Fundamentals: Belgian Beers

Fundamentals is an ongoing series tracking my preparation for the Certified Cicerone exam. This information is pulled from books, Cicerone materials, and the BJCP style guidelines. I am hoping that this may serve as a useful resource for folks preparing for their own certifications.

The beer that made me realize that beer was good was a Belgian, specifically a Rochefort 10, which is a Trappist Strong Dark Ale, or Quadrupel. “Trappist” is a protected legal appellation and may only be used commercially by genuine Trappist monasteries that brew their own beer. To this day, the nation’s highly attenuated, bottle conditioned, and yeast-dominated rich beers are some of the closest to my heart, and their sours aren’t half bad either!

Below are the styles of Belgian beer you need to know for the CC exam.

Gueuze

A complex, pleasantly sour but balanced wild Belgian wheat beer that is highly carbonated and very refreshing. The spontaneous fermentation character can provide a very interesting complexity, with a wide range of wild barnyard, horse blanket, or leather characteristics intermingling with citrusy-fruity flavors and acidity.

Gueuze is traditionally produced by mixing one, two, and three-year old lambic. “Young” lambic contains fermentable sugars while old lambic has the characteristic “wild” taste of the Senne River valley. A noticeable vinegary or cidery character is considered a fault by Belgian brewers. A good gueuze is not the most pungent, but possesses a full and tantalizing bouquet, a sharp aroma, and a soft, velvety flavor. Lambic is served uncarbonated, while gueuze is served effervescent.

  • Color: 3 – 7 SRM (Straw to Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Very Low (0 – 10 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 5 – 8% (Normal to Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Lambics
  • Commercial Examples: Boon Oude Gueuze, Cantillon Gueuze, Drie Fonteinen Oud Gueuze, Lindemans Gueuze Cuvée René

Fruit Lambic

A complex, fruity, pleasantly sour, wild wheat ale fermented by a variety of Belgian microbiota, and showcasing the fruit contributions blended with the wild character. The type of fruit can sometimes be hard to identify as fermented and aged fruit characteristics can seem different from the more recognizable fresh fruit aromas and flavors.

Fruit-based lambics are often produced like gueuze by mixing one, two, and three-year old lambic. “Young” lambic contains fermentable sugars while old lambic has the 48 BJCP Beer Style Guidelines – 2015 Edition characteristic “wild” taste of the Senne River valley. Fruit is commonly added halfway through aging and the yeast and bacteria will ferment all sugars from the fruit. Fruit may also be added to unblended lambic. The most traditional styles of fruit lambics include kriek (cherries), framboise (raspberries) and druivenlambik (muscat grapes). IBUs are approximate since aged hops are used; Belgians use hops for anti-bacterial properties more than bittering in lambics.

  • Color: 3 – 7 SRM (Varies with the fruit)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Very Low (0 – 10 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 5 – 7% (Normal to Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Lambic, Flanders Red Ale
  • Commercial Examples: Cantillon Fou’ Foune, Cantillon Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Kriek, Cantillon Lou Pepe Framboise, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus, Drie Fonteinen Kriek, Girardin Kriek

Flanders Red Ale

A sour, fruity, red wine-like Belgian style ale with interesting supportive malt flavors and fruit complexity. The dry finish and tannin completes the mental image of a fine red wine.

Long aging and blending of young and well-aged beer often occurs, adding to the smoothness and complexity, though the aged product is sometimes released as a connoisseur’s beer. Known as the Burgundy of Belgium, it is more wine-like than any other beer style. The reddish color is a product of the malt although an extended, less-than-rolling portion of the boil may help add an attractive Burgundy hue. Aging will also darken the beer. The Flanders red is more acetic (but never vinegar-like) and the fruity flavors more reminiscent of a red wine than an Oud Bruin. Can have an apparent attenuation of up to 98%.

  • Color: 10 – 16 SRM (Red to Brown)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (10 – 25 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 4.6 – 6.5% (Normal to Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Oud Bruin
  • Commercial Examples: Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Rodenbach Grand Cru, Rodenbach Klassiek, Vichtenaar Flemish Ale

Belgian Dubbel

A deep reddish-copper, moderately strong, malty, complex Trappist ale with rich malty flavors, dark or dried fruit esters, and light alcohol blended together in a malty presentation that still finishes fairly dry.

