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.
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.
Playing with the Devil
Duvel resumed its metamorphosis in the 1960s as a market response. Belgium’s traditional ales were losing ground to pale lagers. The brewery determined that it needed a pale brew of their own to keep up with customer demands. Moortgat didn’t give in completely to the trends, choosing to stick with ales rather than introduce a lager, which would have required quite an investment in new equipment. Given the popularity and high quality of their flagship beer, the brain trust made the bold move of redesigning Duvel once again, this time as a golden version to rival the popular lagers.
It is nearly impossible to make a strong beer with a light golden cast, but through much experimentation and the development of an elaborate schedule of mashing, boiling, and fermentation, Moortgat managed to pull it off with generous dosing of dextrose to add strength but not color.
In this process, the wort is divided into two separate fermentation vessels and fermented with a different yeast in each. A dose of dextrose is added prior to the fermentation to raise the original gravity. Any excess sugar in the kettle would contribute color, something that Moortgat was trying to avoid.
Primary fermentation is done with alacrity, and then the beer is transferred to conditioning tanks for secondary fermentation, which is also swift. The temperature is then dropped to near freezing to smooth out the beer and precipitate the yeast. After a month or thereabouts of cold conditioning, Duvel is bottled with yet another dose of dextrose and priming yeast. The third fermentation in the bottle takes two weeks.
Moortgat introduced the modern incarnation of Duvel in 1970. After 50 years of tinkering, Duvel has remained unchanged for thirty-five. It has been emulated extensively in both Belgium and North America since.
Tempting Yin and Yang
Strong golden ales are by definition sturdy brews that have a magnified flavor profile. They do, however, differ greatly from other strong beers in several ways. First, they are lighter in color than any others. Typically they are made with either pilsner malt exclusively, or with a miniscule measure of another malt. Pilsner is the most delicate of the continental malts, both in flavor and color. The soft, malty character is substantial enough to produce a flavorful wort, without impediment. Second, pilsner malt is the most fermentable barley, which in turn renders the wort low in dextrine, melanoidins and caramelization, all three of which add body and/or flavor. The result is a highly attenuated beer that might be further thinned by the brewer’s addition of dextrose or other sugar. In other words, the resultant beer has a much higher alcohol content than other beers of the same original gravity. In general, golden ales weigh in at 7.5 percent ABV or greater.
Finally, the thin body and light malt character allow the brewers to unfurl a fragrant, noble hop character in the brew that is unlike any of the other strong European beers such as bock, Scotch ale, English barley wine, or Belgian tripel. In fact, tripels are often similar to strong goldens. Tripels, though, are usually more full bodied, have an evident candi sugar character, and exhibit a more earthy yeast footprint that is more representative of Belgian ales.
As was mentioned, strong goldens present a noticeable hop character due to the lithe body and soft malt. Most weigh in at about 30 IBUs, which is not generally considered aggressive. The preferred hop varieties in Belgium are Saaz for aroma and Styrian Goldings for general kettle use. Flowery and herbal in the nose, the aroma is the first appetizing lure. The bright color and nimble flavor are the hook. Additionally, these beers are somewhat fruity in aroma and flavor, though not as much so as most other big Belgian brews. The palate is very dry, smooth, and with a touch of background earthiness.
Much of the appeal of these beers is the presentation. The bottle conditioning, coupled with some aging, produces a rambunctious, moussy beer that needs a roomy vessel. They are most appropriately presented in a spacious tulip-shaped glass so that the mousse/beer interface perfectly bisects the glass. The effervescence aids immensely in bringing the aromas to sublime volatility. One should proceed with caution, however, as the combination of drinkability and ample strength is devilishly seductive and deceptive.
The Naming of the Brew
Many brewers take artistic liberties when naming their beers. It is seemingly requisite for the strong goldens to have a moniker that in some way denotes the mischievous, unassuming effects of the beer. Satanic, gnomish, impish, satiric, catastrophic, and playful jabs at the frailty of the human condition are among the many labeling implications that coax the imbiber. Thankfully, damnation is only temporary.
The label may be all one needs to locate these wayward brews. In Belgium, there are dozens. In North America, they are prevalent, obviously among brewers who make Belgian-style beers, but even as one-offs by brewers who dabble. It is convenient that there is a theme as a rough guide. And isn’t that what it’s all about: exploring, being seduced, and experiencing? I thought you’d agree.
Tasting Notes: Brewed by the Brouwerij Moortgat, it is the legendary beer of the style and perhaps the most familiar of all Belgian brews. It presents a billowing pearl-white head above a bright gold body and a lusty herbal, spicy and fruity nose. Pear, apple and green grape hints mingle gently with the light, crisp flavor. The hops are perfectly balanced with the mellow malt. Clean, with a suggestion of yeast. A world classic by any standard.
La ChouffeABV: 8.0
Tasting Notes: The crowning grace of the Brasserie d’Achouffe in Achouffe, Belgium. A slightly hazy but beautiful burnished gold color, capped by a lacy pillow of a head. The nose is amazingly spicy; pepper and coriander come to mind, along with a bit of orange and hay. A little more sweet malt flavor than some of the others, with all the complexity of the aroma and a faint “farm” character. Very deep, indeed, this beer could be contemplated all night long. The benign gnomes on the label carry with them sprigs of barley and hops.
Delirium TremensABV: 9.0
Tasting Notes: From the Brouwerij Huyghe in Melle, Belgium. The label, with skipping crocodiles and pink elephants, is as playful as the brew. Off-gold in hue, with trails of bubbles feeding a lingering, creamy and bountiful head. Cantaloupe and apricot are laced with peppery hops in the nose. The flavor is reminiscent of honey and fruit with a bit of wheat-like phenol. The yeast adds a touch of the rural character that one would expect from a Belgian brew. The hops are spicy and firm.
La Fin Du MondeABV: 9.0
Tasting Notes: One of the finest Belgian-style beers outside of Belgium, it is brewed in Chambly, Quebec. Slightly turbid, straw color, with a creamy white head reminiscent of a witbier. The aroma is ripe with peach and apricot, with a light herbal hop nose. Silky-smooth mouthfeel, imminently deceptive in its strength. The flavor shows off a complex mixture of citrus, more fruit, and a zesty spice background. As close to perfection as it gets, and hard to believe that it weighs in at 9.0% ABV.