All About Belgian & Continental Ales
High tech Trappist style is illustrated by this automated brewing control panel at the Chimay brewery in Belgium.
In the beginning
there was ale and then man introduced lager. Much like the North American
Gray squirrel has pushed the indigenous, genteel English Red squirrel onto
the endangered species list, so have lagers styles pushed traditional ale
styles into the background in many parts of Continental Europe. Some ale
styles still live on in Germany and France and many would be surprised to
know that one of the best selling craft brewed ales in the U.S. is
actually based on a German ale style (Sam Adam’s Boston Ale).
Abbey Ales (Dubbel, Tripel, Singel).
Monastic or abbey ales are an ancient
tradition in Belgium in much the same manner as wine production was once
closely associated with monastic life in ancient France. Currently, very
few working monasteries brew beer within the order, but many have licensed
the production of beers bearing their abbey name to large commercial
brewers. These "abbey ales" can vary enormously in specific
character, but most are quite strong in alcoholic content ranging between
6% alcohol by volume to as high as 10%. Generally abbey ales are labeled
as either Dubbel or Tripel, though this is not a convention that is
slavishly adhered to. The former conventionally denotes a relatively less
alcoholic and often darker beer, while the latter can often be lighter or
blond in color and have a syrupy, alcoholic mouthfeel that invites
sipping, not rapid drinking. The lowest gravity abbey ale in a Belgian
brewer’s range will conventionally be referred to as a Singel, though it
is rarely labeled as such.
Put simply an Altbier has the smoothness of a classic lager with the flavors
of an ale. A more rigorous definition must take account of history. Ale
brewing in Germany predates the now predominant lager production. As the
lager process spread from Bohemia, some brewers retained the top
fermenting ale process but adopted the cold maturation associated with
lager. Hence the name ’Old Beer’ (Alt means old in German). Altbier is
associated with Dusseldorf, Munster, and Hanover. This style of ale is
light to medium-bodied, less fruity, less yeasty, and has lower acidity
than a traditional English ale. In the US some amber ales are actually in
the alt style.
Belgian Style Golden Ale.
Belgian golden ales are pale to golden in color with a
lightish body for their deceptive alcoholic punch, as much as 9% alcohol
by volume. The benchmark example, Duvel (Devil) from Belgium, is quite
heavily hopped to give a floral nose and a tangy, fruity finish. Typically
such brews undergo three fermentations, the final one being in the bottle,
resulting in fine champagne-like carbonation, and a huge rocky white head
when they are poured. Often such beers can be cellared for six months to a
year to gain roundness. These beers are probably best served chilled to
minimize the alcoholic mouthfeel.
Belgian Style Strong Ale.
Beers listed in this category will generally pack a
considerable alcohol punch and should be approached much like one would a
Barley Wine. Indeed, some of them could be considered Belgian style barley
wines, such as those beers from Brasserie Dubuisson. Expect a fruity
Belgian yeast character and a degree of sweetness coupled with a viscous
Belgian Style Red Ale.
These are also known as ’soured beers’ and their defining
character classically comes from having been aged for some years in
well-used large wooden tuns, to allow bacterial action in the beer and
thus impart the sharp ’sour’ character. Hops do not play much role in the
flavor profile of these beers, but whole cherries can be macerated with
the young beer to produce a cherry flavored Belgian Red Ale. These styles
are almost exclusively linked to one producer in northern Belgium,
Rodenbach. These ales are among the most distinctive and refreshing to be
Belgian Style Amber Ale.
This is a not a classic style but nonetheless encapsulates
various beers of a similar Belgian theme that do not fit into the more
classic mold. Expect amber hued, fruity and moderately strong ales (6%ABV)
with a yeasty character. Typical examples of the style would be Flemish
beers such as De Koninck and Straffe Hendrik.
Belgian Style Blonde Ale.
