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The Curious Case of Belgian Stout

Belgian stout has its own special history and a distinctive strut. What sets it apart? Breandán Kearney, award-winning beer writer and a brewer at Siphon in West Flanders, reports from Belgium.

Breandán Kearney Jan 29, 2021 - 11 min read

The Curious Case of Belgian Stout Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Unlike Belgian IPA, Belgian stout has no BJCP style guidelines. It is never a category in global beer competitions. In his seminal Great Beers of Belgium in 1991, Michael Jackson made almost no reference to stouts in Belgium. Many drinkers in the country—and some brewers—erroneously use the term “stout” to describe any black beer. Other Belgians know it only in the context of the Flemish word stout—it means “naughty.”

However, for savvier drinkers in Belgium—and those brewers inclined to look through history books and see beyond their borders—Belgian stout appears to have evolved and acquired its own characteristics. And in North America, breweries from Allagash in Maine to Elysian in Seattle have found success with something called “Belgian-style stout.”

What Makes It Tick?

One major differentiator in Belgian stout is fermentation character. The Belgians have a tradition of using expressive yeasts that produce a wide range of flavor compounds. Thus, Belgian stouts often present as relatively fruity or spicy (or both) compared to the subtle ester character of British versions or the clean profile of those made with American ale yeast.

Some of those Belgian ale yeasts get only low-to-medium attenuation, resulting in beers that are full-bodied, often with a red-fruit yeast character that accentuates perceived sweetness. These ester and phenol profiles can be prominent, as in beers such as Hercule Stout from Brasserie des Légendes and Buffalo Belgian Stout from Brouwerij Van den Bossche. They can be more subtle, as in beers such as Brasserie Dupont’s Monk’s Stout or Leroy Stout from Brouwerij Leroy.

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The American lab Wyeast apparently envisions a category for Belgian stout, producing a special strain listed as 1581-PC Belgian Stout. It gets medium flocculation and tolerates up to 12 percent ABV, producing “moderate levels of esters without significant phenolic or spicy characteristics.” Meanwhile, Belgium-based Castle Malting in Hainaut publishes a suggested recipe for Belgian stout. That recipe proposes Fermentis SafAle S-33 and acknowledges the yeast’s role: “This Belgian-style stout has big roast flavors reminiscent of chocolate and coffee, layered on top of the slightly tart dark fruits that Belgian yeasts can produce in spades.”

The tolerance of such yeasts to alcohol—and the Belgian tradition of stronger specialty beers with higher starting gravities—mean that stouts tend to fall within the 7 to 8 percent ABV range. However, you’ll find some that show crossover characteristics, where the brewer (intentionally or not) dances to a mash-up of Belgian dark strong ale and imperial stout—usually 9 percent ABV or above—to such an extent that “Belgian stout” becomes the only useful descriptor. Examples include Troubadour Obscura from Brouwerij The Musketeers, Gulden Draak Imperial Stout from Brouwerij Van Steenberge, and more recently, Onyx from Brasserie Atrium.

Belgian stouts are brewed by Belgians, after all, and as such often showcase their regular bag of tricks. Adjuncts such as dark candi sugar may boost ABV, darken color, and lighten the body for “digestibility.” Mash schemes tend to be multistep for wort refinement, despite the modification of modern malts. Brewers typically re-ferment them in the package—i.e., bottle- or keg-condition—contributing to mouthfeel and shelf stability. The penchant for higher carbonation means that Belgian stouts often have a sharper carbonic bite. And sometimes—as with witbiers, abbey beers, and a range of other ales—they’ll add spices: In their own published recipe for Belgian stout, the Flanders-based Dingemans maltings suggests “a touch of coriander can be added” to the tune of 20 grams per hectoliter (or 3.8 grams per five-gallon batch).

Another major differentiator in Belgian stouts is the malt. Stouts available on the market suggest that Belgians are averse to pronounced roast—perhaps because they consider it too extreme a flavor or perhaps because, until recently, brown malt, black patent, or roasted barley was less accessible than chocolate malt. Belgian brewers sometimes opt for chocolate malts up to 1400 EBC (711 SRM) for color and flavor; more often, they go for 900 EBC (457 SRM) or lower. They combine these with their favorite darker caramel malts, such as Special B, which results in a chewier body and center of toffee and raisin. “Brewers trying a hand at brewing specialty Belgian beers should be very careful in using coloring malts,” writes Pierre Rajote in his book Belgian Ale, published in 1992. “They can be used to color various beers, but they should never leave their typical bitter taste behind.”

