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Raising a Beer (or Seven) to Belgian Independence

A beautiful sight for Belgian beer tasters, served in appropriate glassware. (Matthew Worden Photography)

Americans celebrate their independence with frankfurters and fireworks. Belgians celebrate their national holiday with ... well, if you’re the Belgian ambassador to the United States, maybe a seven-course beer dinner.

The festivities here began early, five days before the July 21 date that marks the establishment of an independent kingdom of Belgium with Leopold I as its monarch. I was one of about a dozen journalists and bloggers lucky enough to snag invitations to the Foxhall Road residence of Ambassador Jan Matthysen and his wife, Mrs. Agnes Matthysen (and their pet terrier, who kept nudging up to the guests in the hope that someone might drop a morsel of pork belly or loin of rabbit).

Belgian Ambassador Jan Matthysen receives a pour at the dinner table. (Matthew Worden Photography)

Belgium is a Maryland-size nation with about 125 breweries producing more than 800 brands of beer. Bart M. Vandaele, chef and owner of Belga Cafe, and Jan Van Haute, executive chef of the Belgian residence, selected 14 of those beers for the feast, either served in the proper glassware (champagne flutes for the fruit beers, goblets for the stronger abbey ales) or incorporated into the dish.

Our feast began with a salad incorporating Belgian baby gray shrimp (“they’re about the same price of caviar -- $80 to $90 a pound,” Vandaele told us) paired with the crisp, bitter Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor. Small plates of additional delicacies followed, culminating with herb-crusted venison spiced with “speculoos dust” (think crushed graham crackers) that we washed down with the spicy, potent (9.2 percent alcohol) Rochefort 8 from one of seven breweries run by Trappist monks.

The beautiful table and setting at the ambassador's residence. (Matthew Worden Photography)

The dinner concluded with a platter of assorted bonbons and a mini-beer float made from Hoegaarden, the archetypal Belgian witbier (a style seasoned with orange peel and coriander). Dessert also came with a rare glass of fruity Liefmans Kriek, a brown ale with cherries that’s been unavailable in the United States since the Liefmans brewery in Oudenaarde shut down in 2008. Jens Piferoen, beer sommelier for Belga Cafe, says he used his European connections to obtain a case of the 2004 vintage. The brewery has reopened, he said, and “word on the street” is that it will probably resume exporting here in 2010.

The verdict? “This has got to be the best time in history to be a beer drinker,” remarked fellow diner and freelance writer Garrett Peck, author of the forthcoming book "The Prohibition Hangover."

The celebration continues. Belga Cafe is reintroducing the Belgian amber ale Palm and the sour red ale Rodenbach on Monday, and will celebrate Belgian independence the following day with a petting zoo on the patio for the kids, half-price Belgian drafts and a DJ at 11 p.m. Phone 202-544-0100 or visit for more information.

Brasserie Beck is hosting its own beer blast on Tuesday, offering unlimited food and drink for a $100 admission fee. Stefaan Soutman of the Brouwerij de Musketiers will be on hand to introduce his new beer Antigoon, described as a Belgian session ale. For tickets, call 202-408-1717 or go to

-- Greg Kitsock

By The Food Section  |  July 17, 2009; 2:00 PM ET
 | Tags: Greg Kitsock, beer  
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I suddenly have the urge to celebrate Belgian independence.

Posted by: davemarks | July 17, 2009 10:24 PM | Report abuse

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