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Belgium: esteemed home of great beer

What can you say about a country where the finest beers are still made by monks who have taken vows of silence and live in ancient abbeys?

No country makes beer like Belgium, and some of the finest are those known as the abbey beers.

Belgium's premiums are arguably to beer what French champagne is to sparkling wines. There is virtually no peer.

In Belgium, beer is treated with a reverence not found anywhere else. Beer is part of the culture of fun and frivolity in Germany. In this country, it's part of leisure. But in Belgium, beer is part of the country's gastronomic culture and beyond. It's consumed with food or on its own and has the same respect and similar range of styles and quality that the French accord Bordeaux and Burgundy wines.

Rare Belgian beers are hoarded, cellared, aged and put away for special occasions, such as births and weddings.

Belgian beers come in a wide variety of flavors, some of which seem terribly odd to Americans: dry cherry or raspberry, for example.

But there is a historical reason for this. Long before the Belgians discovered the use of hops in beer _ hops remain one of the base ingredients in 90 percent of beer worldwide _ they were making a variety of beer with fruits and spices.

Unfortunately, to Americans, Belgian beers are confusing because of their terminology, and perhaps off-putting because of their prices. They range from $3 to $7 a bottle, easily the price of domestic six-packs.

Here is a quick primer on understanding a Belgian beer label:

Pilsners: These are what Jacques Sixpack drinks daily. Like most American beers from the big commercial houses, they weigh in at 3-4 percent alcohol. Look for any beer name that includes the word "pils," like Kwik Pils or Maes Pils. The best-known beer in this category is Stella Artois, a light golden pilsner.

Lambics: Perhaps the best-known Belgian beer type overall. Most have fruity characteristics and range from bitter and almondy to almost red winelike.

The lambic process, which dates back a good 800 years, is not an efficient and cost-effective way of making beer today.

Basically, the beer is made from wheat, hops aged for three years and wild yeasts that create spontaneous bottle fermentation, the same kind usually found in the making of champagne.

Lambic brewing is labor-intensive, and most lambic brewers are small operations. The result is beer that can be kept for years and vintages that can vary widely in taste. There is also a nouveau-Beaujolaislike tradition in Belgium of trying the new lambics when they are released a few months after the making.

Lambics include these sub-categories of styles:

Gueuze: A blended lambic. Generally, a new, young lambic is blended with an aged one. It is then bottled for nine months or so before being released. It can develop further for two to five years in the bottle.

Kriek: It means "cherry" in Flemish. Whole, tart cherries are used in the brewing process. Look for the name Lindemans for a great kriek.

Framboise: The French word for "raspberry." The beer is dry and has no sweetness.

Faro: A sweet-and-sour beer that may be one of the oldest styles still being made from sugar and caramel. It is dark, stronger than most beers and slightly sweet.

It is common to see several different styles of lambics made by one brewer. A good example on store shelves right now is Timmerman's, which makes gueuze, kriek, framboise and faro.

Abbey beers: Trappist monks have long made fruit preserves and cheeses, but in northern Europe they also make beer.

There are five abbeys in Belgium making beer by recipes developed at the abbey. The beers are designated by the term Trappist and carry the names Orval, Chimay, Westmalle, Westvleteren and Rochefort.

Some of the abbeys don't communicate with the outside world other than through a brother who handles the merchandising. It's extremely rare to get a tour of most of the abbeys' facilities.

There are also several "abbey style" beers, which are excellent but not as good as the real thing. If you see any of the names above, buy them. The beers are rare and an amazing experience.