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.