The mysteries and uniqueness of Belgian beer are what drew me into the world of beer and brewing, and I still find them delicious and captivating. However, this tiny country’s beers cover so much territory that it seems wise to limit the scope here. So, let’s put all of Belgium’s tart and funky lambics, oaky oud bruins, and creamy witbiers off to the side for now. Incredibly, that still leaves us with a treasure box full of more-or-less conventionally fermented beers in a variety of strengths, colors, and personalities.
Variety in Perspective
Abbey and Trappist ales mostly form the conceptual backbone here, whether or not they are overtly branded as such. While “abbey” is generic, the monasteries own the Trappist designation and enforce its authenticity. Monasteries across Europe were brewing in the Middle Ages, but in the mid-1790s the French Revolutionary forces dissolved, sacked, or destroyed Belgium’s abbeys. Any remaining connections to ancient monastic brewing were cleanly severed. The exhaustive Belgian brewing treatise by Georges Lacambre (1851) describes dozens of local styles, but Trappist beers are not among them.
The reality is that these supposedly historic ales are actually 20th-century inventions, inspired by the beers from neighboring England, Scotland, and Germany that flooded the Belgian market in the early 1900s. Strip away the marketing, and you’ll see bocks, Scotch ales, pale ales, and even pilsners behind these quintessentially Belgian beers.
To understand them in context, it’s helpful not to fetishize them into hermetically sealed categories. We’re talking about a range of pale to deep-brown top-fermented beers ranging from about 6 percent to more than 10 percent ABV. Over the years, writers have sorted those spectra into identifiable styles, yet abbey singel and Belgian blonde form one extended tribe; angelic tripel and devilish golden strong are like their twin big brothers. Abbey dubbel and strong dark ale form another continuum.
In Lacambre’s day, “dubbel” was a generic term. At 5 to 6 percent ABV, it signified a somewhat stronger beer than the “ordinaries” of 3 to 4 percent strength. The term began to take on a more specific, monastic meaning in the 1920s. Westmalle created the first strong golden “tripel” in 1933. Belgian pale ale and the classically phenolic saisons are their own traditions, but there are various overlaps and eccentricities—what is Orval, for example? Many spiced or other eccentric interpretations elaborate upon these basics.
That leaves us with two clusters—light and dark—in a range of strengths, orbited by occasional outliers. They are all unified to some degree by their yeast character. You could, in fact, take nearly any wort and swap the yeast to a Belgian strain, and to some degree the character is likely to be identifiably “Belgian”—even if there is much more to these beers than the yeast. (See “Belgian Beer: You’re Probably Doing It Wrong,” beerandbrewing.com.) The balance between fruity esters and spicy phenols forms an organizing axis for these strains.
The Typical Components
Although Lacambre writes that “Belgium is a wheat-beer brewing country,” none of these styles incorporate more than an occasional head-boosting dollop of wheat or other grain. They may be all-malt, but the stronger ones typically incorporate sugar to lighten the body; in the darker ales, sugar also adds flavor and color. The paler beers typically use the palest pilsner malt available, bringing clean malted-milk-ball character and sometimes overtones of fresh grass or hay, offering a surprising amount of depth.
Classic saisons are usually quite pale. Michael Jackson, in his seminal 1977 World Guide to Beer, says that “saison” was just a term used by some southern Belgian brewers for their golden ales. (For much more on that tradition, see “Saison: Story in Motion,” beerandbrewing.com.) Belgian pale ales, meanwhile, are more associated with Antwerp. Ranging in color from golden to amber, they’re built on a base of pale and/or pilsner malt, with room for just a bit of extra color and flavor: biscuit, Vienna, caramel 10 or 20, and others.
The dark group often relies on some mid-colored malts for both color and flavor. On the one hand are the moist-kilned Vienna (3–4°L/6–8 EBC), Munich (6–12°L/12–25 EBC), and darker variants such as dark Munich and melanoidin/aromatic (15–33°L/30–66 EBC). These range from light, sweet caramel to cake- and cookie-like sweet toastiness. On the other hand are various crystal/caramel malts with their candy, raisin, prune, and burnt sugar notes from kilning after an in-husk saccharification. A particularly potent favorite is the legendary Special B, a very dark caramel (about 125°L/250 EBC) that originated at DeWolf-Cosyns malting (now defunct, with its specialty malts taken over by Dingemans). All of these can be really characterful but require a deft touch; Belgian brewers tend to use them sparingly and with restraint, always with balance in mind. Too much can overwhelm anything else and cause problems with premature oxidation, evidenced by leathery notes. The proprietary Honey Malt from Gambrinus seems halfway between caramel and conventional malts and can also be useful—or you can blend for the character you want. Be aware that all these mid-colored malts are uniquely sensitive to manufacturing specifics, so each has a unique flavor that is not interchangeable with others.