This is not a classic style of Belgian ale, but covers the
more commercially minded Belgian ales that are lighter in color and
moderate in body and alcoholic strength. Fruity Belgian yeast character
and mild hopping should be expected.
Biere de Garde.
Biere de Garde is a Flemish and northern French specialty ale
generally packaged distinctively in 750ml bottles with a cork.
Historically, the style was brewed as a farmhouse specialty in February
and March, to be consumed in the summer months when the warmer weather
didn’t permit brewing. Typically produced with a malt accent, this is a
strong (often over 6%), yet delicate bottle conditioned beer. These brews
tend to be profoundly aromatic and are an excellent companion to hearty
Classic Belgian Ale Styles.
Sooner or later, all beer enthusiasts that enthuse
long enough and hard enough end up "discovering" the ales of
Belgium. Potently strong, generally packaged in odd shaped bottles, often
with a cork and wire cage closure, they often involve every bit as much
ceremony as one would lavish on opening a fine bottle of wine. Although
the Belgians are great wine drinkers, they also have one of the great beer
drinking cultures in the world. In Belgium beer is exalted in the same
manner as wine. For a small country it is host to an extraordinary diverse
range of beer styles. It quite possible to find the right Belgian ale to
fit any occasion, before, after or during a meal. US brewers have been
slow to start replicating the Belgian ale styles. With many styles their
alcoholic strength would not endear them to large volume production or
even a presence in some States. However, many brewpubs will produce a
strong Belgian-style ale in the winter season.
Flemish Style Brown Ale.
These are complex dark beers most closely associated with
the town of Oudenaarde in Flanders. The authentic examples are medium to
full bodied beers that are influenced by a number of factors: high
bicarbonate in the brewing water to give a frothy texture; a complex mix
of yeasts and malts; blending of aged beers; and aging in bottle before
release. In the best examples, the flavor profile is reminiscent of
olives, raisins, and brown spices and could be described as ’sweet and
sour.’ These beers are not hop-accented and are of low
Kolsch is an ale style emanating from Cologne in Germany. In Germany (and
the European Community) the term is strictly legally limited to the beers
from within the city environs of Cologne. Simply put Kolsch has the color
of a pilsner with some of the fruity character of an ale. This is achieved
with the use of top fermenting yeasts and pale pilsner malts. The hops are
accented on the finish, which classically is dry and herbal. It is a
medium to light bodied beer and delicate in style. Most examples one will
encounter in the US are brewpub draft interpretations produced during the
summer months, though some commercial brewers produce a summer ale in the
Saison beers are distinctive specialty beers from the Belgian province
of Hainuat. These beers were originally brewed in the early spring for
summer consumption, though contemporary Belgian saisons are brewed all
year round with pale malts and well dosed with English and Belgian hop
varieties. Lively carbonation ensues from a secondary fermentation in the
bottle. The color is classically golden orange and the flavors are
refreshing with citrus and fruity hop notes. Sadly, these beers are under
appreciated in their home country and their production is limited to a
small number of artisanal producers who keep this style alive. With a
typically hoppy character, Saisons are an extremely esoteric style of beer
that should appeal to any devotees of US craft beers, if you can track
them down. Occasionally, US brewpubs will attempt a version.
According to EC law, trappist ale may only come from six abbeys of the
trappist order that still brew beer on their premises. Five are in Belgium
and one, La Trappe comes from Holland. Although the styles may differ
widely between them, they all share a common trait of being top fermented,
strong, bottle conditioned, complex, and fully flavored brews. At most,
each abbey produces three different varieties of increasing gravity. These
can often improve with some years of cellaring. In all there are 15
different trappist beers from the six monasteries. The ales from trappist
abbeys are: Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and La
Trappe. Chimay and Orval are currently well distributed in the major US
markets, but the others might prove very hard to find on a consistent
basis. Trappist ales are among the most complex and old fashioned of beers
that one can find--little wonder that many connoisseurs treat them as the
holy grail of beer drinking.