Christmas beers are a long-standing tradition with Belgian brewers, and the practice of making a special brew for the holidays has quite a history in other parts of Europe and a growing appeal with American craft brewers as well.
Scandinavia's tradition of Christmas beers goes back to the Vikings, who celebrated the Winter Solstice with Jul (Yule) beers, which each household was required to brew by law. Wassailing (the predecessor to Christmas caroling) was the practice of going from house to house and singing songs in exchange for strong beers. If the beer was not strong enough, there were consequences for that house. Later on, 19th Century brewers in Britain, Germany and Belgium traditionally offered stronger beers during the holidays as a "thank you" to their loyal patrons. The Belgians, who already used non-traditional ingredients in their beers, often added fruits, herbs and spices to their holiday offerings.
Beers like Gouden Carolus Noel, Stille Nacht and Scaldis Prestige bring unique flavor profiles to the Christmas season. When Stella Artois was first introduced in 1926, it was a special Christmas beer. "Stella" means "star" - the Star of Bethlehem.
Christmas beers are less of a style than a tradition. There are hardly two alike, although most are stronger than their year-round counterparts and often have some combination of fruits, spices or flavorings added to give them a seasonal festiveness.
Another type of Belgian holiday beer that goes well at Christmas or New Years is Biere Brut or Champagne beer. These are very pale beers that resemble fine champagnes and are made using traditional champagne processes. Deus and Malheur are the two most well-known names, and Infinium - a collaboration between Samuel Adams and Weihenstephan - is also excellent.
There are lots of great Christmas beers out there and no holiday season is complete without enjoying a few of them on these cold winter nights or at your holiday table. Raise a toast to the season!
Once a farm-brewed beer for migrant workers, Saisons are now brewed year-round in Belgium and have become popular with many craft breweries in the U.S.
Saisons originated in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, especially in the Hainaut district, southeast of Brussels. The name Saison means "season" in French. Saisons were farmhouse ales brewed by farmers for their personal consumption and for "saisoniers" - seasonal farm workers.
They were traditionally brewed in the cool months - from September through March - then stored in cellars for consumption during the summer and at harvest time. As the popularity of these beers grew, farm brewing gave way to year-round production in artisanal breweries that distributed the beers well beyond their agricultural places of origin.
The Saison Style
Because they were originally brewed on farms, there are many variations on the style with no hard-and-fast style guidelines. The style became more defined as larger breweries began producing it, although there are still many variations to this day. Saisons are crisp, dry, refreshing and hoppy with a golden to bronze color, slight haze and dense white head. Their effervescence is the result of natural carbonation (bottle conditioning) - traditionally in champagne bottles. They are dry and well-attenuated with a quenching acidity. One thing all Saisons share is their characterful yeasts, which give the beers a lactic tartness, phenolic spiciness and complex fruit esters. The warmer the fermentation, the more pronounced these characteristics are.
Saisons are very versatile and pair well with a wide variety of foods. They are especially good with smoked, cured and grilled meats and full-flavored cheeses. The spiciness and bold flavors of Saisons may overwhelm lighter dishes but are excellent with spicy or intensely flavored foods, fish soups and stews and Asian or Middle Eastern dishes. They also go well with robust salads and other summer dishes.
Saison Tasting Panel
The Bruz tasting panel recently tasted a number of commercial Saisons from both Belgian and North American breweries.
The panel thought Saison Dupont was as good as ever. It has been touted by some as one of the best beers in the world - largely due to its unique yeast, which has been described as "a yeast among yeasts - touched by God." Another panel favorite was Funkwerks Saison, which was flavorful, well-balanced and very drinkable, with a depth of complexity. Ommegang's Hennepin was also a standout - intricate and complex with a smooth thirst-quenching character. Firestone Walker's Opal was a different, but very pleasant, interpretation of the style and Crooked Stave's Surette Provision Saison was complex, flavorful and well-crafted. Our Bruz Beers Winter Solstice Saison was tart and citrusy with a lively flavor profile and a touch more alcohol than most. The Lost Abbey's Saison Blanc was cleanly made and tasty, but lacked the intense character of many of the other examples. Fantome's Pissenlit (dandelion infused) Saison was dull and disappointing.
