Taking the Belgian pale ale to the next level, strong pale ales have an alcohol content in the range of 7 percent to 12 percent, but retain the yellow to deep gold color and fluffy, white head of the traditional pale. Candi sugar (a special kind of sugar used for brewing) is often added to achieve the higher alcohol content without making the body overly sweet or heavy. Like the standard pales, they are usually bottle-conditioned. These big beers typically are packaged in cork-and-wire-sealed 750-milliliter (about 25-ounce) bottles intended for sharing. The exception is the "petit" La Chouffe, which comes in what they call "the 'small beautiful stupid bottle' in homage to the strong individualism of many Americans." If this offends you, contact the Belgian embassy.
Here are five great examples, three from Belgium, one from Canada and one from the United States.
Duvel (http://www.duvelusa.com/home.php) (8.5 percent ABV) is the oft-imitated, never-duplicated gold standard for Belgian strong pale ales. Duvel means "devil" in Flemish, and it can certainly be a devil to pour, releasing a huge, meringuelike fluffy white head, even with a gentle hand. Sticky clumps of lace cling to the glass as it settles. You may have to pour twice to get it in your glass. Belgian pilsner malts and Czech Saaz hops give this beer a dry, spicy character that to me tastes like what an imperial pilsner should be. But the Belgian yeast strain adds another dimension of banana, white pepper and lemon zest tartness. One to try before you die.
La Chouffe (http://www.achouffe.be/newen/index.php) (8 percent ABV) is not made by gnomes (chouffes), but honors their legendary brewing skills. Weightier and less champagnelike than Duvel, it has a buttery softness and an orange blossom honey sweetness up front, with a gentle spiciness of mint and coriander. Hop bitterness is low, and there is an earthy, wet hay note. Clean and smooth, it has less yeasty sourness and citric tartness than the Duvel.
If you're looking to impress your hosts with a fancy bottle of beer, you could do worse than the painted "ceramic" bottle of Delirium Tremens (http://www.delirium.be/Anglais/Histoire/histoire.htm) (8.5 percent ABV), with its blue foil wrapped cork-and-wire closure, Gothic font lettering and hallucinogenic label decorated with pink elephants. Named for the neurological condition that accompanies alcohol withdrawal, this potent elixir is the antidote. It has a wondrous aroma of fragrant blossoms of honeysuckle, tangy yeasts, tropical fruits and rum. Spritzy and light-bodied, with a champagnelike carbonation, the taste moderates between sweet and tart like a Granny Smith apple, backed with grainy malts and traditional banana, clove and pepper from the Belgian yeasts. Soft on the palate, with a fading dryness that whispers away like a ghost.
The craftsmanship of Belgium's brewing tradition has inspired North American brewers to try their hand at these complex styles. All the beers from Quebec's Unibroue (http://www.unibroue.com/) are Belgian-inspired, and in some cases are equal to or superior to their native counterparts. Don de Dieu (9 percent ABV) is one of several strong pale ales offered by the brewery. Sour yeast, coriander and floral hops dominate the aroma, while brandy-soaked peaches, pear and banana are evident in the flavor profile. The addition of wheat tempers the sweetness with a grainy, dry character midpalate. Sourdough bread, lemon cake, pepper and warming alcohol contribute to its dry, lingering finish. The soft, creamy mouthfeel and lively carbonation hide its strength well. An excellent example of the style.
Brooklyn Brewery's (www.brooklynbrewery.com) Garrett Oliver brews well to style, and his Belgian-inspired strong golden ale Local 1 (9 percent ABV) is no exception. The aroma of floral hops, Belgian yeast, pineapple and candi sugar carry over to the taste, along with German pilsner malt for a medium-light body. The taste is sweet up front, with honey, pineapple and lemonade yielding to spicy hops and a bit of orange-zest bitterness in the finish. The mouthfeel is super soft and silky, with a gentle, spritzy carbonation and a pleasant warming alcohol on the way down. Well done.
Yours truly taps that thang
Join me Sunday, June 1, at 5 Seasons North (http://www.5seasonsbrewing.com/?q=node/196) in Alpharetta where I will be the guest tapper for the brewery's new Sunday cask offering. Crawford says the contents are a surprise, but with as many casks and special beers as he has been making lately, I'm pretty sure he doesn't know what will be in it. The festivities start at 1 p.m. See you there.