While it may sound like a modern slogan cooked up by an over-paid team of New York ad men, Miller High Life’s knighting as “The Champagne of Beers” actually dates back to shortly after its New Year’s Eve 1903 introduction. Fizzy, effervescent, and in a clear, sloped, foil-necked bottle more fit for—ahem—champers, the nickname stuck and, aside from a misguided and temporary departure in 1989, it has always been a part of the beer’s label. But Miller High Life isn’t necessarily the ideal beer with which to celebrate the rolling over of another year while wearing wacky glasses. Instead, let me introduce you to the real Champagne of beers: a delicious, mostly-Belgian style called “bière de Champagne.”
No, this is not a particularly common style of beer. It doesn’t even have an entry in Garrett Oliver’s massive The Oxford Companion to Beer. It’s time-consuming to make and inherently costly, too. You aren’t going to find row after row of “bière brut” at your corner store. In fact, for the longest time, the style’s availability has pretty much been limited to one beer, and one beer only: DeuS (further detailed below). You’ve probably seen it gathering dust at your local Whole Foods due to its odd packaging and prohibitive price (around 40 bucks!). Well, I’m here to tell you to jump on your next chance to grab DeuS or any other example you see.
A surprisingly new-ish style of beer first created in the northern Belgian town of Buggenhout in the early-aughts, bière de Champagne is produced via the méthode champenoise—the same process used to create Champagne. Like many beers, bière de Champagne is bottle-conditioned to create a secondary fermentation within the bottle. However, bière de Champagne also undergoes the additional steps of remuage and dégorgement. Bottles are placed on 45-degree, wooden pupitres, yeast sediment is collected in the neck, and then it is removed after a month or two. After the riddling of all of this sediment, these beers sometimes go through a third fermentation, even aging in caves.
This many-years-long production method produces a singularly unique beer, vigorously carbonated and high in alcohol, though nevertheless delicate, with a bone-dry -- and often even spicy -- flavor profile. You’ve never tasted beer quite like this before. Then again, you’ve rarely seen beer packaged like this either, as, due to the aggressive carbonation, bière de Champagne must be placed in a deeply-punted, corked-and-caged bottle. Anything else would be irresponsible!
Here’s a closer look at DeuS and the world’s few other prominent bière de Champagnes:
DeuS (Brut Des Flandres)
Brouwerij Bosteels (Buggenhout, Belgium)
The beer most closely linked to the style, oddly, isn’t even its inventor. (Or maybe it is.) Introduced to the world in 2002 by this then-211-year-old Buggenhout brewery (the famed makers of Kwak), DeuS (Latin for “God”) has the smallest bubbles you’ve ever seen in a brew. Packaged in a classy bottle perfect for launching ships to sea (or just toasting at midnight), this four-ingredient beer is aged for nine months, producing the taste of a ginger-spiced Champagne (i.e. it is exceedingly delicious).
Malheur Bière Brut (Brut Réserve)
Brouwerij De Landtsheer NV (Buggenhout, Belgium)
Though not quite as famous as its Buggenhout neighbor, Malheur actually lays the strongest claim to having created the bière de Champagne style. French for “misfortune,” Malheur was opened by Manu De Landtsheer in 1997. The brewery’s Brut Réserve was created on a whim, also in 2002, by head brewer Thomas De Moor, who used Champagne yeast and rémuage with one of Malheur’s flagship beers to accomplish the task. Nowadays, the brewery has three bruts, including Malheur Cuvée Royale and Malheur Brut Dark.
Blanc De Blancs
Side Project Brewing (Maplewood, MO)
According to Beer Advocate scores, this is the best bière de Champagne ever made. Having said that, you will almost certainly never taste it. Side Project is one of our country’s best breweries, but Cory King’s operation is exceedingly small batch. Still, it’s noteworthy that this maker of world-class barrel-aged sour ales would have pursued such an obscure style, if even once. King’s attempt is a little off-kilter, nonetheless: his bière de Champagne is fermented in Chardonnay barrels with locally-grown Chardonnay grapes inherently covered in funky, souring Missouri microflora.
Nelson Sauvignon Brut
Mikkeller (Copenhagen, Denmark)
One of the better, and larger-batch attempts at the style is from the famed gypsy brewer Mikkeller. Brewed at De Proefbrouwerij in Belgium, this “New Year beer” is fermented with ale yeast, Brettanomyces, and other enzymes, then aged in Austrian white wine barrels. One of the more dry and “grape-y” entries on this list, it comes packaged in a gorgeous, tissue-paper-wrapped bottle.
Victory Brewing Company (Downington, PA)
Victory is finally old enough to drink itself! And to celebrate its 21st anniversary, the Pennsylvania pioneer of the industry has released Jubilee. Fermented with Champagne yeast (obvi), Jubilee is a decadent, fruit-forward bière de Champagne hopped with the German Blanc variety. Notes of pears, apple, and white grapes are offset by a citric acidity and spices.
Saint Benjamin Brewing Company (Philadelphia, PA)
Every December 31st for the past three years, Philly nanobrewery Saint Benjamin releases a new batch of Bonne Année (French for “Happy New Year!”) on tap. The previous year’s vintage -- reserved and bottle-conditioned for an additional 365 days -- is likewise unearthed from the cellar to be tasted alongside the new batch. (Brewery founder Tim Patton claims he likes to “ring out the old with the old, and ring in the new with the new.”) Brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops, the beer is fruity, tropical, and even difficult to distinguish as beer—which is a good thing, in this case!