With ale lacking in any real definitive qualities regarding strength, we can discuss the matter from another angle: that of what constitutes the expectations of the ale aficionado. The following two ales are good examples of the many profiles an ale might take in this modern world of beer.
Our first beer is not very strong at all; the other one stronger. Ales are expected to be darker, but not dark (but don’t forget that stout is an ale, too). One of our lovelies is almost dark, and the other almost light in color. Ales, as we know them, are the dominant English style of beer, but neither of these beers is from England. I first read about one in Tokyo in 1973, but I had never even heard of the other until it was introduced in the U.S. in 1982.
Give up? The first comes from a brewery in Scotland. The other is made by monks in the lower corner of Belgium. I am speaking about Belhaven Scottish Ale from Dunbar, near Edinburgh in Scotland, and Orval Trappist Ale from Villesdevant-Orval, Belgium.
Belhaven really grows on you. It has a splendid, dry finish, giving it a rich, distinctive and memorable flavor reminiscent of fine old Scotch whisky. The faintest hint of smoked malt comes from the Scottish-grown East Moravian two-row barley, malted on the brewery premises in the traditional manner, something one rarely sees in this age of specialization. The malting towers of Belhaven are the brewery’s most distinctive landmark, although they are no longer used as kilns. Belhaven started brewing in 1719 and is still a small brewery by American standards.
Belhaven Ale is brewed from 10-degree extract (1.041) in 4,300-gallon batches, using well water from deep Dunbar wells. Traditional English East Kent Golding hops are added in the boil, and a batch is boiled in two segments in the brew copper (they call their brew kettle a “copper”), usually designed to hold only 2,600 gallons at a time. The beer is fermented initially for 40 hours at 58 degrees F/14.5 degrees C followed by four more days of slow ferment at 52 degrees F/11 degrees C. The result is a rather mild alcohol content of 3.3/4.25 percent, with no additives or adjuncts. This is a genuine real beer with only malted barley, hops, water and yeast used in the process.
Belhaven is available in wooden casks at a relatively small number of selected pubs, including Buckstone Lounge at the Braid Hills Hotel in Edinburgh. In the wood (real ale), the beer is called 80 Shilling Bitter, based on the cost of a cask in the 19th century. In Scotland, the bottled product is called Belhaven Export Prize Ale.
Discovering Trappist Ale
I first heard of Orval Abbey Trappist Ale in a newspaper clipping in the English language Nippon Times of Tokyo, which called it “ … the most delicious (beer) ever to have flattered the human palate.” When I read that, I vowed to visit Belgium to partake, which I did, though these days I need only travel to the nearest good beer store. Orval Trappist Ale comes from one of only six Belgian breweries allowed the Trappist appellation on the label, and is certified by the Brussels School of Brewing to be a totally natural beer with no artificial ingredients or flavorings.