid. Malt floats there as well, followed by characters of dried fruit and a light, hoppy bitterness.
Or you can choose to separate the “body” (read: the clear part of beer) and the “soul.” Just smoothly pour 90% of the bottle in a tulip glass, and then pour the remaining bit into a separate glass. This small bit of the beer feels dense and almost viscose, with tastes that are heavy on the yeasty elements of bread and banana, while the rest of the glass remains light, clear, and refreshing.
Option three? A draft pour similar to the famed Guinness process, wherein you fill 70 percent of the glass, let it settle, and then add the rest to let the white head fill about a third of the glass. Alas, I have yet to try this third way of consuming Affligem.
It seems my next white whale is golden blonde in color…