It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. That said, while both of us have drank plenty of alcohol in the past, our assignment to write this article has much more to do with who we know on the editing board than it does with whatever knowledge or competence should be required of an alcohol columnist. But fear not, for we write for the common tongue and are well aware that our undergraduate audience is unlikely to have the palate or refined taste that might be expected of us in a more professional setting. We’ve been to enough Williams parties to know that Keystone and Popov are the staples.
Thus, it was with a mixture of inexperienced apprehension and adventurous ambition that we half wandered, half marched past the lone watering hole that is the Red Herring and to the lonely treasure trove so oft overlooked by anyone with a car by which to travel to Cole Ave: West’s Spirit Shop. Surrounded by the ever unnerving yet strangely familiar warnings against underage purchase and consumption, which continue to invoke in both of us an inexplicable uneasiness despite our legal drinking age, we perused the aisles, racks and refrigerators, unsure of which selection was worthy of our critique, yet hopeful that something would catch our eye.
We knew that our options, though vast, resolved into three overarching categories: beer, wine and liquor. Though each seemed a challenging enough topic, we figured that the first time around we’d keep it simple and close to home â€“ beer seemed like a kind of default starting point, and something that we had consumed to a relatively greater extent, even if unconscious of its finer subtleties.
Normally, we aren’t expected to submit a written chronicle of our path to intoxication. Yet that adventurous spirit hadn’t left us altogether, so even after imposing such a moderately conservative restriction on our choices, we hoped that we could find within the consortium of ales, lagers, ports and the like something that we, as well as our readers, were not familiar with, thereby keeping open the possibility of uncovering some hidden treasure instead of merely revisiting an old favorite. Our final decision therefore boasted a daring yet somewhat arbitrary spontaneity.
We settled on two unique ales with a common bond; one was a Belgian abbey ale, and the other a mere Belgian “style” abbey ale. The latter ale, and also the first one we tried, was an homage to the High Priest of Bebop brewed by the North Coast Brewing Company called Brother Thelonious. According to our most reliable source on alcohol and, well, everything else in the world (not Wikipedia), a Belgian Abbey Ale is defined by a dark color, heavy texture and a sweet, often fruity, flavor; all of which we found to varying degrees upon our first impressions. Abbey Ales are known for an above average alcohol content, but this particular one was especially strong, at 9.4 percent. It has a deep brown color, pours to a thick head and gave a distinct, slightly raisin-reminiscent aroma that made its pervasive sweetness obvious as soon as we opened the bottle. Though traces of fruitiness weren’t particularly noticeable in its taste, the beer nonetheless bore an undeniably sugary flavor, which we were both hard pressed to articulate until a friend, who wishes to remain nameless, lent us his palette and provided the most appropriate comparison: brown sugar. The intensity of the flavor gave this ale a very robust start, but it glided off our tongues with an unmistakably smooth finish. All in all, we both enjoyed our first example of an abbey ale, though its strength both in terms of alcoholic potency and sweet flavor made it a bit overwhelming. Clearly, the right way to enjoy such an ale is at a relaxed pace or at the end of a meal as a fitting substitute for grandma’s cobbler.
We then moved on to the Affligem Dubbel. We figured, if we couldn’t understand the label, it had to be authentic, and our experiences seemed to confirm this assumption. The color was a bit lighter than our previous selection of beer, but also more opaque, which translated into a distinct heaviness. The alcohol content was less than the Brother Thelonious, at seven percent, and the strength of its flavor reflected a subtlety similar to that of the first. It retained the sweetness that we now knew was characteristic of an abbey ale, yet instead of hitting you in the face like the fast-start, smooth-finish Thelonious, the Affligen let its no-less-distinct flavor creep up on you, coming in quietly but leaving a slightly bitter yet wholly satisfying aftertaste. It was also a bit lighter and more carbonated than the Thelonious, which led to a crisper, more palpable mouth feel and a greater overall drinkability (terms with which our brief attempt to educate ourselves has equipped us). Something about this ale seemed more genuine, confirming our expectations of a European label as well as our suspicions of the Thelonious being only of the abbey “style.” It bore a full-bodied balance of flavor without sacrificing the sweetness and strength that should be demanded of such an ale.
In terms of personal preference, we both agreed that the Affligen is a more complete example of an abbey ale, yet we recommend both to anyone with such an adventurous temperament as we have. Rest assured, they are both almost as good as Keystone.