New Year’s Eve can be tough on a beer lover, what with all the Champagne popping and all. But as everyone raises their sparkling toast to the New Year with wine, two Belgian beer brewers are offering another option that will warm the lonely cockles of your beer-loving heart: Champagne beer.
Brouwerij Bosteels and Brouwerij de Landtsheer have been making Champagne beer — beer made with the method champenoise — since 2001. They deploy the same labor-intensive secondary fermentation method as wine from Champagne does, only to make beer.
To be clear, there’s no grape juice in Champagne beers. The beers are made with the same ingredients of every other beer: water, yeast, malt, and hops. The style, however, puts them in a class of their own in the beer world.
Champagne-style beers start with a a Belgian ale base. The beer is bottled in 750-milliliter bottles, and extra sugar is put in, as well as more yeast. They are then capped with a beer top. As the yeast eats the sugar, it releases CO2 and secretes out alcohol before dying and sinking to the bottom of the bottle. It can take three months to a year for the fermentation to complete. While the yeast is doing its work, the bottles are laid horizontally to let the dead yeast accumulate along the long side of the bottle.
Once the yeasts are done doing their thing, a process known as remuage starts. The bottles are turned and angled ever so slightly over a period of weeks until the neck of the bottle faces straight down. The dead yeasts slowly fall into the neck of the bottle.
Then comes the violent eruption. The neck of the bottle, where all of the yeast sits, is flash frozen. The bottle is taken out and the beer top removed. The built-up carbonation pushing on the frozen dead yeast forces it out like a bullet from a bottle neck. Then it’s topped off with a young beer, corked, and a cork cage is secured on top.
The result is a drier, higher alcohol, rare bottle of beer with super-fine Champagne bubbles. It’s bubbly, with aromas of mild citrus from the subtle hops and floral notes, too. It’s also got the finer, dry taste of brut Champagne, as well as the slightly muted sweetness of a Belgian ale. It’s not all fruit and bready yeast, though. Hints of the barley base shine through as well.
But don’t expect to see any hints of the Champagne method on the bottle. The French agency behind Champagne’s marketing, Le Comité Interprofessionel du vin de Champagne (CIVC), has cracked down on any labeling that could make consumers think it’s from the Champagne region.
But the bubbles really set the beers apart, Dave Danforth, the assistant sommelier and beer expert at Post 390 in Boston, tells VinePair.
“The same beer fermented with traditional brewers yeast may end up not fully attenuating, leaving behind a beer that is lower in alcohol, sweeter, has less carbonation, and possibly fermentation off-flavors due to the stress on the yeast,” Danforth says. “Because Champagne yeast can tolerate the additional stress of higher-gravity fermentation, it renders a clean tasting beer.”
If a brewer chose to use Champagne yeast without the champenoise method, the dead leftover yeast would be consumed by active yeast, creating a soy sauce and iron flavor, Danforth says.
Brouwerij Bosteels DeuS Brut des Flandres costs around $38 in the United States. The malted barley base beer is made at the Bosteels brewery, then it’s sent up to Champagne for some fine wine treatment.
Brouwerij de Landtsheer makes two Champagne-style beers. The first is a brut and the second is a dark brut; both run around $27 in the United States. The straight brut has slightly more alcohol than the DeuS, at 12 percent alcohol by volume; it’s noticeable but not overwhelming. Despite the extra alcohol, it has a bit more sticky sweetness. The dark brut is made the same way but uses more toasted malts that give off more of a bready flavor.
If you can find any of these three beers, you won’t be disappointed. Finally, a bubbly for the beer lover.