Le château des Princes de Chimay profile

© 2022, Randy Mosher / Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine

Pictured above: Le château des Princes de Chimay

The mysteries and uniqueness of Belgian beer are what drew me into the world of beer and brewing, and I still find them delicious and captivating. However, this tiny country’s beers cover so much territory, it seems wise to limit the scope here. So, let’s put all of Belgium’s tart and funky lambics, oaky oud bruins and creamy witbiers off to the side for the future. That still leaves us with a treasure-box of conventionally fermented beers in a variety of strengths, colors and personalities. 

Abbey and Trappist ales mostly form the conceptual backbone here, whether they are overtly branded as such. While “abbey” is generic, “Trappiste” is a trademark owned by the monasteries, enforcing its authenticity. Monasteries across Europe were brewing in the Middle Ages, but around 1794 Belgium’s monasteries were closed (after the French Revolution) and were destroyed, allowed to decay or were repurposed. Any remaining connections to ancient monastic brewing appear to have been cleanly severed. The exhaustive Belgian brewing treatise by G. Lacambre (1851) describes dozens of local styles, but fails to list abbey or Trappist beers among them. 

The reality is that these supposedly historic beers are actually 20th-century inventions, inspired by beers from neighboring England, Scotland and Germany that flooded the Belgian market in the early 1900s. Strip away the marketing and you’ll see bocks, Scotch ales, pale ales and even pilsners behind these quintessentially Belgian beers. 

We’re talking about a range of pale to deep brown, top-fermented beers ranging from about 6% abv up to more than 10%. These encompass a range of BJCP styles: Belgian golden ale and Trappist single form one extended tribe; Abbey tripel and golden strong ale are their twin big brothers. Abbey dubbel and Belgian strong dark ale form a continuum. “Dubbel” was a generic term in Lacambre’s day, signifying a somewhat stronger beer than the “ordinaries” at 5–6% abv compared to 3–4% abv. The term seemed to take on a more specific, monastic meaning in the 1920s. Westmalle created the first, strong, golden “tripel” in 1933. Belgian pale ale and the classically phenolic saisons are their own styles. In addition, many spiced or other eccentric interpretations elaborate upon these basics.

That leaves us with two clusters (light and dark) and a couple of specific outlier styles. They are all unified to some degree by their yeast character. You could, in fact, take nearly any wort and swap the yeast to a Belgian strain, and to a large degree the result will be overtly Belgian in character. The balance between fruity esters and spicy phenols form an organizing axis for these Belgian yeast strains. 

Despite the fact that Lacambre states that “Belgium is a wheat-beer brewing country,” none of these styles incorporate more than an occasional head-boosting dollop of wheat or other grain. They may be all-malt, but the stronger ones typically incorporate sugar to lighten the body; in dark beers these also add flavor and color. The paler beers typically use the palest pils malt available, bringing clean malted milk ball character and sometimes overtones of fresh grass or hay, offering a surprising amount of depth. 

Classic saisons are usually quite pale. Michael Jackson, in his legendary 1972 World Guide to Beer says that “saison” was just a term used by some Southern Belgian brewers for their golden ales. Historically from Antwerp, Belgian pale ales range from golden to amber, so are built on a base of pale and/or pils malt, and have room for just a bit of extra color and flavor: biscuit, Vienna, caramel 10 or 20 and others. 

The dark group often relies on mid-colored malts for both color and flavor. On the one hand are the moist-kilned Vienna (3–4 °L/6–8 EBC), Munich (6–12 °L/12–25 EBC), and darker variants like dark Munich and melanoidin/aromatic (15–33 °L/30–66 EBC). These range from light sweet caramel to cake- and cookie-like sweet toastiness. On the other hand are various crystal/caramel malts with their candy, raisin, prune and burnt sugar notes from kilning after an in-husk saccharification. A particularly potent favorite is the legendary “Special B,” a very dark caramel (~125 °L/250 EBC) originated by DeWolf-Cosyns malting. All of these can be really characterful, but require a deft touch, as too much can overwhelm anything else and cause problems with premature oxidation, evidenced by leathery notes. A proprietary malt called “Honey Malt” from Gambrinus seems halfway between caramel and conventional malts and can also be useful—or you can blend for the character you want. Be aware that all these mid-colored malts are uniquely sensitive to manufacturing specifics, so each has a unique flavor that is not interchangeable with others. 

