Style School: Brown Ale, the Belgian Way(s)

Belgian panache and historical tricks can liven up a slice of the color spectrum often seen as decidedly unsexy.

Jeff Alworth Feb 16 - 9 min read

Style School: Brown Ale, the Belgian Way(s) Primary Image

Brown ale—does any name generate less excitement? Of all the adjectives one might use to describe a beer, “brown” does not exactly ignite drinkers’ passions. Brown is staid, conventional, boring. These impressions are, of course, subjective, cultural judgments rather than iron law. Brown ales aren’t popular now, but what happens if we look backward?

It may surprise you to learn that in a different time and a different place, the color brown represented the pinnacle of brewing, the highest achievement of the art.

That place was Belgium, and the time was not so long ago. If we go back into the first half of the 19th century, brown beers were so well regarded that they dominated Belgian brewing. In the 1840s, a brewer and engineer named Georges Lacambre began cataloguing some of Belgium’s major styles in his Traité Complet de la Fabrication des Bières (Complete Treatise on the Manufacture of Beers). Of the fifteen or so types he described, more than half were brown. Four were amber or, as he described the Peeterman style, “deeply amber.” Only four were pale, but all these were wheat ales, known as white or blanche—and even one of these, Blanche de Louvain (literally, Leuven white beer), had a brown variant.

To Belgians at the time, deep color was a sign of wholesomeness and quality. Remarkably, brewers didn’t achieve these colors through the use of dark malts, as we would now—they used boils of lengths that seem fantastical or comical today. The average boil length was 9 hours. Only four had boil times of 3 hours or less; five were more than 10 hours, and the longest was 20 hours!

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Belgium’s brewers are a little offbeat, and Lacambre’s account suggests that they have been so for a long time. In addition to the crazy boil lengths, mashing regimes were baroque to the point of bizarre. This had to do with tax law, which was based on the size of the mash tun rather than output—meaning thrifty brewers always had small mash tuns. As one example, Leuven wheat beer required five vessels as well as baskets and pans to strain and spoon out wort and “eight to ten strong brewers” to manage the ordeal.

Compared to this, multi-hour boils seem almost trifling by comparison—but they were key to the character of these ales. Applying heat over such long periods created a Maillard browning effect, so even all-pale malt beers would end up brown. In addition, it contributed what Lacambre called a “special flavor”—a characteristic associated with quality beer.

Those preferences lasted into the 20th century—until the popularity of Pilsners began to transform local preferences. There are a couple of striking examples. Westmalle is now famous for the Tripel it released in the mid-1930s, the first popular version of the style. But as late as 1980, its brown Dubbel accounted for two-thirds of the brewery’s production. Likewise, Moortgat’s Duvel started life as a brown ale, only getting a fashionable blond remake in 1970.

Today’s Varied Browns

As these examples hint, the old ways of brewing persisted until after the end of the second World War. More than a century after Lacambre’s work, another brewing scientist, Jean De Clerck, made a similar survey of Belgium’s beers and found many of the same styles still in production. This was, sadly, just at the end of their run. The problem with these beers was variability and spoilage. They were rustic styles, many meant to be drunk very fresh. Lambic-maker Frank Boon remembers this time. “In the 1950s and 1960s, this was a time when breweries were closing, and all the local styles were disappearing everywhere in Belgium. I remember my uncles said that in the summer, they could keep their beer for 2 weeks. In the 1960s, Stella Artois was the first to make beer that could keep for 6 months.”

As a consequence, many breweries modernized. Brewers began adopting new techniques and technology. Out went the cast-iron mash tuns and coolships (in Lacambre’s time, every beer he described passed through one), and in came darker malts and more conventional brewhouses. Yeast strains and fermentation processes were cleaned up, and the ales lost their “funk” and became more shelf stable.

What emerged were often dark ales made with sugar for strength and color, and expressive yeasts that provided esters and phenols in varying amounts of subtlety. These days, the best-known of them are Abbey ales, from elegant if robust dubbels to extra-strong dark ales sometimes called (if rarely by the Belgians) quadrupels. But brown ales in other shapes and sizes are common, from Gouden Carolus—a very distant descendant of the Mechelen brown beer Lacambre documented—to Kerkom’s Bink Bruin, a rustic easy-drinker of 5.5 percent ABV. There are also the strong brunes of Wallonia, such as that from Abbaye des Rocs, often sold in 750 ml bottles and best if both spiced and drunk in moderation.

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Another manifestation emerges around the holidays and is pan-Belgian: The brewing of often-dark, often-spiced ales for Christmastime is regarded as nearly mandatory.

Old-Fashioned, Half-Wild Browns

Modernization led to a split in the lineage of brown ales. A smaller but more exotic cohort went in a different direction. These brewers also updated their brewhouses and (mostly) abandoned the extra-long boils, but they decided not to rely solely on laboratory yeasts. Instead, their beers continued to get special character from yeasts and bacteria resident in wooden aging vessels. These variants of brown ale—sometimes leaning distinctively reddish in color—hail from East and West Flanders, from Oudenaarde west to Roselare, and around Essen and Vleteren.

It might seem logical to call these the “older” strain of brown ales, but that wouldn’t be exactly right. So much of the way they’re made has changed that they’re not really like the uitzets and Flemish brown beers of the 19th century. That latter beer, for example, was aged 2 to 3 months, which according to Lacambre was “preferable for both the good taste and the conservation of these dark beers.” They were very likely the ancestors of Rodenbach, Verhaeghe, and Liefmans. But the aging of those beers followed an obsolete mashing regime and 18-hour boil, both of which strongly shaped the final beer. Today’s breweries focus more on what happens after the beer leaves the fermentors. In these beers, which Michael Jackson called the “Burgundies of Belgium,” the sweet malts are balanced by a bracing Balsamic-like acidity. They are very different from their predecessors.

When I first visited Belgium eight years ago, these “wild” browns seemed almost endangered. Belgian drinkers did not distinguish among production methods, and they expected beer aged for months to be priced about the same as those aged for several days. Rudi Ghequire, brewmaster at Rodenbach, was distraught about the prospects of this regional specialty.

But something interesting has happened since then. Perhaps because newer, independent breweries have become increasingly interested in mixed-fermentation, Flemish brown ales are enjoying a revival. Instead of sliding nearer extinction, they’ve attracted new practitioners. De Dolle in the early 1980s was one of the first to rediscover this heritage. De Struise Brouwers later joined the club, and more recently the young brewers at Verzet have begun an aging program and produce a sharp, acidic Oud Bruin.

Brown ales are no longer highly fashionable in Belgium. But look around—quite a few yet abound. Unlike drinkers elsewhere, Belgians still find joy in darker ales, even if they often get their color from malts and caramelized sugar and taste entirely different than the brown ales of Lacambre’s time.

Photo: Matt Graves/www.mgravesphoto.com

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