For years there were no more than a half-dozen Belgian beers available in Georgia, and not many more available elsewhere. That's changed now, and I still overhear people in bars talking excitedly about these great beers that are – get this – brewed by monks! Not all Belgian ales are brewed by monks; in fact, there are only six Trappist monasteries in Belgium that produce beer, along with one in the Netherlands, and few other "abbey ales" brewed by or under license to other monastic orders. But there are hundreds of beers produced in Belgium and they vary widely in style, from light, fruity saisons to rich, dark quadruples. What most have in common are a complex character imparted by the unique yeasts.
This is not to say Belgians are inaccessible. While tart lambics and boozy strong ales might be off-putting to the average American beer drinker, saisons and Belgian pale ales have grown in popularity, and have appeal for wine drinkers and others looking for a different type of beverage. In a two-part Style Sheet, I will explore the Belgian pale ale and strong pale ale, both of which are refreshing and nonthreateningly dark, making them a natural choice for summer and a good way to start your lifelong love affair with Belgian beers.
Belgian pale ales are the everyday beers of Belgium and achieved their current characteristics after World War II, when they were developed to compete with German lagers. They are typically gold to amber in color, with fluffy white heads and a spicy, yeasty aroma. Light- to medium-bodied with a dry character, the pale malts are bright and honeyed, with some having a toasted character. Hop flavor is low, and may be floral, spicy or citric. Bitterness varies but is usually low, with the spicy, sometimes sour, yeasts providing the necessary counterpoint to the malts. Green apple, white grape and lemon are common fruity elements. Some have spices added, while others get their spicy flavors from the yeast. Alcohol content is usually in the 5 percent to 7 percent range. All but one of the examples here are bottle-conditioned, meaning that yeast in the bottle keeps the fermentation going to naturally carbonate the beer. These should be decanted, leaving the yeast sediment in the bottom, so as not to muddy up the flavors.
The sunny, golden Val-Dieu Blond (6 percent ABV) from the Abbey du Val-Dieu Brewery in Aubel, Belgium is a great place to start with Belgian pales. Although brewed by professionals since 1997, Val-Dieu's beers are made at the abbey from recipes dating back to the 13th century. Their blond ale will please wheat beer lovers, with its yeasty, floral aroma, honey-lemon flavor, and dry, spicy finish. This is a light-bodied ale with terrific drinkability, perfect for al fresco dining or with a sandwich at lunch.
Leffe Blond (6.6 percent ABV) is another example of a Belgian ale that is no longer brewed by monks. The Abbaye Notre Dame de Leffe in Southern Belgium was one of the first to enter into a partnership with a commercial brewery, Lootvoet, in 1952. Leffe is now produced by European brewing giant InBev at its Stella Artois facility in Leuven, Belgium. Unlike most Belgian pale ales, this beer is not bottle-conditioned. As a result, it pours a sparking, clear gold with a fluffy white head – a beautiful-looking beer, but lacking the rustic character of the typical abbey ale. The aroma is a mild, sweet mélange of clove, apple blossom and bubble gum (yes, bubble gum). The taste is even sweeter, with perfumed fruit, candi sugar and honey dominating. The spicy hops lean toward white pepper and clove. The mouthfeel is effervescent but heavy, with a Sprite-like lemon-lime syrupiness. I found this to be enjoyable at first, but it soon became cloying.
Orval (6.9 percent ABV) is perhaps the most celebrated example of a Belgian pale ale and the only beer produced at the brewery of the Trappist monastery of Notre Dame d'Orval. Apparently when you get it right, there's no need to make anything else. Orval has a dry, complex earthiness of hay, sour fruits and pale malts, and the addition of wild yeasts brings out that distinct taste of bubble gum. Beautifully balanced, with a bracing bitterness and a sweet but not syrupy mouthfeel, this is one of the world's most unique beers.
Affligem Blond (6.8 percent ABV) is associated with the Affligem Abbey in Opawijk, Belgium, that dates to the 11th century. This bubbly, golden ale with a fluffy, rocky head is light and dry, with a champagnelike quality. Spicy, fruity yeasts dominate the flavor profile. A lemony, green-apple tartness squares off with a powdered-sugar sweetness to nice effect. The mouthfeel is creamy, but backed with a solid hop bitterness that makes Affligem Blond a wonderful sipper.
Next week we'll sample three strong pale ales from Belgium, which share many of the characteristics of the pale ales, but with a higher ABV and often a hoppier presence. We'll also sample an excellent example from right here in the United States.