Join us as we take in-depth looks at other Belgian styles in the weeks and months to come as part of our ongoing Belgian Style blog series.
When Pilsener Urquell introduced its clear golden lager beer in 1842, it started a revolution in European beer. Beers no longer had to be dark and cloudy or be hidden in pewter or earthenware drinking vessels. Over the decades that followed, the clear golden beers began to be served in glasses and became the rage in Europe. Everyone wanted pilsners. Darker beers - including many of the great traditional beers of Belgium - were waning in popularity. Belgian brewers needed to find ways to compete.
In the early 1930s, brewing scientist and yeast specialist Hendrik Verlinden of the Drie Linden brewery experimented with a golden ale to compete with pilsners and other popular golden lagers. In 1932, he released Witkap Pater, a tripel ale. He also helped the Westmalle Trappist brewery develop their Tripel, which they had been working on for some time.
At the time, it was commonplace for Trappist breweries to name their beers based on strength with the designations enkel (single), dubbel and tripel - corresponding to 3, 6 and 9 percent alcohol. All three strengths would have been darker beers. When Westmalle released its first Tripel in 1934, it was a strong golden ale - and proved to be a real game-changer. In 1956, Westmalle changed the recipe slightly to include more hops and it has remained unchanged since then. To this day, many consider Westmalle Tripel to be the standard by which all other tripels are measured. And there are many to be measured - from Trappist, abbey, secular and American craft breweries.
Tripels are strong beers that are bright yellow to deep golden in color with a big, dense, creamy ivory head. They have a spicy phenolic, fruity and complex aroma with a distinct Belgian yeast character. They aremalty and evenly balanced with hops and alcohol. Tripels get their rich maltiness from a high percentage (as high as 100%) of Belgian pilsner malt with a small percentage of specialty malts such as aromatic and light crystal. Some tripels - like Tripel Karmeliet - add small portions of wheat and oats as well. Tripels also include as much as 20 percent Belgian candi (beet) sugar to lighten the body of the beer and produce a dry finish. Tripels are typically in the 8 to 12 percent alcohol range. They have a complex, rich, sweet, malty flavor that finishes dry and clean.
Tripels are hoppy in their aroma with a substantial bitterness - up to 40 IBUs. The hops and the malt are generally in balance with additional bitterness provided by the alcohol, which tends to stay well-hidden. Hops are typically floral and herbal varieties from Germany, England, France, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. Belgian yeast definitely leaves its mark on tripels with spicy phenols (clove, nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon) and fruity esters (banana, apple, pear, apricot). Some brewers add small amounts of actual spices to their brew kettles for added depth of complexity. Most Belgian tripels are bottle conditioned (naturally carbonated in the bottle), which produces a soft texture, gentle carbonation, big pillowy head and added complexity.
Tripels are majestic beers. Both simple and complex - with high alcohol and restrained intensity - tripels are truly divine!
While IPAs still top the charts as the most popular beer style in the US, there is little doubt that sour beers are the up and coming genre of beer. Rare on this side of the pond only a few years ago, craft breweries large and small are now cranking out amazing sour beers. Sour imports from Europe - especially Belgium - are arriving in record numbers and supply is not keeping up with demand. In this post, we will take a high-level look at the range of sour beers. In future posts, we will focus on specific styles of sours.
What are Sour Beers and Why Are They So Popular?
Sour - or high-acid beers - actually go back hundreds of years with origins in Belgium, Germany and England. What gives them their distinct tart flavors and complexity are various combinations of wild yeasts and beneficial bacteria strains.
Hops were not always the dominant flavoring agent of beer that they are today. The brewer needed something to offset the sweetness of the malt in their beers. Blends of bitter herbs, called gruit, were used to that purpose. Gruit often contained hops and eventually hops replaced the other bitter herbs. But, some Belgian and German brewers learned how to sour their beers, which also served to offset the sweetness of the malt. Because sour beers are labor-intensive and require long maturation times, they remained regional specialties - until recently.
