Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 16- Belgian and French Ales

1 06 2010

Belgium has gained a lot of attention from beer drinkers these days. With its sour, tart or spicy farmhouse ales; monks brewing double, triple or even quadruple strength beers; and its exotic sounding names Belgium is full of mystery and intrigue. All of this is made more exciting by the deliciousness of the beers.

We have mentioned before that there are times when the BCJP falls down on the job. This is none more evident than when the BJCP takes on Belgium. Germany has no fewer than four style categories dedicated to their region. The British Isles have seven! But Belgium only has three categories with fifteen subcategories.

This could be because, as we mentioned before, the Belgian’s don’t really care for beer styles. Their beers are more of an expression ingredients, location, and personality. They are beers steeped in tradition that are passed down from brewer to brewer in a system of apprenticeship. In very real ways, the BJCP is an attempt of people to put guidelines on a tradition that eschews guidelines. While I was never at a meeting where the BJCP guidelines were designed, I can imagine that unable to find a way to connect witbier and saison and pale ales and all those weird Belgo-American or Belgo-Anglo styles, they just gave up and grouped them all into one big generic “Belgian Ale” category.

So we will try to go a little bit slower in this category and try to unpack a bit more about the history and over all “vibe” of each subcategory as technical notes and overreaching generalizations do little here to help make these beers any less mysterious.

If I do say so myself, we did a pretty good job with the history of Belgian Witbiers here. The important thing to remember with Belgian Wits is that they nearly went extinct last century. It was the work of Pierre Celis and Hoegaarden that ensured we still have them today. With a wheat base and spiced with orange peel and coriander, these beers are extremely refreshing. It is important to note here, just like they did in the style guidelines that Belgian Witbiers are very fragile and do not age well. Don’t sit on one for a while expecting it to improve with age. Drink them young and fresh.

Belgium began picking up the Pale Ale trend shortly after England invented the style. While it is a currently innocuous country now, it once was a major world super power with trading colonies around the world (how else would they get the orange peel and spices for witbier?). Belgian Pale Ales resembled English Pale Ales but with a noticeably more malt forward palate. Belgians tend to shy away from hops and their local strains of hops are subdued, even compared to other Continental varieties. It wasn’t until the 1930’s when British troops were stationed in Belgium that the style really took hold. As the English looked for beers that resembled what they were used to, many Belgian brewers began brewing stronger, English-style pale ales using English hops and Continental malts. They even went as far as importing English yeast strains. The result is a very sweet, round and fruity beer with subtle, yet crisp hop back end.

Saison’s are a style that have begun gaining more attention in the United States. Originally brewed in the French speaking region of Belgium known as Wallonia, these beers were brewed in the spring season (“Saison” in French) and consumed through the hot summer months. These beers were often brewed by farmers for their families and laborers. It was rare to have these beers brewed by professional breweries, unless they were small and local. The result of these small, localized batches is a sense of terroir or locality. Spicy, crisp and grassy notes are reminiscent of a country meadow on a spring day.

Biere de Garde is a similar style to the Saison from Northern France. Brewed in the spring and stored for consumption in the summer months, the technique is similar to a Saison or even a lager. “Bier de Garde” means “Aged beer” or “Cellared beer.” While saisons are spicy and tart, Bier de Gaard focus more on malt sweetness and may have a more round, mellow, and “aged” taste to them. The come in three varieties: brown, blonde, and amber. The darker types are more sweet and malt forward while the lighter types are more hops and yeast forward but still retain a focus on malt.

Recently, many Belgian brewers have been exploring with English, German, Irish and American styles. And likewise, many American brewers are exploring Belgian styles. The results are a Frankenstein mish-mash of yeast, hops, and malt. Take an IPA and use a Trappist yeast; you have a Belgian IPA. Explore what Lactobaccilous can do with a stout; you have a sour stout. Add Belgian cherries to a cream ale… The BJCP has grouped all these mutant styles into one subcategory (Belgian Specialty Ales). It is a style so vast and open ended that it lacks all technical notes and merely offers a list of some styles that could fit into the category. The World Beer Cup has attempted to standardize this category by bringing it up from a subcategory to a full on category with many subcategories.

