Belgian ales are made in Belgium. Belgian style ales are made everywhere else; sometimes they are made well, and sometimes not. In the new 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, these beers are roughly categorized based on alcohol content and their balance. The stronger, less malty and more bitter, well-attenuated beers with more yeast character are grouped in Category 25 Strong Belgian Ale. This category is for the maltier to balanced and “more highly flavored” (per the style guidelines) Belgian and French ales such as:
I’m not sure I quite understand the “more highly flavored” descriptor, except possibly for Witbiers which are typically spiced. The conundrum comes from putting Belgian Pale Ales in this category and then in the description saying that they are “somewhat less aggressive in flavor profile than many other Belgian beers”. I’m not here to quibble with the descriptions or categories, but if you are studying for the current BJCP exam, just keep in mind this little discrepancy.
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 are derived not from 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 come from the specific yeast 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.
Brewing a Belgian style ale or an Abbey ale shouldn’t be as difficult as many make it out (or a Belgian Lager either for that matter). Choose an appropriate Continental malt, utilize a multi-step mash, ferment with the correct Belgian yeast if the style calls for yeast derived flavors and attenuation levels, bottle-condition in thick bottles, use spices sparingly and aim for high carbonation. If you must use a single temperature mash schedule with well-modified American malts, mash in the 146°–149°F (63°–65°C) range and you will get very close.