By Contributing Columnist Donavan Hall
In one of my (yet to be published) novels I created a Belgian-style restaurant and brewpub in the Long Island town of Port Jefferson. This little beer fantasy of mine is not so far from reality. For those of us on the East End who are willing to drive into Nassau County, we can get our taste of Belgium at Waterzooi in Garden City (850 Franklin Avenue).
Denise and I decided to take in the Sunday Brunch at Waterzooi and we were pleased to find ample parking in the public lot right out front. The interior of is reminiscent of a cozy underground crypt, but despite the grotto-like ambiance, we elected to sit out on the patio and experience our beer and our meal in bright and breezy surroundings because it was such a nice day.
For starters we ordered the Petrus Old Brown Ale from Brouwerij Bavik, a slightly sour Flanders Oud Bruin that was light and thirst quenching. The Petrus was served from a bottle (as opposed to the tap). Our waitress (who looked astonishingly like Audrey Tautou in Amelie) poured the bottle at the table. She roused the yeast prior to the pour by working the bottle in her palms, then decanted half the bottle, then swirled and completed the pour. I probably wouldn't have been that rough with bottle if I was pouring for myself, but I have yet to find a Belgian-style restaurant whose wait-staff doesn't have the impression that American Belgian beer enthusiasts want to drink a yeast colloid instead of a bright beer. I heard recently that in Germany one beer bar (at least) was serving the yeasty dregs of it's Hefeweizen kegs in shot glasses for patrons who just can't get enough yeast. I suppose there's nothing technically wrong with dumping a load of yeast into your glass, just be aware that the beer will taste very different with the yeast than it does without. Yeast tends to impart a bready character to the beer and it mutes any crisp tartness that may be present.
Try this experiment at home with a Witbier: Decant carefully the first half of the bottle into one glass, then swirl and rouse the yeast and pour the rest into a different glass. Sample and compare. Take note of which you prefer.
We also ordered Nostradamus from Brasserie Caracole, a dark, thick dessert beer that I thought Denise might like. She did like it, but we both agreed it was a better beer to end a meal with rather than as a starter, so we ordered a second round after splitting the Petrus Old Brown reserving the Nostradamus for later which turned out to be a good idea since I prefer Nostradamus at near room temperature and it was served to us that day at around 40 °F.
For our next round we order two Wits: a strawberry Witbier called Frubee from Brouwerij Huyghe (makers of the famous Delirium line of beers) and the St Bernardus Witbier. That was the first time I had tasted either beer.
I was totally blown away by just how much strawberry flavor the brewers managed to get into that 8 ounce glass of Frubee. Taking a sip of that beer was like sucking on the sweetest, ripest strawberry you've ever tasted. This too was a dessert beer, but it was light enough in the body to be refreshing. The St. Bernardus Wit was most impressive. I'd love to do a side by side taste test of Hoegaarden and the St. Bernardus Wit. My guess is that the St. Bernardus would put Hoegaarden to shame with respect to flavor and crispness. That's what I look for in a good Wit, lots of flavor, crisp tartness, and a dry refreshing finish. It shouldn't taste watered down or finish sweet. My impression of Hoegaarden has changed over the years. I believe Hoegaarden has been getting lighter in flavor, but that could just be the natural development of my palate as I seek more and more strongly flavored beers.
Of course there is always the locale effect -- where you drink a beer makes every bit of difference in how it tastes. Why? Taste is perception and there is no clear boundary between the senses. Taste and smell are linked, one affects the other. What you see in the glass can affect your perception. That's one of the reasons we all go out to eat. Sure we can cook great meals at home, but unless you are an indefatigable redecorator, your eating and drinking space at home will look pretty much the same for every meal. Aromas coming from the food you are served also affects your perception of the beer. So my impression of the St Bernardus Witbier cannot be uncoupled from the fact I was drinking it at Waterzooi.
Denise and I shared two more beers. It would have only been one, but the Witkap Pater Abbey Single (which I ordered for research purposes) wasn't a good meal finisher. The Pater Single was a crisp, dry, slightly bitter golden brew -- the color of a Wit, but none of the fruitiness. The Single would have been a good thirst quenching beer to accompany the meal. So we ordered one more beer and dessert.
Dessert was a chocolate ice cream served with fresh berries in a caramelized shell. I can't say that the beer we ordered was the perfect match for the chocolate ice cream but it held its own and didn't clash with the sweetness. We decided on the Banana Frubee Witbier. We had enjoyed the Strawberry version earlier in the meal and I was curious what a Banana flavored beer would really taste like.
On one of the beer podcasts I listen to one of the hosts said, "I don't want banana in my beer." He was talking about Hefeweizen, a German style of beer that ranges in flavor and aroma from clove to banana. The banana aroma and flavor is an ester produced by the yeast during fermentation. The amount of banana flavor can be controlled by adjusting the fermentation temperature. The Banana Frubee was an actual banana flavored beer. When the bottle arrived my mental image of the brewers mashing banana up and putting them into the fermenter was dispelled by the note on the label that artificial flavors were added. We didn't notice a corresponding indication on the Strawberry that that beer was so doctored, but with bananas it makes sense to use a banana flavored extract just to avoid the messiness from the banana fruit.
The Banana Frubee as a result tasted like banana candy. It was on the verge of being cloyingly sweet, but it didn't turn me off; however, I don't think I'm going to rush out and order another Banana Frubee anytime soon let alone get a case of it for my beer cellar.
By this time Denise and I were stuffed and we had (sadly) consumed our fill of beer for the day. That's the blessing and the curse of being human -- we can eat and drink for pleasure, but eventually we fill up and have to stop.
Our experience at Waterzooi was so excellent that we hadn't even left the restaurant yet when we started talking about our return trip. We noted that the space was kid friendly. There were plenty of children there having brunch with their parents. Next time we go to Waterzooi we'll be bringing our three year old son. And that might just be sooner than later.