Better Know Your Beer Style: Category 16- Belgian and French Ales

Photo Credit: Andrew Turner CC

Aroma: Witbiers are known for their wheaty and spicy notes with hints of citrus, vanilla, and pepper. Pale ales have malty notes with toast, roast, biscuit and caramel notes with subtle, earthy hops. Saisons have grassy, tangy and slightly sour funk notes. Biere de Garde is more malt forward with slight, sweet and sour notes.

Appearance: Milky white to light yellow with firm but rocky head for saisons and witts. Pale ales are copper to toasty brown with bright brown highlights and a tan, consistent head that dissipates quickly. Biere de Garde comes blonde, brown, or amber.

Flavor: Citrusy sweet and peppery spice. Pleasantly sweet with vanilla or honey for witts. Hop notes are earthy and balancing but never get in the way. Yeast forward with bright spritziness. Pale ales are round and fruity with light spiciness. No hop flavor is present but it is very well balanced. Saisons are spicy with notes of white peppercorn, grass, and lemon verbena. Malt is slight but creates a good backbone to balance yeast and hops. Slight funk is present on back end and hops are earthy and spicy. Very dry finish with crisp, clean finish. Biere de Garde is malt forward with toast, caramel, and toffee. Low to no hop flavor to help balance the malt. Yeast is round with some fruit esters.

Mouthfeel: Creamy, clean and refreshing for witts. Smooth and medium bodied with no alcohol warmth and medium carbonation for pale ales. Crisp, dry and strong carbonation for saisons and Biere de Garde.

Technical Notes:
Original Gravity:
Final Gravity: 1.002-1.012
IBUs: 10-35
SRM: 2-19
ABV: 4.5-8.5%

Commercial Examples:
Hoegaarden Wit, St. Bernardus Blanche, Celis White, Vuuve 5, Brugs Tarwebier (Blanche de Bruges), Wittekerke, Allagash White, Blanche de Bruxelles, Ommegang Witte, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Sterkens White Ale, Bell’s Winter White Ale, Victory Whirlwind Witbier, Hitachino Nest White Ale
Pale Ale: De Koninck, Speciale Palm, Dobble Palm, Russian River Perdition, Ginder Ale, Op-Ale, St. Pieters Zinnebir, Brewer’s Art House Pale Ale, Avery Karma, Eisenbahn Pale Ale, Ommegang Rare Vos
Saison: Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Saison de Pipaix, Saison Regal, Saison Voisin, Lefebvre Saison 1900, Ellezelloise Saison 2000, Saison Silly, Southampton Saison, New Belgium Saison, Pizza Port SPF 45, Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale, Ommegang Hennepin
Biere de Garde: Jenlain (amber), Jenlain Biere de Printemps (blond), St. Amand (brown), La Choulette (all 3 versions), La Choulette Biere des Sans Culottes (blond), Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts (blond), Biere Nouvelle (brown), Castelain (blond), Jade (amber), Brasseurs Biere de Garde (amber), Southampton Biere de Garde (amber), Lost Abbey Avante Garde (blond)
Specialty Ale:Orval; De Dolle’s Arabier, Oerbier, Boskeun and Stille Nacht; La Chouffe, McChouffe, Chouffe Bok and Nice Chouffe; Ellezelloise Hercule Stout and Quintine Amber; Unibroue Ephemere, Maudite, Don de Dieu, etc.; Minty; Zatte Bie; Caracole Amber, Saxo and Nostradamus; Silenrieu Sara and Joseph; Fanteme Black Ghost and Speciale Noel; Dupont Moinette, Moinette Brune, and Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont; St. Fullien Noel; Gouden Carolus Noel; Affligem Npel; Guldenburg and Pere Noel; De Ranke XX Bitter and Guldenberg; Poperings Hommelbier; Bush (Scaldis); Moinette Brune; Grottenbier; La Trappe Quadrupel; Weyerbacher QUAD; Biere de Miel; Verboden Vrucht; New Belgium 1554 Black Ale; Cantillon Iris; Russian River Temptation; Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme and Devotion, Lindemans Kriek and Framboise, and many more




One response

1 06 2010
Johnny Automatic

Good breakdown on Belgians. I used to think I did not like Belgians. That was too broad a statement. I now can say I don’t really care for bottled saisons. I have had American takes on them at The Bruery and enjoy them fresh, but all their charm is lost for me once they are bottled. I’m also picky about my Witbiers. I just prefer a different flavor profile most times. But I’ve also found some amazing brews that probably all fall into the specialty ale category.

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