I learned something about Belgian beers that has nothing to do with their unique ingredients or distinctive flavors: Don't drink three of them on an empty stomach. Belgians can tip the scales at 8, 9, even 10 percent alcohol-by-volume, and pack a bright, alcoholic punch not all that different from a good wine.
So if you're headed to The Trappist (460 8th St., Oakland), Old Oakland's Belgian-beer paradise, make sure to grab a bite first — or, better yet, make a selection from the small in-house menu, offering meats and cheeses designed to pair well with the bar's inimitable libations. The Trappist offers as many as 24 beers on tap at a time, plus another one hundred or so in bottles, most of which can't be found anywhere else in town. You'll need something to help soak up all those strong brews calling with names you can hardly pronounce.
In fact, Belgian beer has become so popular in the Bay Area and throughout the nation in recent years that many micro-breweries (and some big ones) have begun to try their hand at it. There are many types of traditional Belgian beers, ranging in color from as light as champagne to as dark as barleywine, and in flavor from sweet to sour. Most Belgian brewers employ fermentation processes unheard of abroad, but often it's the distinctive Belgian malt that tips sippers off, alerting even novices that this is no ordinary beer.
But what happens when a Yankee goes Belgian? Last week, the Trappist had seven American-made Belgian-style brews on tap. We started, naturally, with Linden Street Brewery's Laden Swallow Triple ($6, 9.8 percent ABV) — a beer that may no longer be available due to limited production capacity at the West Oakland brewhouse. That'd be a shame, because this was a treat: exceptionally well-balanced between sweet and bitter, lightly carbonated, and highly drinkable for a ten-percenter.
Next up was Dogfish Head's Red and White Ale ($8, 10 percent ABV), a Belgian-style Wit beer fermented with pinot noir juice. The grapes did wonders for this ale: a fruity nose; a round, sweet flavor; and a beautiful rosy-red hue. The Red and White is a seamless wine-beer hybrid, and a feat of beer engineering out of a Delaware operation known for taking chances.
Sierra Nevada, the Chico brewery adored stateside for hop-heavy ales, also has snatched up some Belgian malt. Brewed in cahoots with the Trappist abbey New Clairveaux, the Ovila Abbey Dubbel ($6, 7.5 percent ABV) is a dark-down ale with a big body. Yet our pour was flat in both flavor and carbonation; we may have been pulling from the bottom of the keg.
Finally came another four beers — tasters only, thankfully — of Belgian beers made by two local breweries, Russian River (Santa Rosa) and Ale Industries (Concord), and one from out of state, Allagash (Portland, Maine). Two were great, one good, and one forgettable. Of course, don't take my word for it: Order all four, but only after ordering dinner.