I almost gave up. It was hot. We were lost. The map didn't match Brussels' streets. My husband and I could not find Cantillon brewery.
Finally we stumbled upon this famous, 113-year-old Belgian brewery, known for its sour gueuze and cherry-flavored kriek lambic. It was one of the best beer experiences of my life. The next day De Halve Maan in Bruges poured a delicious Belgian blond ale that was packed with fruity esters yet lighter than its cousins, the dubbles and tripels.
Back in Tampa, I began to go through Belgian beer withdrawal. Sorry, but Blue Moon is not an exceptional representation of Belgian beer, a group of about 18 styles that feature unique Belgian yeast, sometimes use open fermentation and often play with fruit and intense carbonation.
I wanted something with a dry sourness like I tasted at Cantillon, something honey-colored and delicately fruity like I got at De Halve Maan.
My mission started at Mr. Dunderbak's, a German restaurant in New Tampa long known to have one of the best beer lists in the bay area. On a recent Friday night, their draft menu contained an entire section devoted to Belgian beers.
I ordered the one I had not heard of — the De Proef Flemish Primitive Wild Ale. It was slightly sweet, grassy and a little funky from the wild yeast, but, you know, in a good way.
Next, I headed to one of my favorite neighborhood spots: Tampa's Independent Bar and Cafe, the source of happy memories. During this year's Tampa Bay Beer Week, the Indie hosted "Cheers to Belgian Beers," which featured lots of unusual Belgian beer.
Sure enough, on this visit, the Independent's black chalkboard promised the De Ranke XX Bitter, a Belgian IPA. Most traditional Belgians are not hop-forward, though brewers recently have been taking notice of the U.S. West Coast's experimentation with bitter beers. This one maintained its Belgian character with fruity esters and distinct tartness.
Later, I hit the road for the always entertaining Lagerhaus Brewery & Grill in Palm Harbor, owned by Austrian brewer Franz Rothschadl. On this visit, I ordered the Wild Berry Imperial Lambic and Kathatina's Apfel Blond, both brewed in-house.
The sweet-yet-tart lambic reminded of the readily available Lindemans Framboise. But I had never tasted anything like the Apfel Blond, an apple-flavored Belgian. The hints of apple in this straw-colored ale was so subtle. It was very bubbly and the sour notes clung to the tip of my tongue. The beer left behind its foamy white as I emptied the glass, leaving a pattern called Belgian lace.
Finally, I headed to the mecca of the Floridian-Belgian beer experience: Saint Somewhere Brewing Company in Tarpon Springs. Years ago, longtime home brewer Bob Sylvester decided to focus solely on farmhouse ales, mostly for the challenge and variability of using wild yeast.
Sylvester doesn't completely seal his fermenting beer, allowing wild yeasts that make each batch slightly different. His warehouse is not a bar, but it's open from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays for tours and tastings.
On this particular Friday, he poured three beers: a dark farmhouse ale, one brewed with elder flower and my favorite, the Caitlin, a bubbly farmhouse ale brewed with dried orange slices and late-hopped with Citra.
He also pulled out a bottle of last year's Patte de Singe, a farmhouse ale he made for Zwanze Day, a special release event for a Cantillon beer in the United States.
The Patte de Singe was incredibly effervescent and dry, like champagne. It was nothing like what I had tasted in Belgium, perhaps because my quest had taken me further in Florida. And surrounded by beer devotees in this off-the-main-drag warehouse, it felt like a celebration.
— What's your favorite Belgian-style beer? Tell us at [email protected], or tweet us at @tbtnewspaper with the hashtag #tampabaydrinks.