  • Color: 10 – 17 SRM (Light Amber to Dark Amber)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (15 – 25 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 6 – 7.6% (Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Belgian Dark Strong Ale
  • Commercial Examples: Chimay Première, Corsendonk Pater, St. Bernardus Pater 6, Trappistes Rochefort 6, Westmalle Dubbel

Belgian Tripel

A pale, somewhat spicy, dry, strong Trappist ale with a pleasant rounded malt flavor and firm bitterness. Quite aromatic, with spicy, fruity, and light alcohol notes combining with the supportive clean malt character to produce a surprisingly drinkable beverage considering the high alcohol level.

High in alcohol but does not taste strongly of alcohol. The best examples are sneaky, not obvious. High carbonation and attenuation helps to bring out the many flavors and to increase the perception of a dry finish. Most Trappist versions have at least 30 IBUs and are very dry. Traditionally bottle-conditioned (or refermented in the bottle).

  • Color: 4.5 – 7 SRM (Light Gold to Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Moderate (20 – 40 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 7.5 – 9.5% (High)
  • Related Styles: Belgian Blond Ale, Belgian Golden Strong Ale
  • Commercial Examples: Chimay Cinq Cents, La Rulles Tripel, La Trappe Tripel, St. Bernardus Tripel, Unibroue La Fin Du Monde, Val-Dieu Triple, Watou Tripel, Westmalle Tripel

Belgian Blond Ale

A moderate-strength golden ale that has a subtle fruity-spicy Belgian yeast complexity, slightly malty-sweet flavor, and dry finish. Often has an almost lager-like character, which gives it a cleaner profile in comparison to many other Belgian styles.

  • Color: 4 – 7 SRM (Light Gold to Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (15 – 30 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 6 – 7.5% (Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Belgian Tripel, Belgian Golden Strong Ale
  • Commercial Examples: Affligem Blond, Grimbergen Blond, La Trappe Blond, Leffe Blond, Val-Dieu Blond

Belgian Golden Strong Ale

A pale, complex, effervescent, strong Belgian-style ale that is highly attenuated and features fruity and hoppy notes in preference to phenolics.

References to the devil are included in the names of many commercial examples of this style, referring to their potent alcoholic strength and as a tribute to the original example (Duvel). The best examples are complex and delicate. High carbonation helps to bring out the many flavors and to increase the perception of a dry finish. Traditionally bottle conditioned (or refermented in the bottle).

  • Color: 3 – 6 SRM (Straw to Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Moderate (22 – 35 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 7.5 – 10.5% (Elevated to Very High)
  • Related Styles: Belgian Tripel, Belgian Blond
  • Commercial Examples: Brigand, Delirium Tremens, Dulle Teve, Duvel, Judas, Lucifer, Piraat, Russian River Damnation

Saison

Most commonly, a pale, refreshing, highly-attenuated, moderately-bitter, moderate-strength Belgian ale with a very dry finish. Typically highly carbonated, and using non-barley cereal grains and optional spices for complexity, as complements the expressive yeast character that is fruity, spicy, and not overly phenolic. Less common variations include both lower-alcohol and higher-alcohol products, as well as darker versions with additional malt character.

Variations exist in strength and color, but they all have similar characteristics and balance, in particularly the refreshing, highly-attenuated, dry character with high carbonation. There is no correlation between strength and color. The balance can change somewhat with strength and color variations, but the family resemblance to the original artisanal ale should be evident. Pale versions are likely to be more bitter and have more hop character, while darker versions tend to have more malt character and sweetness, yielding a more balanced presentations. Stronger versions often will have more malt flavor, richness, and body simply due to their higher gravity. Although they tend to be very well attenuated, they may not be perceived to be as dry as standard strength saisons due to their strength. The Saison yeast character is a must, although maltier and richer versions will tend to mask this character more. Often called Farmhouse ales in the US, but this term is not common in Europe where they are simply part of a larger grouping of artisanal ales.