While all us old-time homebrewers have been conditioned to avoid the use of sugar in brewing, these Belgian styles are a best case for their use. The term “candy sugar” is widely used, but I find it way too vague, preferring more specific terms: candy syrup, brown sugar, unrefined sugar and others, which describe distinctly different products. The classic use of sugar is the iconic strong golden ale Duvel, which uses 20% dextrose (corn sugar) simply to boost the alcohol to 8.5% a/v without adding body or color. This makes the beer dangerously drinkable and a capable food companion—as it does for all these stronger Belgian types.  

Brewers of darker beers have the option of using colored sugars to add a layer of caramelized or chocolatey flavors while still lightening the body. The dark trio of Rochefort Trappist beers are a textbook example: dark caramel syrup adds a profoundly rich, milk chocolate character that doesn’t line up with any kind of malt I can think of. Brasserie d’Achouffe reportedly gets all their color from caramel syrups, which are available in a range from golden to deep brown. 

Belgian brown brewers’ sugar is also available. It’s not clear how this is made, but American brown sugar is simply white sugar with molasses added, lacking the caramelization found in the syrups. I’ve also brewed these styles with a wide range of artisanal sugars: Latin piloncillo/panela, Thai palm sugar and dark gula jawa, Filipino panutsa, Brazilian rapadura, Indian jaggery and rummy Barbados sugar. None of these are traditional, but they make lovely “secret” ingredients for that extra depth. There’s no magic, by the way, in beet sugar or those huge crystals of rock candy. 

Hops are not the centerpiece of any of these beers, but are featured in the paler beers. European hops such as Saaz and Styrian (in Duvel) are classic, but of course incremental variants such as Glacier and Celeia, more characterful varieties such as Hüll melon, Hallertau Blanc and newer tropically-tinged varieties can all be useful. Even in the darker beers, the bitterness of hops can be a necessary counterpoint to the maltiness, keeping their drinkability going. By the time the imported beers make their journey to your glass a continent away from home, the hops tend to be a little tired out. Fresher ones are more vibrant in their hop character. 

Water plays no special role here, but should follow normal good brewing practice, providing a minimum of 50 ppm of calcium, and managing bicarbonate in pale, hoppy beers to somewhere below 70 ppm, allowing up to about three times that in darker brews. 

A good deal of Belgian character comes from yeast and fermentation. It’s an oversimplification, but I’ve found it useful to think of Belgian strains on a continuum with fruity/estery at one end and spicy, even smoky phenols at the other. The first is exemplified by the yeast from Brasserie d’Achouffe, which is estery with very little phenol. A warm fermentation will give you a nose-full of banana candy (isoamyl acetate). At the other end of the scale is saison yeast such as the Dupont strain: full of rich, peppery phenolic notes but producing very little fruitiness. Most other Belgian yeast strains can be placed somewhere on that axis. Another important consideration is alcohol tolerance, since many of these are 10% a/v or even higher. 

For small batches, getting the yeast to generate lots of esters is not a big issue, but in brewery conditions, hydrostatic pressure in tall cylindro-conical tanks reduces ester production. Some breweries specializing in these styles use shallow “open” fermenters to enhance this aroma character. Using less yeast (underpitching) is another technique that can enhance ester production, but it has to be balanced against the need for more yeast in high-alcohol fermentations. 

The aforementioned Duvel is an outlier. Fermentation is carried out with a Belgian strain—reputedly originating from Scotland’s McEwan’s—but a lager strain enables several weeks of lagering, smoothing out the beer and making it even easier to drink. An interesting discovery* is that many Belgian strains including some Lambics and the Trappists Chimay, Westmalle and Orval are hybrids between “normal” brewers’ yeast, Saccharomyces cerevesiae, and a “feral” species, S. kudriavzevii, which may confer additional stress tolerance and enhanced production of aroma compounds and glycerol. 

Spices are a well-known tradition in Belgian brewing, but are rare within the boundaries of these styles, brewers preferring to get their seasonings from the yeast. Step just outside into the style-free creative zone, however and you’ll find everything from orange, honey and coriander to grains of paradise, elderflower, pepper, cumin, star anise, and even stranger things like mustard and medicinal lichen. All, it should be noted, in proper proportions, enhancing the flavors from the raw ingredients transformed by the yeast. Remember, the purpose of Belgian beer is to let you ponder its mysteries, not to get clobbered over the head by them.

*Appl Environ Microbiol. 2008 Apr; 74(8): 2314–2320. 
Molecular Characterization of New Natural Hybrids of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S. kudriavzevii in Brewing
Sara S. González, Eladio Barrio and Amparo Querol
doi: 10.1128/AEM.01867-07  PMCID: PMC2293171  PMID: 18296532