Joe Sixpack | In West Chester tomorrow, a treasure trove of Belgian beers

FOR THE PAST few years, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant has been inviting area beer-makers to a series of tastings it calls Brewer's Reserve. They're an opportunity to match its beers with similar versions made by other brewpubs and breweries in the vicinity, and share them with patrons.

There's no competition here, just fellowship in the brewing arts.

But the Brewer's Reserve the brewpub chain organized for tomorrow afternoon is something more. Belgium Comes to West Chester is a showcase of Belgian-style ales from more than a dozen area brewers.

It's not the size of this event that's impressive, it's the variety - a diverse collection of exotic flavors that underscores both the tiny country's influence on the American craft-brewing scene and the mastery of those styles in Philadelphia.

Belgian beer, after all, is not a singular variety - it can be sweet or sour, mild or strong, dark or light, flavored with fruit or spiced with coriander. Check out some of the highlights on the menu, and you get a sense of what I'm talking about:

"Iron Hill: The Quadfather quadruppel, The Cannibal golden ale, Cassis currant-flavored lambic.

"Flying Fish: Puckerfish sour brown ale.

"Legacy: Fantasy strong Belgian Ale with dark raspberries.

"Stewart's: Conundrum strong, dark Belgian ale.

"Stoudt's: Tripel Triumph Calvados barrel-aged tripel."

Yards, Sly Fox, Manayunk, Troegs, Independence, Victory and others with their own takes on Belgian beer will be there, too.

"It's gotten to the point where every brewery has to have a Belgian beer" in its regular run of flavors, said Chris LaPierre, the Iron Hill brewer who's hosting the event.

These are not mere knockoffs of the grand classics, like Corsendonk and Chimay. Many American craft brewers now produce world-class versions that even exceed the originals.

Not long ago, at a head-to-head tasting of Belgium's renowned Trappist-style beers, Tim Webb, editor of "The Good Beer Guide to Belgium," said he was "shocked" at the quality of their U.S. counterparts.

In his forward to "Brew Like a Monk" (Brewers Publications) by Stan Hieronymous, Webb writes that "the American imitations were knocking the socks off certain freshly imported 'real' Trappist ales."

Philadelphia is undeniably the birthplace of America's passion for Belgians. It's a love affair, LaPierre said, that goes back to the early 1990s, when Bridgid's (726 N. 24th St., Fairmount) started serving ales with quirky names like Kwak and Duvel.

Talk to area brewers and many of them remember their first taste of Belgian ale at Bridgid's comfy horseshoe bar, an experience that led them to make their own versions.

"Plus, there's Tom Peters," said LaPierre, referring to the co-owner of Monk's Café (264 S. 16th St., Center City). Peters has built an extensive network of contacts among Belgian breweries and importers, ensuring him first dibs on many of the rare varieties that make it across the Atlantic. "He's done as much for Belgian beer as any brewer has," LaPierre said.

The result, he continued, is that "Philadelphia has been way ahead of the curve on Belgian beer."

Beer freaks call it "Brussels, U.S.A." because the city boasts at least five joints that call themselves Belgian, including the Abbaye (637 N. 3rd St., Northern Liberties) and the Black Door (629 S. 2nd St., Queen Village).

Another, Eulogy (136 Chestnut St., Old City), is planning to expand to a new location, the old Broad Axe Tavern in Blue Bell, Montgomery County.

What's the attraction of Belgian beer? Mainly, it doesn't taste like most other beer. It's not fizzy yellow water (Stella Artois being a notable exception), and it's not highly hopped like many American microbrews.

It can be as light and refreshing as Whirlwind Wit, Victory Brewing's white beer; it can be heavy and contemplative, like Weyerbacher Quad, an ale that drinks like brandy. LaPierre calls them "ambassador beers" because their flavors are gateways for those who prefer wine and spirits.

"Belgian beer turns people on to beer," he said. "People who might've thought they didn't like the taste of beer."

Belgium Comes to West Chester, Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant (4 Gay St., West Chester). 4 p.m. tomorrow. Pay as you go. Enjoy a separate three-course, Belgian-themed menu for $40. 610-738-9600, ironhillbrewery.com.

Belgians in a bottle

Even if you can't make it to Iron Hill, you can still enjoy the flavor of Flanders. Here are six Belgian styles, the classic versions (available locally) and their bottled Philly counterparts.

1. Dubbel: Rich, malty and dark, this ale is somewhat sweet and full-bodied with a rich, firm head. Westmalle Trappist Dubbel, Flying Fish Belgian Style Dubbel.

2. Fruit lambic: A tart, spontaneously fermented ale flavored with either fruit or syrup. Cantillon Kriek (cherry), Dogfish Head Festina Peche (peach).

3. Saison: A refreshing, unfiltered wheat beer with a spicy kick, an ideal accompaniment to food. Saison Dupont, Yards Saison.

4. Strong golden ale: An assertive, sparkling ale with a sweet flavor and light body. Duvel, Victory Golden Monkey.

5. Tripel: Made with three times the usual amount of malt plus candy sugar, it's a sweet, spicy, golden ale with high alcohol (10 percent-plus). Chimay (white), Stoudt's Triple.

6. Wit: A light, cloudy, thirst-quenching wheat beer. Hoegaarden, Weyerbacher Blanche. *

Joe Sixpack, by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.JoeSixpack.net. Send e-mail to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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