Belgian Beer Exposed
There are six Trappist breweries in the world, five in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. They are Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Rochefort and Orval in Belgium and Schaapskooi across the Holland border. No other breweries are entitled by law to apply that name to there product. The special thing about these breweries is that they are actually located within the walls of a Trappist monestary. All functions of production are carried out by monks. Though many beers assume the appearance of holy origin, all but the 20 or so top-fermenting, bottle conditioned ales produced in these Trappist abbeys are considered "secular" beers.
Orva1 is the oldest of the brewing monasteries, founded in the 11th century by Benedictine monks. Interruptions to the monastic way of life (the French Revolution and the Napoleonic period) caused a religious exodus from France and the establishment of several Belgian abbeys in addition to those that already existed. Several of these abbeys typically began producing beer for internal use, then expanded to commercial production, selling first locally before making their beer available on a larger scale.
The term "trappist" fell into use in the years between WWI and WWII, popularized by Chimay (1850). It was there that Father Theodore and the famed brewing scientist Jean De Clerck developed much of the brewing theory that makes Trappist beers what they are.
Though only five Trappist breweries still exist, the number used to be greater. The last to cease production was the Benedictine monastery at Affligem (during WWII). "Yeah, but I can still buy Affligem" you might say, and you'd be right. Their classic Doubles and Tripples are still made by the secular De Smedt brewery under license of the Affligem abbey. Abbey ale is a term associated with beer brewed by non-monastic types, frequently under such a license. These beers cannot be called "Trappist", but usually derive their name from a shrine or a church or some other religious icon. It is typical for abbey ale to mimmik the styles of Trappist beer. Doubles and triples, such as appear in Westmalle's line, are very popular. Some beers, like St. Bernardus and Grimbergen Optimo Bruno are more similar to the dark, profoundly powerful brews of Rochefort and Westvleteren.
Then is any triple that associates itself with something religious an abbey ale? One school of thought I have come to respect would say no. The other requirement of an ale to be considered "abbey" is that it not only bares the name of some religious institution but also some of its burden. Some of the proceeds earned by the sale of the beer goes into the abbey it is named for. This can be said of beers like Affligem, Bornem and Augustijn.
The Lambic style can trace its roots back over 400 years, and has remained mostly unchanged from its introduction. I have heard the first written lambic recipe is dated 1516, ironically the same year that Reinheitsgebot - the German purity law - went into effect over all of Bavaria. In fact, in ancient Mesopotamia a beer that could be thought of as the "roots" of lambic was brewed 5000 years ago. Sikaru, the premium beer of the day, was brewed from 60% malt, 40% raw wheat, used wild fermentation and was flavored with spices.
Although it is impossible to absolutely confirm the origin of the word "lambic" it is most likely a distortion of Lembeek, a present and historic lambic producing town. Its status as the center of Lambic brewing was diminished in the early 1900's when much of the developed world decided distilled spirits were a bad thing. Scotch ales and Trappist beer offered a better alternative to hard alcohol than Lambics because of their strength. The oddities of the style are many. Like its ancient Middle Eastern predecessor, the grist is composed of as much as 40% unmalted wheat. The hops are aged to curtail the introduction of hop character. The fermentation is also wild -- that is the wort is left open to the night air for inoculation. These two aspects of lambic production are part of a Royal Decree of 1965 (sort of an anti-Rienhietsgobot!). Lambic requires several years to come of age, during which time dust and cobwebs are encouraged to cover the wooden fermenting vessels. Production is usually confined from mid-October to May, allowing for the wild yeast and beer to party during the summer.
Its interesting to note that lambic consumption has been a favored subject of Flemish artists. Brueghel, Teniers, Pierre Paul Rubens and Jacob Joardens have all depicted this in works like "Village Fair", "Village Wedding" and "Peasants Dance"
Oud Bruin and Flander Red Ale
Another manifestation of Belgian sour beer, Flemish brown ale - or Oud Bruin - can boasts the same boldly lactic character of the lambic family but generally without the horsey character. Another variety of sour ale is referred to as "Flander's red ale". Though there are different viewpoints on this, there is much reliable information to suggest oud bruin and Flanders red are really the same style. When commenting to a Belgian bartender that Oud Zottergem's bruin was not particularly bruin, he told me color is not a real issue in defining oud bruin. This idea was first posed to me by Johnny Fincioen, the owner of the Global Beer Network, a native Belgian who imports a wonderful line of beers. A contributor to this site commented that the difference between red and brown ale was actually regional. Don Feinberg of Vanberg & DeWulf added that the referrence to "red ale" was likely to have come about due to the creation of Rodenbach. As it was clearer, reder and generally more beautiful than the typical oud bruin (which I believe is true) it deserved of it's own designation. Anyway, though there are differences between classic oud bruin and the benchmark red ale - Rodenbach (sometimes referred to as the "Burgundy of Belgium"), they are outweighed by their similarities.