A Wealth of Microflora
Most beers are fermented with pure strains of brewers yeast and brewers go to great lengths to keep those strains pure. Sour beers, on the other hand, rely on wild yeasts and bacteria for fermentation. These microorganisms give sour beers their distinct tartness, funkiness and complexity. Where do these microorganisms come from? They are in the air everywhere - especially during the summer months. Go into a vineyard. The white powdery stuff on the grapes is wild yeast. It's actually hard to find any place on earth that does not have colonies of wild yeast and bacteria in abundance. In the days before brewers understood yeast, bacteria and microorganisms in general, they didn't have to seek out wild microflora; the microflora found the beer. Probably the only thing that kept the wild stuff from souring all beers was the fact that the tartness and funkiness take a while to develop and most beers were consumed young.
Sour beers get their tartness from strains of lactic bacteria - predominately Lactobacillus delbrueckii and Pediococcus cerevisiae. They get their barnyard funk from various strains of Brettanomyces yeast, often referred to as "brett." In addition to these, many sours contain other microflora as well. In Belgian Lambic breweries, great care is taken to not disturb the environment of the brewery for fear that the unique combination of microflora might be altered or lost altogether, thus changing the unique personality of that brewery's beers.
Brewing Sour Beers
Sour beers are brewed pretty much like regular beers - with various malted and unmalted grains, water, hops and yeast. The magic happens during extended fermentation. After primary fermentation, during which most of the beer's fermentable sugars are metabolized by the yeast, wild yeasts and bacteria continue to feed on trace sugars, proteins and any other nutrients to be found in the beer. This nutrient-poor environment stresses these microorganisms, causing the production of various compounds that give the beer its tartness and funkiness. This is a slow process that can take from 18 to 36 months, although modern brewers use various techniques like kettle souring and special yeast/bacteria strains to speed up the souring process.
Sour beer fermentation takes place in stainless fermenters or, more traditionally, oak barrels. When barrels are used, the souring microflora imbed themselves in the wood of the cask and that cask becomes an ongoing vessel for the production of sour beers, adding flavor and complexity. Sour barrels are highly prized by brewers.
Following extended fermentation, the sour beers are often blended with other sour or non-sour beers. Blending is important because the souring process is often inconsistent - with significant variations from barrel to barrel. Blending allows the brewer to produce a consistent product year after year. Once blended, the beers are often bottled and given additional aging.
Types of Sour Beers
Belgian sours are undoubtably the most classic styles of high-acid beers, with several major style categories. Lambic beers from the Senne Valley are intensely sour and very funky beers made from a combination of unmalted wheat and barley malt. They typically get up to three years of aging before they are released and are often blended. Some lambics are also mascerated with various fruits - notably tart cherries and raspberries - a practice that pre-dates hops as the primary flavoring agent for the beers.
West and East Flanders ales are other styles of Belgian sour beers. Flanders Red ales from West Flanders are deep red beers with distinct stone fruit flavors, lactic souring and a touch of vinegar on the palate. Flanders Brown ales from East Flanders are darker, more brown, and maltier.
A number of other types of Belgian ales, including the Trappist beer Orval, employ wild yeasts and bacteria to impart a lighter citrusy tartness to the aroma and flavor profiles.
German Sours include Berliner Weisse - a low-alcohol wheat beer with a tart and effervescent profile. Berliner Weisse was dubbed the "Champagne of the North" by Napoleon's troops because it reminded them of Champagne. Another German sour - Gose - has a light tartness and a bit of salt, which enhances it.
American sours are the new kids on the block, but are fueling the current public interest in sour beers in the U.S. While some American sours are modeled after their European counterparts, the creativity inherent in the American beer renaissance is driving the creation of whole new styles of sour beers utilizing innovative ingredients and specialized brewing techniques.
We will explore all these styles of sour beers in detail in future blog posts.
Sour Beers are Here to Stay
Not too many years ago, the tradition of sour beers in Belgium and elsewhere was in danger of dying out. The beers took a long time to make, were labor intensive and sold for the same price as more ordinary beers. The American beer renaissance changed all that by driving U.S. demand for imported sours while creating a strong market for American versions of sour ales. This new generation of sour beer lovers will no doubt sustain the sour market for many years to come.
