BELGIAN STYLE ALES
Trappist and Abbey Ales (Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel).
Monastic or abbey ales are an ancient tradition in Belgium in much the same manner as wine production was once closely associated with monastic life in ancient France. Currently, very few working monasteries brew beer within the order, but many have licensed the production of beers bearing their abbey name to large commercial brewers. These “abbey ales” can vary enormously in specific character, but most are quite strong in alcoholic content ranging between 6% alcohol by volume to as high as 10%. Generally abbey ales are labeled as either Dubbel or Tripel, though this is not a convention that is slavishly adhered to.
Dubbel. Fairly strong (6.5%-9% ABV), usually dark brown in color, with understated bitterness, a fairly heavy body, and a pronounced fruitiness and cereal character. Complex, rich, and malty with an expressive carbonation.
Tripel. Bright yellow to gold in color with a light body coming from the candied sugar used in the brew. Fruity & estery, yet usually quite complex and balanced. The sweet finish usually ends up dry on the tongue and the alcohol, which is quite high, is very well masked making these beers deceptively easy to drink.
Quadrupel. An ale of great potency featuring a full-bodied expression with rich malt and bold flavors. Generally quite sweet with very low levels bitterness. The alcohol is well masked by the best producers, but still perceived, as these are some of the headiest beers produced.
Belgian Style Golden Ale.
Belgian golden ales are pale to golden in color with a lightish body for their deceptive alcoholic punch, as much as 9% alcohol by volume. Typically such brews undergo three fermentations, the final one being in the bottle, resulting in fine champagne-like carbonation, and a huge rocky white head when they are poured. Often such beers can be cellared for six months to a year to gain roundness. These beers are probably best served chilled to minimize the alcoholic mouthfeel.
Belgian Style Strong Ale. Beers listed in this category will generally pack a considerable alcohol punch and should be approached much like one would a Barley Wine. Indeed, some of them could be considered Belgian style barley wines, such as those beers from Brasserie Dubuisson. Expect a fruity Belgian yeast character and a degree of sweetness coupled with a viscous mouthfeel.
Flanders Red Ale. These are also known as ’soured beers’ and their defining character classically comes from having been aged for some years in well-used large wooden tuns, to allow bacterial action in the beer and thus impart the sharp ’sour’ character. Hops do not play much role in the flavor profile of these beers, but whole cherries can be macerated with the young beer to produce a cherry flavored Belgian Red Ale. These ales are among the most distinctive and refreshing to be found anywhere.
Belgian Style Amber Ale. This is a not a classic style but nonetheless encapsulates various beers of a similar Belgian theme that do not fit into the more classic mold. Expect amber hued, fruity and moderately strong ales (6%ABV) with a yeasty character.
Belgian Style Pale Ale. There is a wide diversity in flavor, aroma and color found in Belgian Pale Ales. Fruity Belgian yeast character and mild hopping using aged hops should be expected, although some makers are shifting to a more hop driven taste to better appeal to the American palate. Most beers will feature an impressively thick white head when poured properly.
Flemish Style Brown Ale. These are complex dark beers most closely associated with the town of Oudenaarde in Flanders. The authentic examples are medium to full bodied beers that are influenced by a number of factors: high bicarbonate in the brewing water to give a frothy texture; a complex mix of yeasts and malts; blending of aged beers; and aging in bottle before release. In the best examples, the flavor profile is reminiscent of olives, raisins, and brown spices and could be described as ‘sweet and sour.’ These beers are not hop-accented and are of low bitterness.
Lambics (Geueze, Fruit Lambic, Faro). Lambic beers are perhaps the most individualistic style of beer in the world. Lambics are produced in tiny quantities immediately south of the Belgian capital, Brussels. Lambic brewers use native wild yeasts in the open-air fermentation process to produce these specialties. This unusual fermentation, in conjunction with extended aging in ancient oak barrels, imparts a unique vinous character with a refreshing sourness and astonishing complexity. Lambics labeled as Gueuze are a blend of young and old beers. Such blending results in a sharp champagne-like effervescence and tart, toasty flavors. Those labeled as Faro have had sugar, caramel, or molasses added in order to impart a note of sweetness. Lambic beers, however, are more often seen in the US when they have been flavored with fruits. Kriek (cherry) and Framboise (raspberry) are the most popular and traditional fruits employed.
Saison. Saison beers are distinctive specialty beers from the Belgian province of Hainuat. These beers were originally brewed in the early spring for summer consumption, though contemporary Belgian saisons are brewed all year round with pale malts and well dosed with English and Belgian hop varieties. Lively carbonation ensues from a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The color is classically golden orange and the flavors are refreshing with citrus and fruity hop notes. With a typically hoppy character that complements, but does not overpower food, Saisons are an extremely esoteric style of beer that should appeal to any devotees of US craft beers, if you can track them down.
White/Wit Beer. Wit beer is a style of flavored wheat. It is distinctly Belgian in origin and is still very closely associated with this low land country. Wits employ a proportion of unmalted wheat in the mash but also have flavor added in the form of curaçao, orange peel and coriander, among other ingredients. Their appearance is marked by a hazy white precipitate and these beers generally have some sedimentation. Typically these are very refreshing and satisfying summer thirst quenchers.