Belgian beers have an unwarranted reputation for being somewhat hops-negligent. If you’re thinking, “I’d love a beer with some fun hoppy character in it,” you’re in the minority if you start scanning for Flemish on the tap list. However, that’s a reputation that is absolutely unjustified, and I suspect has more to do with the long travel times that Continental beers face en route to the States than it does any lack of hopping proficiency or interest from Belgian brewers. In that spirit, I’m happy to dive into one of my favorite flavor profiles – one which definitely showcases hops – and a beer which was once described to me as the “King of the Belgian and French styles,” the Biere de Garde.
Biere de Garde (BdG) is a strong Belgian ale – but not a Belgian Strong Ale. I mention that because this beer needs to have both some alcohol presence and character, but that character isn’t nearly as warm or pronounced as it would be in a Dubbel or Tripel. BdG has more in common with Saison than with Tripel. It has three varieties – blonde, amber, and brown – and the balance between malt and hops shifts as we get darker. The higher your SRM, the lower the hops character. As this recipe is focused on the Blonde version (my personal favorite, except when eating the “Rotating Game Burger” at a Teresa’s Next Door Bar in Wayne, PA – then it’s the amber), we’ll be hitting the hops pretty hard. Not so hard as to make folks think this is a Belgian IPA, though, but this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. It’s a disputable point as to whether oxidation or a “cellared” character are appropriate here, but the great thing about this recipe is it should convey the general “gist” of that flavor without the risk of staling that deliberately aging it will impart. Finally, this is something of a Franco-Belgian outlier in that it’s a relatively “clean” beer – take your spices and 90F fermentations back over to Saison.
Our target is a clean, malty, dry, fairly strong beer with (in this color) some distinct hoppy notes. It’s not so dissimilar to Altbier in that way, though higher in alcohol and paler.
Nine pounds of Pilsner malt, three pounds of Munich malt, and a single pound of Vienna malt will give you a nice high base ABV while also adding crackery, bready, and spicy malt flavors. We’re using base malts for those to avoid excess body from caramel malts, and keeping our color down at the same time. I do use a touch of toasted malt (half a pound of Victory) for some overt toasty/melanoidin flavor, and you can sub in Biscuit or Aromatic malt there, too, if you have a preference. Finally, one pound of Golden Belgian Candi Syrup will both thin out the body, bump up the alcohol, and add a very light caramel and golden raisin flavor that the palate will ascribe to aging but in fact are recipe-derived. You know the flavor I mean: when you pull a bottle out of the cellar, and it’s lost some of its hops, bringing some older, slightly-richer malts to the fore? I once had a four-year-old bottle of Fullers London Pride that a bar dug out of a literal basement, and this is just like that (without the waiting or must or lost hops flavor and aroma!).
Err on the higher side for your IBUs to brighten the flavor, using about two ounces of Hallertau in a 30-minute addition to yield about 30 IBUs and some mild floral/earthy flavors. Then use half an ounce of Hallertau along with half an ounce of Fuggles in the whirlpool (or at flame-out) to reinforce those flavors on the palate. You may need to age that flavor out a bit – 3-4 months – if it’s too strong to start, but it should quickly hit your sweet spot.
Finally, Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) yeast is a perfect choice here. You don’t need much (any) fermentation character here, but you do want full attenuation and can tolerate a bit of ester, so my go-to ale yeast is a great candidate for the job.
If you’re into this sort of thing, go ahead and mash low and slow here, 149F for 90 minutes, or you can stick to 152F for 60 minutes and trust the simple sugars and yeast to give you the light body we’re looking for. I’ve tried both and never found much difference!
Add your syrup to the wort pre-boil, then boil and chill as usual.
Ferment this beer low at first (I start at 60F, as though brewing a hybrid), but starting on the second or third day after visible fermentation begins go ahead and start increasing the temperature by a degree or two per day, topping out at about 70F. This should drive you through to a complete fermentation while also adding minimal fermentation character!
Finally, carbonate to a relatively high 2.5-2.7 volumes. More might add too much “bulk” to the body, but less and it just doesn’t feel like a Belgian. You can serve immediately, despite what we might believe about this being an “aged” beer.
BdG really is a wonderful style. In future weeks we’ll dive into the other two variations, but this one will always be my favorite (except, again, when consuming a Kangaroo Burger at Teresa’s). I love the subtle warmth, floral nose, and clean, dry finish, and it works with any season.