The result is that Belgian stouts tend to have lower roast-bitterness and a softer, less astringent mouthfeel. On one hand, they avoid the acrid or burnt flavors that can plague poorly executed stouts from elsewhere. On the other hand, they often lack the full, coffee-like roast character that lifts so many stouts to the next level.

Newer Directions

There are, of course, exceptions. “In recent years, smaller independent brewers, more in tune with foreign examples, have brought back credible levels of blackness, body, and roast character—without forgetting the Belgian panache,” write Tim Webb and Joe Stange in the eighth edition of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Good examples include Brasserie de la Senne’s Stouterik, Lienne Noir from Brasserie de la Lienne, and Bellevaux Black from Brasserie Bellevaux.

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The traditions of oak-aging and blending beer have also infiltrated Belgian stout production. Some brewers are using barrels and foeders for fermentation and conditioning, adding touches of acidity as well as tannins and vanillins, if not the character of the alcohol previously stored in the wood.

Brouwerij De Ranke brews Back to Black, which they describe as a “porter” with 100 IBUs and an ABV of 9.5 percent ABV. It ages nine months in a foeder, where it develops a lactic-acid edge and softened hop profile. In 2015, Gueuzerie Tilquin and Brasserie de Rulles began producing variations on Rullquin, a blend of one-eighth Tilquin lambic with a modified, more stout-like Rulles Brune. The Ardennes Stout from Brasserie Minne ages in oak, showcases roasted spelt, and is hopped with Mosaic, Belgian Goldings, and Hallertau. And while he doesn’t use wood for his superb Extra Export Stout, Kris Herteleer of De Dolle Brouwers insists on a mixed-culture fermentation with Saccharomyces and Lactobacillus as a nod to the history of London porter.

In 1993, the same company that brought Guinness to Belgium bought Timmermans, which claims to be the oldest lambic brewery in the world. Last year, Guinness and Timmermans released a new beer together. To produce their collaboration—a beer of 6 percent ABV named simply Lambic & Stout—they blended three existing beers: Guinness Special Export, Guinness West Indies Porter, and Timmermans Oude Kriek, a blend of young and old lambics with sour cherries. The result was a dark, chocolatey beer with pink-colored foam, some acidity, and notes of oak and cherry.

On one hand, Lambic & Stout showcases Belgium’s historical relationship with stout, as well as its own deep-rooted heritage of fermentation, oak, blending, and balance. On the other hand, it’s a reminder that you can never be certain of what to expect when you see the words “Belgian stout.”

Belgian Guinness and Echoes of War: A Bit of History

At its narrowest, The English Channel is only 20-something miles wide—not far enough to discourage swimmers, let alone the influence of great beers. Belgians have long experience with borrowing styles from the British Isles and putting their own accent on them, and they’ve been doing that with stouts at least since the Industrial Age.

A key part of the story begins with a lemonade stand, of sorts.

In 1909, John Martin—an English brewer and entrepreneur—set up a business close to the port of Antwerp in Belgium, with a view to selling tonics and lemonades. In 1912, Martin struck a deal to become the official importer of Guinness into Belgium. He promoted the beer in his first tavern at Antwerp zoo to large numbers of Belgian and international visitors. (The marketing venture was so successful that he started his own advertising agency in 1921.)

While still in the midst of World War II, Martin convinced Guinness to brew a new stout for the Belgian market only—one designed for a nation that was becoming more accustomed to higher-alcohol “specialty” beers with more intense flavors. In 1944, they launched the 8-percent ABV Guinness Special Export—a beer that is still to this day produced at St. James’s Gate in Dublin, exclusively for the Martin family business in Belgium. That beer has probably done more than any other to inform the Belgian idea of what “stout” is.

Belgian-brewed stouts had been around before Martin brought them over. Examples include Cross Stout, produced at Bekaert’s breweries (est. 1794) in West Flanders; an Extra Stout from Brasserie Soye (est. 1892) in the Gaume, on the French border; and a Red Heart Extra Stout from Brasserie Kirchman (est. 1899) near Liège.

Later, after World War I, a whole community of brewing families in Belgium’s devastated northwestern corner pooled their money to establish one mega brewery in the city of Ieper. They named it the Ypersche Centrale Brouwerij and in 1937 released an Extra Stout called Belfort—a Belgian echo of the stouts that British soldiers had brought to the trenches around their city.

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