Belgian Dubbels date back to the Middle Ages, where they were brewed by monks in monasteries, as a few still are today. The style lost popularity for a period but was revived after the Napoleonic era by the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle in 1856. The new brown beer was stronger and darker than the Abbey's previous brews and in 1926 it was again reformulated and became even stronger. After World War II, Westmalle's "dubbel" beer became popular in Belgium and began to be imitated by other breweries, Trappist and secular. Thus the Dubbel style emerged.
Dubbels are moderately strong (6 to 8.5% ABV) brown ales with an understated bitterness, a full body, a distinct dark fruitiness, a rich malty character and mild alcohol warmth. They are complex with hints of chocolate, nuts, raisins, dates, plums, spicy phenolics and pronounced yeast flavors and aromas. Caramelized candi (beet) sugar syrups contribute rum and dried fruit flavors and give the beer a dry finish. Dubbels are traditionally bottle-conditioned (refermented in the bottle), giving them a dense, persistent head.
Trappist dubbels include Westmalle, Koningshoeven/La Trappe, Chimay and Achel. Abbey dubbels include Affligem, Grimbergen, Maredsous, Corsendonk and St. Feuillien. Allagash, Ommegang, New Belgium and The Lost Abbey are among the many American craft breweries making traditional dubbels.
The Bruz tasting panel gathered recently to taste a selection of Belgian and American dubbels. Included were Westmalle, Maredsous, New Belgium, Ommegang, Lost Abbey, and Bruz's offerings. The panelists' scores and rankings are shown below.
The Ommegang Abbey Ale, Maredsous Brune and Westmalle Dubbel were all within two points of each other. Ommegang came in at number one with its beautiful balance, dried fruit and pepper notes and silky texture. Maredsous was number two with a big, rich malt complexity, caramel notes and creamy texture. Westmalle was number three - rich and malty with dark fruit esters, creamy mouthfeel, pleasant carbonation and dry finish. Bruz Trubbel was number four - complex with cherry, plum and dried fruit notes and a soft creamy texture. The panel found New Belgium's Abbey to be well-made but lacking complexity and Lost Abbey's Lost & Found was infected and off.
When we think of Belgian beers, we often think of monks and monasteries, and few beers live up to that image more than Belgian Dubbels. With cooler weather approaching, they're just the thing for a chilly autumn night!
Before the 1840s, all beers were either dark or hazy. Around that time, maltsters developed ways of indirectly heating their kilns and made pale malts possible. When Czech brewers in Plzen created Plzeňský Prazdroj (Pilsener Urquell) - the first clear golden lager - in 1842, they set off a major transformation of European beers. Beer began to be served in glasses rather than wooden, metal or earthenware vessels. Pale golden beers became all the rage in Europe, to the detriment of darker brews. In response to the "blond invasion" many brewers began to offer competing products. This was the case with Belgium's Trappist and Abbey breweries.
Belgian Blond Ales
Blond Ales are among the most popular of the Trappist and Abbey beers. Blond ales are clear, golden, moderate-strength ales with a subtle Belgian complexity, a slightly sweet flavor and a dry finish. They are typically between 5.8 and 8.0% alcohol and some, but not all, examples have a pronounced hop bitterness. Blonds are very drinkable beers - good on their own or with a variety of foods.
While there are a few Trappist Blonds, most of them are Abbey beers. Abbey beers differ from Trappist beers in that none of the abbeys owns or operates its own brewery. Brewing is contracted with independent brewers - many of which have been acquired by large brewing conglomerates in recent years. Trappist beers, on the other hand, are brewed in working abbeys by actual monks.
Singles, Doubles and Triples
Back in the day, most monastery beers were dark, malty and not well attenuated or alcoholic. They were primarily a food source for the monks, especially during Lent when the monks were not allowed to eat during the day. Malt sugars are nutritious, alcohol is not. To this day, the beer served with meals at monasteries is around 3.0% ABV and is rarely seen outside the monastery. Stronger beers might be served on religious holidays, offered to guests or sold commercially.
