Everyday Beer with a Belgian Accent: Pale and Amber
Belgian pale and amber ales are another category with a wide range of variation. At one end of the spectrum, these are session beers that resemble English pale ales, but with a decidedly Belgian touch—that lightly spicy note bestowed by the yeast. Palm Speciale and De Koninck, malty, amber-colored brews with some caramel character and around 5 percent alcohol, are perhaps the best known of the style.
At the other end of the range are beers meant for sipping, not quaffing. The hop bitterness, spiciness and alcohol grow more evident, but this whole category of beers can serve as a great introduction to Belgian flavor.
Hoppier versions use Belgian yeast and a wide variety of hops. These include Brouwerij De Ryck Speciaal (sometimes served from wooden kegs) and Malheur 6. Stronger and hoppier Belgian examples are Alvinne Gaspar, Struise Mikeller, De Ranke XX Bitter, Orval Trappist ale, Poperings Hommelbier and Tonneke from Brouwerij Contreras. Fat Tire from New Belgium in Colorado, Lost Abbey Devotion, Rare Vos from Ommegang, and Sixpoint Belgian IPA are fine American examples.
Strong, Sweet and Sacred: Trappist, Abbey and other Strong Ales
Yet another collection of Belgian beers have in common not the characteristics of the beer, but those of the brewers—they are beers brewed by holy fathers, or by the brewers who adopted the monastic approach to brewing.
The monk-brewed beers are termed “Trappist,” which refers to any of the beers brewed within the walls of, and under the control of, a Trappist abbey. Six of these abbeys are in Belgium, and one is in the Netherlands. Beers called “abbey beers” are generally similar to the ales brewed by the Trappist monastic breweries, but come from brewers that may have a historic connection to monastery brewing, or simply brew in that tradition.
Even though “Trappist” or “abbey” is not a style of beer, many of these beers are tagged single, dubbel or tripel, and have certain similarities.
In centuries past, singles were session beers meant for everyday consumption. Dubbels and triples were respectively stronger and more costly to produce, and hence were often only affordable by those in the upper social classes.
Dubbel/double is one of Belgium’s best-known and most popular beer styles. Dubbels are usually very malty brews that can be a touch sweet and caramelly, with little hop presence. Most are light to dark brown in color, and contain 6 to 9 percent ABV. The mouthfeel or body of a dubbel can range from medium to full, and many have a yeasty character.
Strong Belgian ales are often very similar to dubbels. Many are simply darker, stronger and with more malt complexity. Some of the strongest ones could even be referred to as barley wines, minus the very high hopping rate seen in many such beers brewed stateside.
Tripel/triple (Dutch and French spellings) is a style similar to golden ale, though many tripels rely much more heavily on their yeast profile as a distinguishing characteristic. The golden-colored Westmalle Tripel, first created in the 1930s, is the classic. It is brewed with pale malts, candy sugar and whole hop flowers.
Tripels are fairly light-bodied and easy drinking beers, despite their average strength of 7 to 10 percent alcohol. These brews often have ingredients such as candy sugar added, which impart sweetness to the beer. Hoppiness varies from very mild to assertive.
Single is a fairly rare beer style in Belgium today; these brews are usually blonde to golden orange in color, with 5 to 6 percent ABV. Witkap Singel from Brouwerij Slaghmuylder is a good example.
Some of the best Belgian dubbels are Achel Trappist Brune 8, Affligem Dubbel, Maredsous 8 from Duvel/Moortgat, ‘t Smisje Dubbel from Brouwerij Regenboog, St. Bernardus Pater 6 and Prior 8, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel, Westvleteren Trappist 8 and Witkap Dubbele from Slaghmuylder. Delicious U.S.A.-brewed dubbels include Captain Lawrence St. Vincent’s Dubbel, New Belgium Abbey, North Coast Brother Thelonius and Ommegang Abbey.
Great strong Belgian ales include Achel Extra, Bush/Scaldis Prestige, Caracole Nostradamus, De Struise Pannepot, Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer, Malheur Dark Brut, Trappistes Rochefort 8 and 10, St. Bernardus Abt and Trappist Westvleteren 12.
Worthy North American examples include AleSmith Grand Cru, Boulevard Brewing Quadrupel, Founder’s Bad Habit Quadrupel, Lost Abbey Judgement Day, Unibroue Trois Pistoles and Victory V-12.
Belgian tripels worth seeking out include Het Anker Gouden Carolus Tripel, Kameleon Tripel from Den Hopperd, Kerkom’s Bink Tripel, La Rulles Triple, St. Bernardus Tripel and St. Feuillien Triple.
Tripel is quite possibly the Belgian beer style most imitated stateside. Hence, there are many delicious Belgian-inspired triples brewed here, including Allagash Tripel, Brewer’s Art Green Peppercorn Tripel, Dragonmead Final Absolution, New Belgium Trippel and Victory Golden Monkey.
Light-Bodied with Deceptive Strength: Golden Ales
Golden ales are a popular beer style in Belgium. The benchmark strong golden ale is Duvel, a deceptively easy drinking brew of 8.5 percent. Duvel has the color of a pilsner and a light, clean body, partly due to the use of pilsner malts. Duvel is a classic example of a beer that leaves a “Belgian lace” or rings of foamy carbonation on the sides of a glass as it is drunk…er, savored.
Higher levels of hopping are becoming more common in beers of this style. The brand-new Hopus from Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast uses five different hops and achieves 40 bitterness units to balance its 8.5 percent alcohol content. Some Belgian golden ales are also dry-hopped, a process that adds significant hop aroma to the character of a beer. Affligem Patersvat, which uses locally grown hops in its recipe, and Gandavum, a beer brewed by De Proefbrouwerij for the excellent beer cafe, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant in Ghent, are dry-hopped brews worth seeking out.
Duvel, which means, “Devil” in Flemish, has spawned a number of other devilish golden ales, such as Lucifer from Riva and Satan from De Block. Other superb Belgian strong golden ales are Malheur 10 from De Landtsheer, Moinette from Dupont, Quintine from Ellezelloise and La Rulles Blonde. Belgian golden ales to seek out with a more session beer-like strength are the hoppy Bink Blond from Kerkom and Witkap Stimulo from Slaghmuylder.
Fine strong golden ales from this side of the Atlantic include AleSmith Horny Devi, Ozzy from The Brewer’s Art in Baltimor,; Brooklyn Brewery Local ,; Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaz,; Pranqster from North Coast in C,; Russian River Damnation from CA and Unibroue Don de Dieu from Canada.