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My Belgian ignorance (and the local offerings that may change that)

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Backlash Groundswell Belgian Pale Ale

I admit, I’ve been a bit hesitant on the Belgian tidal wave of popularity in the craft beer world. A few examples I had years ago included Ommegang‘s “Rare Vos”, a big Belgian Pale Ale that is fairly complex, amber, highly carbonated. While I truly enjoy that beer, Belgian ales have tended to be something I really had to be in the mood for. In the past couple of years, Belgian beers have become more and more popular. But sometimes all it takes is one unhappy experience to push me away from a style.

Last summer I picked up a Smuttynose Farmhouse Ale from their “Big Beer Series.” Now, some may say, oh that’s a Farmhouse, or Saison, not a Belgian Pale. But my pallet is still young regarding Belgian beers. So bear with me.

The Smuttynose Farmhouse was pretty “big” at just over 9% abv. The first thing I got was the aroma… funky, vegital… “barnyard” is a term I hear related to some of these farmhouse beers. Another I hear is “horse blanket… but not in a bad way.” Wait, what? In the end, the Smutty was too funky for me. Perhaps my inexperience with the style put the wall up. I should probably try it again down the road, after having more of the style.

Ok, so, some of you are now yelling at me, farmhouse/saison is not the same as Belgian Pale. I’m just explaining that my experience with that Smutty put me off enough that I have been hesitant with Saisons in particular, but also with Belgians in general. I did try a Chimay dubbel (red) a little while back, and again found flavors that just didn’t sit well with me. However, a Belgian Golden Strong, Duvel, I found delicious. Bright, highly carbonated, the fruity esters created by this yeast working wonderfully with the light malt bill (Pils malt and a large amount of sugar used to create the high alcohol level and very dry finish).

To further muddy the waters, US craft and home brewers have started messing around with American hops in Belgian beers, creating this “Belgian IPA” thing that I’m hoping won’t last long. I’ve tried some, and I find the American hops to fight the Belgian yeast’s fruity esters. They have seemed like a mistake, rather than a brewer’s intent.

This leads to my delay in trying anything from Backlash Beer out of Holyoke, MA. Despite the eye-catching packaging, I’ve stayed away, as it appeared their popular brew was in fact a “Belgian IPA,” Declaration. However, in recent months, I had a good experience with another local brewer’s Belgian-based beers (Pretty Things’ Field Mouse’s Farewell), so while grabbing a 6 of Notch Session Pils yesterday to fight the heat, I brought home a cold bomber of Backlash’s Groundswell. Groundswell was labeled a Belgian Pale Ale (EDIT, It’s a Belgian Blonde ale, not a Pale ale… my bad!) and clocked in at 6.5% abv.

Once fighting through the wax dipped bottle top to get to the cap, I poured half into one of our Stella Artois glasses (excuse me, “Belgian chalice”). I got a decent head which dispersed fairly quickly. So this wasn’t going to have the Duvel-like carbonation, but I didn’t expect it, especially given the standard crimp cap (hidden under the wax), not cork and cage. It was lighter in color than some Belgian Pale Ales I’ve seen. (Edit: it’s color is in line with a Belgian Blonde) More in line with a saison actually. It was fairly cloudy, as this is not filtered, and bottle conditioned. (actually, on Backlash’s website, the brewer explains that one may want to gently roll the bottle to mix the yeast up evenly in the beer… like one would a Hefeweizen) The aroma was very pleasant. Just enough of the Belgian yeast’s fruity esters, but none of that horse blanket barnyard funk (thankfully).

The beer was delicious. Interesting enough to make one appreciate the subtle complexities, but not overpowered by the the funk. It drank more like a session beer than the 6.5% abv too. I had to make a point to take my time with this. Luckily, I was in the middle of grilling salmon on the deck for dinner, so I was able to sample and walk a way for a bit. Soon the glass was empty, so I poured the remainder of the 22 oz bottle into my glass and finished it with dinner.

The Bottle was around $6.50. Not terribly expensive compared to other craft brew bombers. Not cheap either, and like many small breweries, not available in 12 oz bottles. I will definitely have it again, and would be thrilled to find it on tap somewhere just to compare.

I see on their site that they have come out with a 7.5% “super saison” called Convergence. I will give that one a try soon as well.

I found the Groundswell to be a wonderful, easy drinking beer in this summer heat. However, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in complexity or flavor. I recommend this tasty, refreshing Belgian inspired beer. In fact, I had been considering a saison for my next brew, and Groundswell is offering me a great flavor to shoot for. Hopefully the brewer(s) might be willing to offer a little advice, as Belgian yeast selection I assume is a huge factor in this style. 

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