Belgian Ale – What Goes Into Making This Distinctive Beer?

The BJCP Beer style guidelines category I am going to look at today is Category 24 – Belgian ales. Belgian ales are made in Belgium. Belgian-style ales are made everywhere else; sometimes they are made well, and sometimes not.

There are so many different styles of beer made in Belgium it’s impossible to squeeze them all into one category.

The 2021 BJCP style guidelines define Category 24 Belgian Ales as containing the maltier to balanced, more highly flavored Belgian and French ales.

What Makes a Beer a Belgian Ale?

I’ll go over each style separately, but keep in mind that calling a beer a Belgian ale is much like calling a beer an American Ale. These two styles encompass so many different types of beer as to seem gigantic in scope.

So, what makes a beer a Belgian ale? Well, these beers have a few characteristics in common that separate them from other beer styles. Some of these include:

  • The judicious use of spices, most commonly coriander, orange peel, chamomile, and possibly cumin, in several of their beers. Believe it or not, much of the spiciness found in Belgian beers is derived not from the spice, but from the yeast, fermentation profile, malt specifications, and hops used. When Belgian brewers do use spices, they employ them with a gentle hand, adding only nuances and subtlety rather than in-your-face spice flavors.
  • Belgian brewers use less-modified Continental malts and employ multi-step mashes to deliver a beer that is well attenuated, having a silky smooth mouthfeel and a beautiful pillowy head.
  • Belgian beers are generally very well carbonated, sometimes as high as 5 volumes of carbonation, which affect both mouthfeel and appearance. Think of Orval when imagining this characteristic.
  • A lot of the character in these beers comes from the specificyeast used. These yeast impart the typical spicy phenols and fruity esters that exemplify what most people think of as Belgian. But Belgian beers are so diverse that it is difficult to pin down very specific yeast-derived characteristics for all Belgian beers. Many, such as Belgian Pale Ales use a neutral yeast that does not impart much yeast character. When brewing to style, it is usually wise to use the proper Belgian yeast for the style being brewed, especially when brewing a saison, witbier, and biere de garde.
  • And finally, the best Belgian beers are bottle conditioned. Bottle conditioning imparts a distinct mouthfeel, carbonation, and evolution of flavor that you just can’t get from force carbonation.

24A Witbier

man holding a glass of Hoegaarden beer in his hand against the outdoor bar
Image from Wiki Commons

Belgian wheat beers, or witbiers, are normally pale and hazy with a spiciness that accentuates the yeast character. Lightly spiced, these refreshing summery drinks are moderate in strength and have a high level of carbonation with a dry finish and light hopping.


Very pale straw to deep yellow in color, the beer will be very cloudy from the starch haze or yeast and have a milky, yellow shine. A dense white mousse head should have good retention.


A moderate, bready maltiness that will often feature light notes of honey or vanilla. The wheat can give a light, grainy, spicy aromatic quality to the beer.

A witbier can exhibit aromas which can be perfumy, lemon, and coriander, often with a more complexly herbal, spicy, or peppery note in the background, and moderate zesty, citrusy-orangey fruitiness.

A low spicy-herbal hop aroma is optional but typically absent. Spices should blend in with fruity, floral, and sweet aromas and should not be overly strong.


The flavor descriptors read pretty much the same as the aroma. The pleasant, bready, grainy malt accompanied by hits of honey or vanilla also features a moderate, zesty citrus (most often orange) fruitiness.

Subtle, herby, spicy flavors can include lemony coriander and other spices but shouldn’t be overpowering. Hop bitterness is low to medium-low supporting the refreshing, fruity flavors. A spicy, earthy hop flavor may be present but should be very low.

The finish should be crisp and dry with no bitter or harsh aftertaste.


Highly carbonated, a witbier should have an effervescent character with a medium-light to medium body and should often exhibit a smoothness and light creaminess. There should be no harshness or astringency. The beer shouldn’t be too overly dry or be thick and heavy.

Characteristic Ingredients

Unmalted wheat normally makes up 40 – 60% of the grain bill with a low-color barley malt making up the rest. Some witbiers may add up to 5 – 10% raw oats or other unsalted cereal grains. Spices added traditionally include coriander seed and dried Curacao, orange peel, or zest.

A mild, fruity Belgian ale yeast is most commonly used for this style.

Vital Statistics

IBU8 - 20
SRM2 - 4
OG1.044 - 1.052
FG1.008 - 1.012
ABV4.5% - 5.5%

Additional Comments

Historic versions of Belgian witbiers may have displayed some lactic sourness but modern versions tend to lack this. With a lower bitterness level similar to a German weissbier, it has more spice and citrus coming through from the additions rather than the yeast used.

Since Hoegaarden was acquired by Interbrew the witbier style has grown rapidly and inspired many similar beers including US craft Belgian-style beers using wheat such as Blue Moon.

Commercial Examples

Allagash White, Blanche de Bruxelles, Celis White, Hoegaarden Wit, Ommegang Witte, St. Bernardus Witbier.

24B Belgian Pale Ale

Belgian Pale Ales are top-fermented pale beers, all malt, average in ABV that are moderately bitter, rarely dry hopped, and without too strong a flavor.