While all of us old-time homebrewers have been conditioned to avoid the use of sugar in brewing, these Belgian styles are a best case for their use. The term “candi sugar” is widely used, but I find it way too vague and prefer more specific terms: candi syrup, brown sugar, unrefined sugar, and others, which describe distinctly different products. The classic use of sugar is the iconic strong golden ale Duvel, which uses almost 20 percent dextrose (corn sugar), boosting the strength to 8.5 percent ABV without adding body or color. (See “Giving the Devil Its Due) Dextrose helps to make the beer dangerously drinkable and a capable food companion—as it does for all these stronger Belgian types.
Brewers of darker beers have the option of using colored sugars to add a layer of caramelized, fruity, or chocolaty flavors while still lightening the body. Belgian sugar beets are typically the source of these products, often employed in syrup form. The dark trio of Rochefort Trappist beers are a textbook example: Dark sugar adds a profoundly rich, milk-chocolate character (along with figgy dark fruit) that doesn’t line up with any kind of malt I can think of. The beers of Brasserie d’Achouffe reportedly get all their color from sugar syrups, available in a range from pale golden to dark brown, with each adding a different set of flavors.
Belgian brown or dark brewers’ sugar is also available. It’s not clear how this is made, but it’s not the same as American brown sugar, which is simply white sugar with molasses added. I’ve also brewed these styles with a wide range of artisanal sugars: Latin piloncillo/panela, Thai palm sugar and dark gula jawa, Filipino panutsa, Brazilian rapadura, Indian jaggery, and rummy Barbados sugar. None of these are traditional to Belgian brewing, but they make lovely “secret” ingredients for that extra depth. There’s no magic, by the way, in beet sugar or those huge crystals of rock candy.
Hops are not typically the centerpiece in the 20th-century classics, but they feature in the paler ones, and contemporary Belgian ales are embracing them more enthusiastically. European hops such as Saaz and Styrian Goldings (as in Duvel) are classic, but of course incremental variants such as Glacier and Celeia, more characterful varieties such as Hüll Melon and Hallertau Blanc, and even newer tropically tinged varieties can all be useful. Even in the darker beers, the bitterness of hops can be a necessary counterpoint to the sweetness and strength, keeping their drinkability going. By the time the imported beers make their journey to your glass a continent away from home, the hops tend to be a little tired out. Fresher bottles or kegs are more vibrant in their hop character.
Water need not play a special role here but should follow normal good brewing practice, providing a minimum of 50 ppm of calcium, while managing bicarbonate in pale, hoppy beers to somewhere below 70 ppm, allowing up to about three times that in darker brews. However, some sources cite higher bicarbonates and sulfates in Hainaut saisons, while Rochefort also says its water’s higher calcium and bicarbonates are important to their ales’ character.
The Belgian Fingerprint: Fermentation
A good deal of the character we associate with Belgian ales comes from yeast and fermentation. This is an oversimplification, but I’ve found it useful to think of Belgian strains on a continuum, with fruity/estery at one end and spicy or even smoky phenols at the other. The first is exemplified by the yeast from Brasserie d’Achouffe, whose profile is estery with very little phenol. A warm fermentation will give you a nose full of banana candy (isoamyl acetate). At the other end of the scale are saison strains such as the Dupont’s: full of rich, peppery phenolic notes but producing relatively little fruitiness. Most other Belgian yeast strains fall somewhere on that axis. Another important consideration is alcohol tolerance since some of these are upward of 10 percent ABV.
For small batches, getting the yeast to generate lots of esters is not a big issue. However, in brewery conditions, hydrostatic pressure in tall cylindroconical tanks reduces ester production. Some breweries specializing in these styles use relatively shallow “open” fermentors to enhance this aroma character. Using less yeast (underpitching) is another technique that can enhance ester production, but it has to be balanced against the need for more yeast in high-alcohol fermentations.
One interesting scientific discovery is that many Belgian strains—including some lambics, via their inoculated barrels, and the Trappist ales from Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval—are hybrids between “normal” brewers’ yeast, Saccharomyces cerevesiae, and a “feral” species, S. kudriavzevii. The latter may confer additional stress tolerance and enhanced production of aroma compounds and glycerol.
Belgian brewing has a reputation for spices, but they are rare within the boundaries of these styles; the “seasoning” comes more from yeast and fermentation. Step just outside, however, into the style-free creative zone—a popular playground among Belgian brewers—and you’ll find everything from orange, honey, and coriander to grains of paradise, elderflower, pepper, cumin, star anise, and even stranger things such as mustard and medicinal lichen. These are most effective when used sparingly, enhancing the flavors from the raw ingredients transformed by the yeast.
Remember: The purpose of Belgian beer is to let you ponder its mysteries, not to get clobbered over the head by them.