The most recognized Oud Bruin, Liefmans Goudenband, is a spectacular beer thought I believe it has gone down hill in the last year. None the less I will always remember my first sip of this fabulous brew fondly. Other examples of the style are more or less lactic, some leaning towards the sweet side. A bruin originating from the same town as Goudenband, Felix, is noticeably more tart. I would guess, based on its flavor, that it is not blended. Despite producing a benchmark bruin, Leifman's makes a beer called Oud Bruin that is not Goudenband. The difference between to two is the oud bruin is not blended.
Blending is a very significant practice in oud bruin production. Aging oud bruin makes it overwhelmingly (for most, not for me) tart. The malty sweetness some have is generally because younger beer has been blended with a lesser amount of aged, sour beer. Ichtegem's, for example, is a blend of 70% young beer to 30% old. Oud Zottergem's is another example of a beer that is only slightly tart, with a bready sweetness being more dominent.
Rodenbach makes three different versions of their beer, including the unblended red and the blended grand cru. The third is a sweetened beer, having cherry essence added to aged beer.
The general profiles that all share go something like this. Final gravity is about 1/4 starting gravity and the average ABV is around 5.5%. Duchesse de Bourgogne is the most powerful I have found with an ABV of 6.2%. They tend to not have hoppy aromas, nor is the use of black patient or chocolate malt or roasted barley given away by the nose. Aromas are usually tart, fruity and floral, never with the buttery scent of diacetyl or spices.
Hop character in the taste is always beaten back by sourness with some examples also emphasising sweetness or fruitiness. The before mentioned grains are seldom the source of color. This is usually the result of crystal malts and long boils. Lighter versions, such as Rodenbach, derives color from more medium colored malts like Vienna.
Belgian Brown Ale
There is a loosely defined style of brown ale from Belgium that cannot be accurately called "oud bruin". To my knowledge there is no special term for it, except maybe just "bruin". The difference between these two styles is not necessarily age as many brown ales would age wonderfully. Brown ale is lacking in any acidity, tending to taste maltier, sometimes to the point of being a little like distilled spirits. I have never had one that was remotely hoppy, and I have had many.
A very good example of the "distilled spirits" flavor is Gouden Carolus. It is very dark with an ABV of 7.6%. This is one that will change a lot in the bottle over time, so you might find it to be inconsistant. That the price of complexity. Slightly lighter in alcohol is Gildenbier, at 7% ABV. This one is a bit chocolaty with a slight resemblance in flavor to dubbels. You would probably not mistake it for one, but there is a distinct bready flavor shared by most dubbels that I found in Gildenbier.
Kasteel Brown is an enormous beer with a heavy sweetness that is so intense it almost seems like it never fully fermented. Then you stand up. Yep, it's fermented all right! Beers like this make me want to add a category called "Belgian-style barley wine", but really, there are plenty of categories all ready. Give up your car keys, it's ABV is around a whopping 10%. It is the kind of beer you should finish your night with as most things would taste like nothing following it.
Many producers of abbey ale also make something they call brune, Leffe being one example of many. As it has a 6.2% ABV, and as Leffe doesn't make something they call "dubbel" I would tend to think that's what is.
Other examples resemble dubbel in flavor, such as Verboden Vrucht from De Kluis, but exceed the ABV range associated with the abbey style. In the case of the 9% Verboden Vrucht, the 6ish% of a dubbel is left in the dust. This results in all kinds of desserty things happening, flavors such as vanilla have been associated with this beer. As with other examples of brown ale, the complexity and shelf life of this beer is enhanced by it's strength.
The last type of beer that could be grouped here is Scotch Ale. This style is produced in Scotland for export to several places including Belgium. There are examples of this style that are produced in Belgium though, like Scotch Silly. This is a style to be reconed with. It is typically very strong with a wonderful caramel-like maltiness and almost no perceivable hop character. Some have a hint of distilled spirits in their flavor profile. If you are from the US and are wondering what I mean by this, wrap your hot little hand around a McEwans Scotch ale (not to be confused with the export).
