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If you follow me on Twitter @NinosWineExpert or read my blogs, you will already know that I am a huge beer fan. I do not claim to be a Cicerone, a beer expert, in any way. I’m just a girl who loves drinking unique and flavorful beers and sharing my experiences with friends and customers alike. I have spent a lot of time blogging about Michigan beers and their styles. However, I have not expressed my love of Belgian beers. When most people think of a Belgian-style beer, they think of citrusy, light, spiced wheat beers like Hoegaarden–my personal favorite. However, Belgium has many styles of beers, from rich, dark, strong ales like Westmalle Dubble to sweet, fruit-flavored Lambics like Lindeman’s.
Though there are no hard-and-fast rules to Belgium brewing, there are a select few that hold the revered title of Trappist Ales–six to be exact. The production of these beers must be overseen by Trappist Monks in their monastery, and the profits must either go into the upkeep of the monastery or to a charity of the monks’ choosing. The recipes are up to them and vary dramatically. However, the acclaim and infamy of these beers is consistent.
Of the six made in Belgium–and I have tried four. Chimay and Westmalle are readily available year-round while Orval and Rochefort are limited gems that should be scooped up when seen. Besides Orval, each brewery brews at least two styles of beer. Chimay and Westmalle brew both a Tripel style and a Dubbel style. A Triple Ale is blonde, strong, pale ale brewed with three times more malt than a regular strong pale ale. They are known for high alcoholic content, sweet candied fruit and yeast notes, with balance, and almost hidden, bitterness. On a side note, if you like Champagne and are looking to try beer, this is a great place to start, but be conscious of the alcohol content, because this drinkable style can sneak up on you! The Dubbel, is slightly less alcoholic than the Tripel, with more rich, dark, fruit, caramel and nutty notes. These styles are often imitated by US craft brewers, most notably New Belgium, whose love of Belgian beers has brought these styles to the masses.
Other beers that are stylistically Belgian are Saisons, witbiers, blonde, brune, and lambics. Saisons, or Season in French, are Farmhouse ales that were brewed in the winter months for the purpose of providing refreshment for field workers during the harvests of the long, hot summers. They are spiced, medium bodied, and tend to be between 5- and 8-percent alcohol, even though the more traditional ABV percent was about 3.5. American brewers have taken a liking to this almost extinct style. Michigan brewers like Jolly Pumpkin and New Holland have many followers hooked with there Saisons–Bam Beir and Golden Cap, respectively.
Blonde Pale Ales
Blonde pale ales are not to be confused with witbiers, though both have a lovely golden color and both have spiced notes of orange peel, clove and candied lemons. The biggest difference would be that blondes are made predominately from malt and witbier (or wheat beer) from wheat. When looking at them, the witbeir will have an ethereal cloudy quality while the blonde will be clean and vibrantly golden. The best and oldest example of a witbeir is Hoegaarden. While you may have tried the ever-popular Blue Moon Belgian-Style Wheat, brewed by Coors in Montreal, Canada, I highly recommend trying the Hoegaarden for its remarkable, refreshing, sweet and sour, lemon-zest finish.
When searching to try a blonde pale ale, I recommend Leffe Blonde, or if you’re up to no good, reach for the Duvel. Duvel, devil in Dutch, is a strong pale ale, with all of the malt, citrus, spice and alcohol of a regular pale ale–intensified. Brunes are the darker counterparts to the pale ale. They tend to be roasted with notes of caramel, nut, and sweet malt. Leffe, again, is a classic example.
Lastly, we come to dessert: Lambic.
Though almost synonomus these days with Framboise, the raspberry-fruit-style lambic, lambics come in three different styles and can go from mouth-puckeringly sour, to richly sweet. In general, you can find two types of lambic: fruit–mainly raspberry (frambois), cherry (kriek), peach (peche) and black currant (cassis)–or gueuze. Fruit lambics are terrific alternatives to dessert wine and pair wonderfully with dessert or mixed into cocktails. All are sweet, with just a hint of tartness to the finish, especially the Kreik, which is brewed with sour cherries.
However, the gueuze is going to be tart and sour, with notes of yeast and under-ripe Granny Smith apples. It doesn’t sound it, but it is delicious and refreshing. Unlike its friendly fruity sisters, gueuze is not for the novice beer drinker. If you are looking to break from the norm, however, I say go for it!
If you like to keep your beer purchases Michigan made, Jolly Pumpkin makes many deliciously traditional Belgian-style ales. Though there are many other styles out there, I believe this is enough to get your interest peaked and your mouth watering over Belgian beers!!!
– Jennifer Laurie