The brewing method to produce monastery beers involved a strong mash and then running three charges of water to rinse all the fermentable sugars from the grains. The first runnings produced the strongest beer - the Triple (Tripel). The second runnings produced the Double (Dubbel) and the third runnings produced the Single (table beer). While originally all three of these beers would have been dark, the need to compete with Pilsners caused brewers to lighten some of their beers. Tripels nowadays are golden beers. Dubbels are traditionally dark, but some double-strength beers - in a trend started by Leffe - are now golden in color and are known as Blonds. Most of the Abbey brewers have a Blond Ale in their lineup.
Leffe Blond was the first Blond Ale and is still one of the most popular. It is clear and golden with clove aromas, orange fruitiness on the palate, a dry finish and is 6.6% ABV. Leffe Abbey dates back to 1152. Their current licensing agreement with the brewery that produces the beer is believed to have been the first of its kind.
Another well-established Blond is made by Affligem - which dates back to the 9th century and is located in what was once a thriving hop-growing region. Affligem Blond has a clean fruitiness with citrusy notes, a dry maltiness and a crisp, fragrant finish. Affligem also produces several beers, including a Blond ale, for the abbey of Postel.
Other Abbey Blond ales include Grimbergen, Ciney, Het Kapittel, Maredsous, St Feuillien, Val-Dieu, Augustijn, Pater Lieven, Petrus, Ramee, St Bernardus, and Witkap. The styles of these beers vary somewhat and range in strength from 6.5 to 8.0% ABV.
There are also four Trappist Blonds. Westvleteren Blonde - at 5.8% alcohol - replaced the abbey's other low-gravity table beers. Achel Blond - from Belgium's newest Trappist monastery - comes in at a hefty 8% ABV. La Trappe Blond - from the Koningshoeven Abbey in the Netherlands and Stift Engelszell Benno - from the only Trappist brewery in Austria - round out the Trappist Blond Ale lineup.
Of course, Belgian-style Blonds are brewed by many U.S. craft breweries, a number of whom rival their European counterparts in terms of flavor and quality.
Rating Belgian Blond Ales
Bruz Beers recently conducted a tasting of Belgian Blonds. Our panel of five judges tasted and rated five Belgian Blonds and Bruz's Blond Ale offering. The judges rated the beers on a 25-point scale and commented on their key characteristics.
The panel liked Leffe Blond best, calling it "Classic - crisp and well-balanced with banana and pepper notes and a dry finish." Bruz Blondy came in second. The panel found it "Clean, complex and a bit spicy with nice fruit and floral notes and light carbonation." Number three was Engelszell Benno, with "A very pleasant aroma and hints of maple, caramel and olives in the flavor profile." Maredsous Blond was number four and described as "Clean with a dry finish, but lacking complexity." The sample of Achel Blond had picked up a bacterial infection (gusher) and was "Hazy with oxidized flavors and aromas." The panel liked the Bink Blond least, calling it "Dry, overly bitter and one-dimensional with grass and cardamom flavors." Overall, tasting these beers back-to-back was an excellent opportunity to taste and compare these beers together - allowing a comparison of subtle nuances and variations on the style.
Belgian Blond Ales are interesting and refreshing beers that offer true Belgian character and drinkability.
One of the most interesting varieties of Belgian beer is often less like a beer and more like another fine beverage - wine. Often referred to as the "Burgundies of Belgium," Flanders ales are the most wine-like of any beers in the world. In fact, their sister region in France is the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. Aged for between eight months and three years in oak casks in the presence of microorganisms like Lactobacillus and Pediococcus (bacteria), Acetobacters (vinegar) and Brettanomyces (wild yeast), Flanders ales have a tart acidity that gives them a unique flavor profile.
Flanders ales tend to be very complex with distinct fruit flavors of cherry, plum, prune, raisin, raspberry or orange. They typically derive vanilla and spice notes and tannins from the oak casks they are aged in - contributing to their wine-like character. Since hops and sourness do not complement each other, Flanders ales are light on hops - less than 10 IBUs. Alcoholic strength is generally 4% to 6% or slightly higher.