Belgian Golden Ale
In the past I have grouped high alcohol golden ales in with specialty beers. However I have encounter so many that are reasonably similar that it seems appropriate to break this off as yet another distinctly Belgian style. The easy way to describe this one is to think of Duvel.
This masterpiece out of Breendonk is considered the benchmark for this style. Many brewers produce very strong, golden ales that reflect some of the character of the triple style, some to the point of having copied Duvel. Lucifer, for example, even copped a demonic name. Others such as Judas, Deugniet (rascal) and Sloeber (joker) may be less hellacious but still reflect a "bad boy" sentiment.
Belgian golden ale is characterized by a very high ABV, hovering around 9%. It bares a resemblance to the abbey style tripel but it has several significant differences. Tripels are frequently cloudy where Duvel is quite clear (although it is bottle conditioned). It is a touch paler in color than Westmalle tripel and has a less fluffy, dense head. It also has a cleaner taste, revealing malt and hops more than fruity esters or the character of yeast.
Amoung those who have flattered Duvel by producing similarly styled variations are De Kluis with Hoegaarden Grand Cru, Huyghe with Delerium Trements, Riva with Straffe Hendrick, the list goes on. I wish I had a dime for every time I tried a new beer and said "Oh, Duvel" after the first sip.
Specialty Beers ???!!
This category is a tough one to define. Not only is there no tangible description for a special, but there does not seem to be total agreement as to what beers are specials and what are something else. If I refer to a beer as a special and you've heard it was a brown ale or abbey ale or something please forgive me. The most accurate way to describe a special is to say if a beer has a starting gravity of .060 to .095, uses various herbs and spices and/or does not clearly fall into any other category than that's what it is. One brewery specifically worthy of mention is De Dolle Brouwers. I feel this is one of the most unique producers in Belgium as their beers are unusual even within a Belgian context. Thier staple beer, Oerbier, is close to being an oud bruin but it really has a character unto itself. They produce two seasonal beers - Stille Nacht (Silent Night) is a Christmas ale and Boskeun, who's label dons one of the goofiest bunny cartoons I've ever seen, is for Easter. On the lighter side is Arabier. All have a similar tartness and several are also pretty sweet. Expect big bodied beer from the "mad brewers" as well. This is the only brewery I can think of off hand that does not make a pilsner.
On the stronger side are beers like Bush, Piraat and Gulden Draak. All are blonde and they are 12%, 10.5% and 10% ABV respectively. These brews could loosely be called barley wines and all three contain explosive flavor.
LaChouffe are dark amber and noticably herbal. I have had this one on tap a few times, once I caught the dregs. The bar tender was going to throw it out, but I made it clear that would happen over my dead body! It was really brilliant, rich in texture as well as taste.
These are but a few examples and they really illustrate the creativity of Belgian brewing. Sweet to tart, golden to brown, moderate to heavy, specials are diverse and seldom a disappoint.
Yet another tough one to confine within a general description. There is a wide birth you need to give saison when describing exactly what it is, personally I see it as more a style of brewery than a style of beer. All my research gave me one very interesting impression though. Unfortunately proving it might require time travel.
Saison is sometimes also referred to as "country beer". I have seen several references to it being a beer that was served to the hard working people of rural Belgium. This reminds me a little of the story of English porter, a medium strength but satisfying beer produced for the working class. Considering many of the few producers of saison are located on what is or was a farm, the "for the worker" status seems worthy of note. There is a quality to saison which I feel is attributed to the farm house status many of these breweries share. I am not so sure this quality could be really captured in a commercial brewing environment.
Saison is typically golden to orange in color, though I have had some that were deep brown (Silly Saison, Mionette Brune). Some - but not all - examples exhibit a slight tart character, not to the extent of lambic though some get close (Saison Pipaix). It was designed to be medium in alcohol, around 5%-6% ABV, though I have seen them as high as 8% (Vapeur En Folie). There is something about this that seems very consistant with the "country" nature of the style. Brewing on a farm as opposed to a facility ladden with stainless steel seems condusive to a little natural "wildness" in the fermentation department. The grist is generally comprised of pilsner malt but some recipes use some amount of wheat. The deeper color some of them have is a result of adjunct malts, such as crystal, to acheive their orangy tone. Lastly, some but not all do a bit of spicing. This practice really reinforces the old feel of this fading style as hops were not commercially allowed in brewing until 400 or 500 years ago.