How appropriate for my first blog to be about my first Belgian beer. The feature image was not taken at that particular moment but probably a good year or two later than that fateful moment. Sadly a photo of my first tasting does not exist, but the image bears something in common with that moment. Both occurred in the beautiful city of Brugge (Bruges). The beer culture of Brugge and its wonderful annual beer festival will serve as topics of future posts. For now let’s take a closer look at “The First”. A beer which arguably has the most perfect color of any Belgian beer – a beer which needs no introduction for beer aficionados – the distinguished Leffe Blonde.
If you are going to have your first Belgian beer, there is no better place to have it than in Brugge. The image was taken in Restaurant Tom Pouce which tucks the famous Basilica of the Holy Blood into its cozy corner with the Hotel de Ville – the Basilica which plays an integral role in the funniest scene in the movie In Bruges. Leffe Blonde is not in the movie but very well could be the inspiration for one of the many other subtly hilarious scenes in that movie – the “Gay Beer” scene. Although the glass and color of the beer are wrong (it looks like a Kempisch Vuur), the scene is worthy to set the tone of sitting down in a Belgian bar and enjoying your first or your hundredth Belgian beer.
Leffe Blonde is not an exclusive beer to Belgium. You can find it anywhere – I have had one as far away as Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. That is thanks to the fact that it is owned by ABInBev. Yes, the same company that owns American Budweiser owns the Leffe Blonde. No slacks at marketing, ABInBev has made Leffe Blonde available in over 70 countries. But its lack of exclusivity does not detract from is prestige. The first Leffe Blonde was brewed as far back as 1240 by the monks of the Abbey Notre Dame de Leffe in Dinant, Belgium. The French Revolution put the squeeze on the Abbey and eventually it had to shut down its brewery. The same happened to many other abbeys all over what is now Belgium (there was no country called “Belgium” at the time of the French Revolution and for decades thereafter). In the 1950’s, the Abbey’s Father made a deal with a Master Brewer to restart the brewing of Leffe Blonde – taking the brewing process away from the abbey and into a commercial brewery. Leffe Blonde became one of the many officially designated “Abbey Beers” that have become household names here in Belgium and are continuing to increase.
What is an “Abbey Beer”? While it is generally assumed that an abbey beer is a commercially brewed beer which follows an original recipe of the abbey which has licenced its name to the brewer, in reality a brewer can get the official “Abbey Beer” designation simply by using the name of an abbey, whether that abbey exists or not and regardless of whether that abbey ever brewed beer to begin with.
As a first Belgian beer, Leffe Blonde may not actually be the best choice. If you are used to lagers and light beers, you may be shocked by the characteristic spicy taste of the Leffe Blonde. After my first taste, there was a moment in my brain where I questioned whether I was going to take that second sip sitting there at the Cafe Craenenburg in Brugge. But several years and over 600 different Belgian beers tasted later, Leffe Blonde is still one of the best. A good Belgian friend of mine once told me in relation to the hundreds of Belgian beers in competition for your tastebuds “You always come back to the classics.” When you discover Belgian beer for yourself, your inner voice will eventually tell you the same thing. Leffe Blonde is a Classic. The spicy taste that sets it apart from other beers actually comes from a strain of yeast not from the other ingredients. Malted barley and corn give Leffe Blonde its scrumptious color.
The Leffe abbey still sits on the northside of the exquisite hamlet of Dinant. For the beer pilgrim, don’t expect to drink a “Leffe at Leffe”. You will have to bring your own or just enjoy it in the center of Dinant. But visits can be arranged at the Dinant Tourism Office (+32 82 22 28 70). In addition, Dinant is a great jumping off point for other great beer pilgrimages such as the Maredsous Abbey and Brasserie du Bocq.
Wherever and whenever you have your own First Belgian Beer, I hope it leaves the same impression on you as it did on me. Belgian beer is my favorite beer in the world. While this blog is about Leffe Blonde, it’s brother, the Leffe Brune, is ever better in my opinion. Several new flavors which bear the Leffe name have been developed over the last couple years. Go ahead and give them all a try too, but remember these wise words “You always come back to the classics.”