For the beer fan who wants to increase her knowledge of world beer styles, there are few opportunities that offer so many landmark classics as the Portland International Beerfest. Most of the beers brewed in Oregon can trace their lineage backward to Europe and a traditional, local style. Knowing what the originals taste like is useful not only in undertanding the style, but in appreciating the innovation or original flourish you find in a local beer based on that style.
I don't often refer to these in my previews because so much has already been written. That's probably short-sighted, though. Few will have tried all these (including me), and it's worth mentioning something about the style why the beer's important. So here we go.
Rochefort 6 (Belgium)
There are only seven Trappist breweries in the world, and they brew what are loosely refered to as Abbey ales. The adjective "Trappist" is specific--the brewery must be overseen by actual Cistercian monks. Breweries that brew abbey ales or are resident in former abbeys cannot legally call themselves "Trappist." Brewing at the monastery dates back to 1595, and the monks of Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy still brew their beer, in three styles, 6 (red cap), 8 (green cap), and 10 (blue cap). The ten is the most commonly exported, and the 6 the least, just 1% of production--so this is a rare opportunity. The 6 is a reddish dubbel, lighter than the 8 or 10. I've yet to try it.
Konigshoeven ("La Trappe") Quadrupel (Holland)
Another of the Trappist breweries, and the only brewing monastery outside Belgium. By tradition, the styles of abbey ales range in strength from a small ale to dubbel (double), tripel, and quadrupel. From Konigshoeven we have the quad, which weighs in at 10%.
Possibly the oldest brewery producing wheat beers, Schneider's brewery dates back to 1607. If you've only every had Northwest Hefeweizen, try this beer (or Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse) for a re-education. These beers are amazingly tasty--soft on the palate, fresh, effervescent, and redolent with cloves and spice that comes from the high fermentation temperatures. They are perfect summer beers, and I enjoy them regularly.
Oktoberfest (Ur-Marzen) (Germany)
In German, "Ur" means original, and Spaten lays claim to having brewed the first Marzen, or Vienna-style lager. First brewed in 1871 by Josef Sedlmayr, it has the characteristic malty/spicy quality that has made this style so famous. Originally, the beer was brewed in March (Marzen) and aged through the summer. It is now aged 14 weeks and is rounded and richer than some more modern versions. If you try it, do so early, because none of the flavors are bold enough to stand up to a hop-clouded palate.
Liefmans Kriek (Belgium)
The style "kriek" is now starting to become known to American drinkers, but this beer will fool you if you're expecting a lambic kriek. Liefmans is the standard-bearer for a sweet-and-sour ale known variously as Flanders or Flemish Brown or Oud Bruin. "Kriek" means cherry, and old and young browns are blended at the addition of cherries before a secondary fermentation. The result is more cherry than brown, but delicious. I haven't had one since before Liefmans financial troubles, so I will be interested to see how they're holding up.
Belhaven Wee Heavy (Scotland)
Belhaven is substantially older than the US, founded in 1719. Despite this, it is not well-known in the US, and I've never had the pleasure of finding any. Belhaven is a traditional brewery producing two classic Scottish styles, 80 Shilling and Wee Heavy, the top ends of the continuum in terms of strength (like the Abbey system, the beers run weak to strong from 60 Shilling to Wee Heavy). Belhaven's Wee Heavy is on the very bottom end for strength--6.5%.
Aventinus Eisbock (Germany)
What's stronger than a doppelbock? A doppel distilled. The way it works is this: when you partially freeze a beer, the part that ices up is water--remove that ice ("eis"), and you have an eisbock. Aventinus is one of the most famous, and Michael Jackson once wrote that in the beer garden of eden, the forbidden fruit would taste like Aventinus Eisbock. Do superlatives run higher than that?
Boon Kriek (Belgium)
Frank Boon (pronounced something like "Bone") proves you don't have to have an old brewery to brew a world classic. He founded his brewery after many Oregon micros, in 1989. Nevertheless, I believe he brews the finest lambics in the world. It is a totally traditional lambic brewery, and all his beers are spontaneously fermented--that is, he adds no yeast and lets nature take its funky course with his beer. Kriek is a blend of old and young lambic with a healthy addition of cherries. If you've never had a lambic, you must try this beer--it will radically alter the way you think about beer.
Those are not the only world classics pouring at the fest. I did not include those readily available in town: Chimay (another Belgian Trappist), Pilsner Urquell (the "ur" in Urquell denotes the status of this original Bohemian pilsner from the Czech republic), Saison Dupont (the standard for Belgian farmhouse ales), Duchesse de Bourgogne (the exquisitely balanced Flanders Red), Coniston Bluebird Bitter (apparently the bottled version, which is stronger and less interesting than the wonderful draft version) Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout (one of the most traditional stouts, and the only English stouts available in the US 20 years ago). If any of these beers is on tap, don't hesitate to try them. If I were to assemble a list of the ten best beers in the world, Chimay Blue, Saison Dupont, and possibly Pilsner Urquell would be on it. These are great beers.