A copper-colored beer, it lacks the aggressive yeast character or sourness you find in many Belgian beers, instead offering a well-balanced, malty, and fruity profile, often with hints of bready or toastiness.


Amber to copper in color, the finished beer should have very good clarity. A creamy, rocky white head sits atop the well-carbonated body.


A moderate, bready malt aroma can include toasty, biscuity, or nutty notes, often with a touch of light caramel or honey. A moderate to moderately high fruitiness compliments the malt and includes hints of pear, orange, apple, or lemon and sometimes darker stone fruits such as plums.

With a low to moderate spicy herbal or floral hop aroma, it also has a low peppery taste with spicy phenols optional. It has a lower hop character than other pales, such as an American Pale Ale, and concentrates more on fruit flavors and malt.


An initial soft, smooth moderate malty flavor can feature a variable profile of toastiness, biscuity, nutty, light caramel malt often with notes of honey.

A moderate to moderately high fruitiness will commonly feature hints of pear, apple, orange, or lemon. The medium-high to medium-low bitterness is balanced with very low peppery phenols.

A dry to balanced finish is most common with hops becoming much more pronounced in Belgian Pale ales with a drier finish. Blanche is key with no single component being more pronounced, malt and fruity flavors are more forward with the supportive bitterness and dry character occurring later.


Medium to medium light body with a smooth palate. Alcohol warmth is restrained. A medium to medium-high carbonation can be lower than some other Belgian-style ales.

Characteristic Ingredients

A variable grain bill usually consists of pale and caramel malts with no adjuncts added during fermentation. English or continental hops are used and a Belgian strain of fruity yeast with low phenols is best for this type of pale ale.

Vital Statistics

IBU20 -30
SRM8 - 14
OG1.048 - 1.054
FG1.010 - 1.014
ABV4.8% - 5.5%

Additional Comments

Fairly similar to an English pale Ale the Belgian version has a slightly different yeast character and a much more varied malt profile. A Belgian Pale Ale was first created after a competition in 1904 to compete with imported British beers.

Commercial Examples

DeKoninck Bolleke, De Ryck Special, Palm, Palm Double

24C Bière de Garde

different types of bottled beers on the table
Image by Wiki Commons

Style 24C encompasses all three main variants of this style including the blond (Blonde), the brown (brunette), and the most traditional amber (ambrée).

Traditionally a family of strong French artisanal ales, this style of beer has become synonymous with the French Flanders region of Belgium. All three of the main variants are malty beers yet dry with clean flavors.

Darker versions have a more malt-orientated flavor profile while the lighter versions will use more hops while remaining malt-focused beers.


Blond, Amber, or brown variants exist with the colors respectively golden-blonde to reddish-bronze to chestnut brown. Clarity is normally brilliant but some haze is permitted. A well-formed head is generally white to off-white and has average persistence.


A prominent, malty richness is often accompanied by a complex, light to moderate intensity, toasty and bready character. Low to moderate levels of esters. The use of hops can impart a low peppery, spicy or herbal aroma but is optional.

Generally a quite clean-tasting beer, stronger versions may however have a light spicy alcohol note.

Paler versions of Biére de Garde are still malty beers but may lack the deeper rich malt aromatics and have a few more hops.


A medium to high malty richness often features notes of biscuity, toasty, toffee, or caramel characteristics. The medium to medium-low hop bitterness gives a malty balance to the palate and aftertaste. With a medium-dry to dry finish, the beer should never be sweet, cloying, or heavy. The extra flavors of pepper, spice, or herb from hops are optional in these beers.

As the beer color gets darker, the flavors of malt, the depth, richness, and complexity increase too. The beer shouldn’t have any roasted character to it though. Paler versions will often have a slightly greater hop flavor.


A medium-light to medium-bodied beer, Bière de Garde often features a creamy-silky character. Moderate to high levels of carbonation balance with a moderate alcoholic warmth but never tasting hot.

Characteristic Ingredients

A mixed malt bill varies with the color of the beer but usually includes pale malt, Vienna malt, and Munich types. Crystal-type malts of varying colors are also used. Sugar adjuncts may be added for a dryer finish.

Lager or ale yeasts tend to be used and the ale is fermented at cooler ale temperatures followed by long cold conditioning. Continental hops are used in varying quantities, more in lighter beers.

IBU18 - 28
SRM6 - 19
OG1.060 - 1.080
FG1.008 - 1.016
ABV6% - 8.5%

Additional Comments

Bière de Garde is a beer that can be kept, but if you get a musty character to the beer it’s normally a sign of mishandling at the import stage and a sign that it is not a fresh, authentic product. Age and oxidation can increase the fruitiness and caramel flavors but also increases the harshness.

When entered into competitions the beer should be specified as blonde versions, amber, or brown Bière de Garde. If no color is given a judge should attempt to judge the beer based on their initial observations of the color and expect a malt profile that matches that color.

Commercial Examples

Ch’Ti Blonde, Jenlain Ambrée, La Choulette Brune, Russian River Perdition, Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts Blonde, Two Brothers Domaine Dupage.

This blog is reader-supported. Posts may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.