These “smooth and dangerous” ales—to quote the BJCP guidelines—are some of the best-drinking and most enjoyable beers you’ll ever make. They can also be surprisingly easy to brew if you build a good recipe and adhere to a few key brewing practices. I can’t promise you that you’ll have the same following as Westvleteren 12, but I promise you can make a beer that’ll be pretty darned close.
Style: Dark, strong Belgian ale is a Cadillac style—it shows off the lengths to which beer can go, in both flavor and alcohol, and still be enjoyed by the chalice. It’s warm (not hot), going as high as 12 percent ABV and using that alcohol as a restrained flavor component. It features fermentation character, with plenty of esters and phenols (more pepper than clove). It should be lighter-bodied and more effervescent than other types of strong ale; it also should be relatively dry in the finish. That dryness can be tough to achieve; we count on spicy character, carbonation, and simple sugar to help keep the beer from becoming too sweet and heavy. There’s a lot going on here, but it doesn’t have to be especially complicated to make. The monks are big on simplicity, and we’d be wise to take their lead on this one.
Ingredients: The grist is simple, especially given the complexity of the final product. We want a hefty base of pilsner plus some Munich to increase the melanoidin profile. To that we add a handful of Special B, but not so much that it fattens the body. That’s it for the grains, but we’re going to get additional strength and attenuation from a large proportion of highly fermentable Belgian dark candi syrup. (If you’re adventurous, sub in a pound of blackstrap molasses for an interesting burnt-sugar flavor that complements the grist beautifully.) We’re looking for an ABV around 10 percent. Hopping isn’t complicated either; about 30 IBUs worth of a Noble Hallertauer Hersbrucker at 20 minutes plus some Styrian Goldings at flameout (or whirlpool) will add some gentle floral and herbal aromatics.
Finally, yeast. Lots of recipes will steer you toward the Trappist High Gravity strain, but I detect an odd flavor there that isn’t in keeping with the style. Instead, I prefer Wyeast 1214 Belgian Abbey. It’s an attenuation monster while producing lots of interesting fruity notes and a mild pepper phenol. It does seem to take a while to clear, however, so plan on hitting it with some finings.
Process: Mash this one low and slow, going for higher attenuation; it can’t hurt and might help. I add my sugars at runoff to help ensure that they fully dissolve, but make sure your flame’s not on. Fermentation starts relatively low but ramps up quickly; we want clean alcohols and some fermentation character, but letting it start too warm will increase your risk of fusels—it just isn’t worth it. When packaging, carbonate to a nice, high 2.75 volumes of CO2 (or more) for that bright, spritzy Belgian mouthfeel.