Belgian brewers fairly sneer at convention, as they produce hundreds of idiosyncratic or otherwise inimitable brews. The eccentricity is the norm to the point that lovers of Belgian beers consider the quirks quintessential. The obscure Belgian specialties may be known by few, but ask even a modestly devoted beer lover to name a Belgian brew, and he/she is quite likely to mention Duvel, the beguiling strong golden ale of Breendonk.
Strong golden ales are by definition sturdy brews that have a magnified flavor profile.
Duvel is unassuming upon first view, aromatic and ebulliently inviting, and stealthily sinister in its effect. Developed as a counterpunch to the roundhouse popularity of pale lagers after World War II, Duvel spawned a nouveau style that has been widely mimicked in both its homeland and abroad. It is tidy and refreshing, unusual yet again for a beer of its formidable strength.
Birth of the Devil
The majority of Belgian ales, be they secular or monastic, tend to retain a bit of their farmhouse, agrarian or natural history. Bottle conditioning is still widely employed, the unusual ingredients of their forebears are still likely key components, and individuality is a highly valued commodity. Duvel and its offspring are purposefully designed beers that portray both modernity and anachronism. Its development is recent, and owes its success in part to Scottish ales, Belgian creativity, and, ironically, macro European pale lagers.
Duvel is brewed at the Moortgat brewery in the aforementioned village of Breendonk, not too far from Brussels. The brewery was founded in 1871 and always made dark ales, not uncommon among contemporary Belgian countryside and farmhouse brewers. To celebrate the end of World War I in 1918, Moortgat brewed a beer designated “Victory Ale” that was, predictably, hefty and dark. Legend has it that a friend of the Moortgat family called it “a devil of a beer,” or something along those lines. The name was changed to Duvel, Flemish for devil, and the name, at least, has become one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The beer, however, was nothing like the Duvel we know today, a beer that has been decades in the making.
After WWI and the restoration of peacetime trade, imported Scotch ales became all the rage in Belgium. They were similar in might and hue to the more familiar ales of Belgium but were exotic and noticeably different, owing to the yeast. Albert Moortgat had spent considerable time in Britain learning the intricacies of ale brewing. When he returned to Belgium, he brought with him a cache of bottle-conditioned McEwan’s Scotch ale. Each bottle was a treasure trove of viable, alien microorganisms. In his zeal to create a beer that was similar to the Scotch versions lapping up market share, Moortgat decided that the amalgam of yeast in the McEwan’s was worth investigating. He enlisted the help of none other than Jean De Clerck, the preeminent brewing scientist, pioneer of yeast isolation and characterization, and prestigious member of the Faculty of Brewing at Leuven University.
The alliance proved to be an important one, as De Clerck discovered that the stock sediment had at least 10 and as many as 20 different strains. By meticulously isolating them and examining their individual properties and nuances, De Clerck made it possible to employ separate strains for distinct tasks during fermentation and conditioning. One of the primary strains was selected because of its tolerance for high temperature fermentation, which can be upwards of 80 degrees C. It produces a relatively restrained fruitiness in spite of the high temperatures. It also contributes a distinct footprint when coupled with the house malt. Another yeast that De Clerck selected compacts very densely in the bottle, making it perfect for bottle conditioning. With the new yeasts, the reformulated Duvel was re-released in 1930 with quite a different character from its predecessor, Victory Ale.