Blending for Consistency and Flavor
Like many fine wines, Flanders ales are often blended. Because sour beers tend to vary quite a bit from barrel to barrel, brewers will blend different casks together to produce a consistent "signature flavor profile." Older beers (up to three years old) are often blended with younger beers (as young as six months old) to round out the intensity of the older beer and make it more drinkable. This was a technique Flemish brewers borrowed from English porter makers in the 19th Century and adapted to sour beer production.
West Flanders Red Ales
Flanders ales fall into two distinct camps. West Flanders Red Ales are produced in the western part of Belgium, near Bruges, and have a distinct lactic tartness, stone fruit flavors, a deep reddish-brown color and enormous complexity. The best-known examples of Flanders Red Ales are from Rodenbach, in the town of Roeselare. Other good Flanders Reds included Duchesse de Bourgogne, Vichtenaar, Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge and Monk's Cafe.
East Flanders Brown Ales - "Oud Bruins"
East Flanders Brown Ales - sometimes referred to as "Oud Bruin" (Old Brown) are also tart, but less so than their West Flanders cousins. They are maltier, deep brown in color, quite complex and sometimes a bit higher in alcohol. Oftentimes Flanders Brown ales are aged in stainless steel rather than oak and lack the oak characteristics of their cousins to the west. The definitive example of an East Flanders Brown is Liefmans Goudenband. Others include Vander Ghinste Oud Bruin, Petrus Oud Bruin and Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck Bacchus Flemish Brown.
Flanders-style American Sour Ales
Not surprisingly, with the popularity of sour beers on the rise in the United States, many craft breweries are taking on the challenge of producing Flanders-style ales. New Belgium, The Lost Abbey, Russian River, The Bruery, Odell's and a host of others are producing excellent - and quite authentic - versions of West and East Flanders ales. Look for that trend to continue for many years to come.
Flanders Beer Cuisine
Belgian cuisine is, without question, some of the finest in Europe. While the French, Italians and Spanish like to cook with wine, the Belgians prefer to cook with beer. One of their most-loved dishes is Carbonnade Flamande - Flemish Beef Stew. The beer it's made with? You guessed it - Flanders ale. Carbonnade is one of my all-time favorite Belgian dishes and I feel compelled to share the recipe here, because the cold winter months are the perfect time to enjoy it. One thing I'll mention now. There is a fair bit of debate over whether the beer to use should be a West Flanders Red or an East Flanders Brown. There are merits to both and one of the best batches I ever made used a small bottle of each. Whichever beer you go with, once you try it, you'll be hooked!
- (3) pounds chuck roast - cut into 1.5" cubes
- (2) 11.2 oz bottles OR (1) 750 ml bottle of Flanders Red or Brown ale
- (4) slices bacon - diced
- (3) onions (medium) - sliced thin
- (4) cloves garlic - chopped
- (4) Tablespoons olive oil
- (3) Tablespoons all-purpose flour
- (1.5) cups beef broth
- (2) bay leaves
- (4) sprigs fresh thyme
- (1) Tablespoon whole grain mustard
- (1) Tablespoon dark brown sugar
- Salt and pepper to taste
- (1) cup chopped parsley plus more for garnish
- Marinate the beef for at least two hours or overnight in the beer, garlic, 1/4 teaspoon salt and the bay leaves.
- Remove the beer and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the marinade.
- Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven and, working in batches, brown beef on all sides. Set aside.
- In the same dutch oven, fry bacon until crisp and golden. Set aside with beef.
- Lower heat and fry onions in bacon grease until caramelized - about 20 minutes.
- Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until flour is browned.
- Add the beef broth and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the marinade, the beef, the bacon and the thyme.
- Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for 1.5 hours.
- Add the brown sugar, the parsley, the mustard and freshly ground pepper. Cook for another 30 minutes.
- Sprinkle with fresh parsley and serve with buttered egg noodles or french fries and a bottle of Flanders ale!