Sometimes you feel like a Belgian beer, sometimes you don’t. For the times in between, you might consider brewing up a Belgian blond! I first brewed this beer as part of an invitational brewing challenge, and the participants were required to attempt to clone a beer taken from a pre-selected list. I lost—it wasn’t all that faithful a clone. But it was a very good beer that went on to do very well in competitions, even when it ran up against the flavorful monsters that you come across in the Belgian Strong Ale category. The recipe has changed only slightly from that first attempt because it does what (I consider) good Belgian beer does: it’s wonderfully fresh and clean and uses the spice, esters, and “Belgian” character as an accent, not a headline.
Belgian Blond is a tough style to nail down. It isn’t a Tripel, which would be stronger and much more complex. It also isn’t a Belgian Pale Ale which is (ironically) darker and (ironically) much lighter (by ABV). Instead, this is confidently a strong ale, coming in at about 7 percent ABV, but it has a limited phenol and ester profile that lets the pale malt and earthy hops play a larger role than we might otherwise expect. Some guidelines even describe it as having a “lager-like” character, but I wouldn’t go nearly that far. Instead, I think it’s better to approach it as more like a Belgian version of the Maibock, with similar ABV and grist and hopping, but with some Belgian fruit and pepper notes. We get there by using a restrained but flavorful Belgian yeast strain while using simple sugars to preserve its light color and light malt flavors. But that’s where any similarity to a lager ends, in my book.
Start with a 50/50 blend of good Belgian Pilsner malt and Maris Otter, about five pounds (2.3 kg) of each. You can go with pure Pils if you want, but I like to mix up base grains in any light-colored beer, and it helps offset any perceived honey-like sweetness from the Pilsner malt. Then, add a pound (454 g) of Munich malt and half a pound (227 g) of Victory malt. First off, someone told me a long time ago that “a pound of Munich makes any beer better,” and while that’s simplistic, it’s often proven true for me, and it makes perfect sense here. It will add a richness to the flavor that otherwise might be lacking, leaving the beer a bit too thin (and maybe cidery, since we’re also going to add some cane sugar). The Victory malt is my personal choice, but any of the 20-ish Lovibond character malt will do, too (melanoidin, aromatic, etc.). I’ve also seen this style with straight Crystal 20, and while I’ve never used it that way, I can’t imagine it would be problematic if you have some on hand that you’re looking to get rid of! The important thing is to add a light-character-malt flavor as an accent to the grainy, biscuity base grains.
That will get us to about 50 points of gravity. Before the boil, add a pound (454 g) or so of cane sugar, and you’ll land at just about 7 percent ABV after all is said and done.
In terms of hopping, give yourself 25 IBUs of anything at 60 minutes, but add half an ounce (14 g) of Styrian Goldings with five minutes left in the boil. It will give a helping hand to the spice in the yeast and add a low herbal background aroma that perfumes the bouquet nicely.
As always in Belgians, yeast choice is important here. I’ve made a pitch (no pun intended) for Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes yeast before, and I’ll do the same here. The apricot and orange esters it kicks off are perfect and make the beer taste fresh, and you get just enough pepper to notice (without thinking you’re drinking a saison).
Mash and boil as usual, but make sure you remove your kettle from direct heat before adding the cane sugar, or it can scorch! The result is worse than just a bit of color, it’ll also impart burnt-sugar flavors that are just out of place in this beer. We want the alcohol, not the flavor, from this sugar addition.
This is a set-and-forget beer for me. I chill to groundwater temperature, pitch the yeast, and put it in a 67°F (19°C) refrigerator. I proceed to ignore it for about two weeks. When I come back, I have just the beer I want. Cold crash it, then package and carbonate to about three volumes of CO2. The added carbonation will give it a nice, full, warm mouthfeel and an impressive white head.
One word of caution here: this has never been, for some reason, a particularly “survivable” beer for me. Normally I can count on a solid year of flavor stability when stored cold. This one is different. It’s excellent fresh, very good for about three months, and then it becomes very “ordinary.” Not bad, by any stretch of the imagination, but the light grace notes from the hops and esters and phenols just seem to lose their rhythm, and the result is a beer that just isn’t as much fun. Brew it for your next party, and watch as even your non-beer-drinking friends go back for chalice after chalice! When it kicks, you’ll know that it lived a short and happy life at its full potential.
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