Featured Beer: Duvel

When it comes to beer, I’m not quite like those friends who look on wine as either red or white, good or bad, cheap or expensive, but I’m certainly not as obsessed with hops and barley as I am with grapes. I generally drink from a small brewery if that’s an option, and from light to dark according to mood. And that’s about it.

But occasionally, someone pours a beer that’s as worthy of further discussion as a great glass of wine. And such was the case with the pair of wine-bottle size Duvels that came my way on my birthday. You probably know of Duvel. It hails from Belgium, that little country “the size of Maryland” that is considered to artisan beer as France is to wine – except that I sometimes think people take their Belgian wine too seriously, and pay too much for what is, after all, just an alcoholic beverage. (And that, exactly is what some people think about us wine anoraks.)

According to the Duvel web site (a fine example of how to marry history, humor, copious information and cheap merchandise all in one), the idea for the beer was born in World War I, when the British brought their own English ales with them to the battlefields (and still won the war!), and Belgian brewery owner Albert Mortgat decided to fashion a British-style Victory Ale in the honor of these, and American, troops. His quest took him beyond England, to Scotland where, after much haggling, McEwan’s eventually allowed him and his “brewing scientist” Jean de Clerck to take home some yeast. The pair then acquired hops from Czechoslovakia, barley from France and mixed it with local Flemish water, meaning that the resulting beer was not, of course, an English style ale at all, but something truly European. (Albeit decidedly non-German.) When finally served up in 1923, one of the brewery workers remarked that it was a Devil (“duvel”) of a beer, and the Victory Ale had itself a new name – no bad thing given that it was now five years since the War had been won, and the Germans were already gearing up for another one.

A devil of a beauty in a wine bottle size container.

The ‘devil’ name suggests something overpowering, but while Duvel is 8.5% ABV, like all finely made alcohol it carries its weight with grace. Pouring it is a bitch; even with something approaching the correct tulip-shaped glass, and following the instruction to “pour unhurriedly,” it’s easy to end up with a heavy head of froth. Once that settles, though, the aromas of the thrice-fermented, bottle-conditioned ale waft upwards, and they’re decidedly alluring. According to the home-brewing friend who gifted me the Duvel, those aromas are “bubblegum” and “banana” which, by a very odd coincidence, only show up as descriptives in one wine grape, Gamay, where they do so together. (Perhaps bubblegum and banana offer similar aromas?) Gamay, the grape of Beaujolais, produces simple wine, however, whereas Duvel is an especially complex beer, every sip demanding to be taken slowly, even – especially – when you have a 750 ml bottle’s worth of it in front of you. Simultaneously mellow yet massive, full-bodied yet smooth-flavored it is, like a fine wine, not something you’d opt for every night (sometimes we just want to drink!), but equally, not something you quickly forget. And like a fine wine, it doesn’t go off overnight, so you don’t have to rush to drink it; my bottles were stamped ‘Best before 09/09.’ One of these days I’ll put one down in the wine cellar and see what happens to it over a couple of years’ further maturation.

The Duvel sold in America is still that brewed in Belgium (with its Scottish-Czech-Flemish-French ingredients). The brewery that imports it, Brewery Ommegang, excels in Belgian-style ales and is, I have noted once or twice before, based in Cooperstown, New York, barely 100 miles north of us. The weekend of July 21, it’s hosting a massive Belgium comes to Cooperstown festival, with onsite camping available to offset the problem of drunken driving. I have a tent. Who wants to share it? (NB: this invite applies to proven friends only!)

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November 2021