Though Belgium is revered as the kingdom of sanctified abbey and monastic brews, the majority of its beers spring forth from secular breweries. One Belgian beer style mischievously plays on this earthly angle with brand names depicting the foibles and temptation of life itself. These are the strong golden ales. The touchstone is Duvel, fittingly named for the devil, and one of the most famous brands in the world.
Pale and demure as pilsner with a come-hither effervescence and aroma, its drinkability unleashes the trickster within: a sinister alcohol content of 8.5 percent. A revered brewing scientist designed Duvel in two separate adventures, decades apart. It spawned a style and helped open the door to the exploration of Belgian ale. In short, it is a style of paradox—simple, unassuming and refreshing, with a stealthy knockout punch.
Few Belgian ales are entirely severed from their humble roots, with brewers keen to practice traditional methods and recipes where possible. The distinct styles that have evolved over the past hundred years are a result of having one eye on the past and the other to the future. An ability to adapt and borrow is key to sustainability. Such is the case with Moortgat, brewers of Duvel, who borrowed liberally, embraced progressive science, yet held on to their identity in a 20th century European market awash in pale lager.
The Moortgat Brewery in Breendonk owns many brands today, but at its founding in 1871 was a typical farmhouse operation, brewing a variety of dark ales. In 1900, founder Jan-Leonard Moortgat handed the reigns to his sons Albert and Victor Moortgat. Inspired by the ales of the United Kingdom, Albert Moortgat introduced the commemorative Victory Ale in 1918 to celebrate the end of World War I. Ever the student and tinkerer, Moortgat continued to experiment with his Victory Ale over the next several years.
To create the beer that he desired, and to capitalize on the popularity of Scotch ale, he set about teasing the yeasty secrets from a bottle of McEwan’s Scotch ale, procured during an excursion to Scotland—an enterprise that did not go over well with his provincial Belgian brethren. He also enlisted famous brewing scientist and pioneer Jean de Clerck to assist in the elaborate undertaking. A master of yeast characterization and isolation, de Clerck was also on the faculty at the University of Leuven, and author of A Textbook of Brewing, the most comprehensive opus the craft has ever seen. His handprints are all over 20th century Belgian brewing, his having been consultant to many well-known breweries.
The McEwan’s sample yielded between 10 and 20 strains of yeast, so the painstaking isolation and selection was lengthy. A single strain was finally selected for the job, the strain still used today. The formulation of the “original” Duvel was nearly complete, though it was still known as Victory Ale. During a tasting session among villagers in 1923, a local shoemaker, no doubt under the influence of Victory, proclaimed, “this is a real devil”! Perhaps in a move to put the war behind them, Moortgat renamed the beer Duvel (a corruption of the Flemish duivel), shrewdly projecting light-hearted naughtiness on a catchy brand name. All that it had in common with the Duvel of today, though, was strength, since it was still dark ale.