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.
The Third Devil
Duvel would remain unchanged for several more decades, until a final reformulated in the 1960s, intended to counter the influx of pale lagers, while distinguishing Duvel firmly as a unique product.
After World War II, the celebrity of golden lagers forced brewers to reconsider their fate. And an emerging style known as tripel was being brewed by some monastic brewers at this time, so perhaps these strong pale ales had some influence on their secular Belgian brethren. Moortgat daringly reformulated Duvel yet again, this time as a strong pale ale, since gold was the rage and strong ale was their forte.
Producing a strong beer with an ultra-light color is nigh impossible. Jean de Clerck was summoned anew to investigate the process, particularly the malting. Moortgat used house maltings then (they stopped in 1980), according them the ultimate personal touch. Eventually, the brain trust produced the pale, delicate malt that was desired. An intricate fermentation and maturation schedule, employing dextrose (corn sugar) in the kettle and bottle, added strength without color. Duvel was released in its third incarnation in 1970. A style was born and—as imitation is the highest form of flattery—other breweries soon followed suit, often with brand names depicting miscreants, rascals or misbehavior.
The elaborate and personal approach of Moortgat is really no different than many of the world’s first-rate brewers, but the Duvel method itself is unique, a roller coaster ride of warm and cold, of bustle and respite. Recent publications and testimonials from Moortgat have shed some light on the specifics that go into making this incredibly complex brew that appears so unassuming and simplistic.
Duvel is made with French barley, malted by four different maltsters, two each in Belgium and France. The brew is dosed twice with dextrose, from three separate suppliers, once in the kettle and again at bottling. Hops are Bohemian Saaz and Slovenian Styrian Goldings, giving Duvel a fresh floral and delicate, spicy fragrance that expresses both lager and ale characteristics, and a soft bitter foundation. Two-thirds of the hops are added for bittering and the remainder for aroma.
Fermentation and conditioning is attentive and painstaking. The wort (dosed with dextrose) goes from kettle to fermenter and yeast is pitched. Primary fermentation lasts for about seven days, and between 68 and 80° F. The attenuation is high, over 90 percent, to produce a beer of 6.8 percent ABV. The temperature is then crashed to just below freezing and held there for about three weeks. Duvel is then tasted at this “single fermentation” stage by the brewmaster and his entourage to ensure quality.
On the 30th day, it is primed for secondary fermentation by adding fresh yeast and more dextrose, and then immediately bottled. It then spends about 17 days at 72º F to carbonate and warm-condition. This is followed by followed by six weeks at 41º F to cold-condition a second time before being unleashed. Duvel is 90 days in the making from start to finish, and even improves with cellaring well beyond that. The ABV at release is 8.5 percent. The combination of high-attenuation, pilsner malt grist and dextrose give Duvel an exceptionally lithe body and appetizing nature.
The Devil’s Disciples
Moortgat treated the public to Duvel Green in 2008, a draft-only version that is cold-filtered and kegged after the single fermentation stage (30 days). Since there is no second addition of dextrose and refermentation in the bottle, it comes in at a more modest 6.8 percent and finishes without the refined complexity of regular Duvel. Nonetheless, it is an outstanding brew in its own right, softer and less lively than the original.
Moortgat also produced a stronger (9.5% ABV) version of Duvel in 2007 dubbed “Tripel Hop,” as a special edition brew. It is dry-hopped, and made with Saaz, Styrian Goldings, and American Amarillo hops. A second edition was bottled earlier this year and released in the fall in America.
Though there are numerous Duvel-inspired brews in Belgium and North America, they are less common than Belgian tripels. In fact, the line between the two is often fuzzy. Strong golden ale is crisper, more delicate and lighter in color than tripel, but both have the familiar spicy and estery character that only a Belgian yeast can present, with a floral, noble hop nose.
The interest in Belgian ale has exploded in the past 40 years. This has led Belgian brewers to tinker and introduce new brews. In North America, the microbrewery revolution and general interest in craft beer inspired its brewers to either experiment with Belgian styles, or base their entire portfolio around them. Sprinkled among the breweries on both continents are strong golden ales, and the Duvel template has served them well. Look for Delirium Tremens, Moinette Blonde, Brigand, La Chouffe and Malheur 10º from Belgium, and Avery Salvation, Russian River Damnation and North Coast PranQster in America. There are many others. Gravities range from 7 to 10 percent ABV, and a well-made version will sport a billowing, lacy head and sustaining carbonation.
Duvel not only fostered a beer style, but has long been one of the most recognizable brand names among beer aficionados. As such, it has much to do with today’s worldwide appreciation of Belgian specialties in general and strong golden offerings in particular. They are alluring, charming and deviously friendly: fun to hang around with, but capable of biting you in the end.