  • Color: 5 – 14 SRM (Light Gold to Amber)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Moderate (20 – 35 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 5 – 7% (Normal to Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Biere de Garde
  • Commercial Examples: Ellezelloise Saison, Fantôme Saison, Lefebvre Saison 1900, Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Saison de Pipaix, Saison Regal, Saison Voisin, Boulevard Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale

Witbier

A refreshing, elegant, tasty, moderate strength wheat-based ale. The presence, character and degree of spicing and lactic sourness varies. Overly spiced and/or sour beers are not good examples of the style. Coriander of certain origins might give an inappropriate ham or celery character. The beer tends to be fragile and does not age well, so younger, fresher, properly handled examples are most desirable.

  • Color: 2 – 4 SRM (Straw to Light Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (8 – 20 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 4.5 – 5.5% (Normal)
  • Related Styles: American Wheat Beer, Weissbier
  • Commercial Examples: Allagash White, Blanche de Bruxelles, Celis White, Hoegaarden Wit, Ommegang Witte, St. Bernardus Witbier, Wittekerke

Lambic

A fairly sour, often moderately funky wild Belgian wheat beer with sourness taking the place of hop bitterness in the balance. Traditionally spontaneously fermented in the Brussels area and served uncarbonated, the refreshing acidity makes for a very pleasant café drink.

Straight lambics are single-batch, unblended beers. Since they are unblended, the straight lambic is often a true product of the “house character” of a brewery and will be more variable than a gueuze. They are generally served young (6 months) and on tap as cheap, easy-drinking beers without any filling carbonation. Younger versions tend to be one dimensionally sour since a complex Brett character often takes upwards of a year to develop. An enteric character is often indicative of a lambic that is too young. A noticeable vinegary or cidery character is considered a fault by Belgian brewers. Since the wild yeast and bacteria will ferment ALL sugars, they are typically bottled only when they have completely fermented.

  • Color: 3 – 7 SRM (Straw to Gold)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Very Low (0 – 10 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 5 – 6.5% (Normal to Elevated)
  • Related Styles: Fruit Lambic, Gueuze
  • Commercial Examples: The only bottled version readily available is Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella of whatever single batch vintage the brewer deems worthy to bottle. De Cam sometimes bottles their very old (5 years) lambic. In and around Brussels there are specialty cafes that often have draught lambics from traditional brewers or blenders such as Boon, De Cam, Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, Lindemans, Timmermans and Girardin.

Oud Bruin

A malty, fruity, aged, somewhat sour Belgian-style brown ale.

Long aging and blending of young and aged beer may occur, adding smoothness and complexity and balancing any harsh, sour character. This style was designed to lay down so examples with a moderate aged character are considered superior to younger examples.

  • Color: 15 – 22 SRM (Amber to Brown)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (20 – 25 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 4 – 8% (Low to High)
  • Related Styles: Flanders Red Ale
  • Commercial Examples: Ichtegem Oud Bruin, Liefmans Goudenband, Liefmans Liefmans Oud Bruin, Petrus Oud Bruin, Riva Vondel, Vanderghinste Bellegems Bruin

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

A dark, complex, very strong Belgian ale with a delicious blend of malt richness, dark fruit flavors, and spicy elements. Complex, rich, smooth and dangerous.

Authentic Trappist versions tend to be drier (Belgians would say more digestible) than Abbey versions, which can be rather sweet and full-bodied. Traditionally bottle conditioned (or refermented in the bottle). Sometimes known as a Trappist Quadruple, most are simply known by their strength or color designation.

  • Color: 12 – 22 SRM (Amber to Brown)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (20 – 35 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 8 – 12% (High to Very High)
  • Related Styles: Belgian Dubbel
  • Commercial Examples: Achel Extra Brune, Boulevard The Sixth Glass, Chimay Grande Réserve, Gouden Carolus Grand Cru of the Emperor, Rochefort 8 & 10, St. Bernardus Abt 12, Westvleteren 12

Belgian Pale Ale

A moderately malty, somewhat fruity, easy-drinking, copper-colored Belgian ale that is somewhat less aggressive in flavor profile than many other Belgian beers. The malt character tends to be a bit biscuity with light toasty, honey-like, or caramelly components; the fruit character is noticeable and complementary to the malt. The bitterness level is generally moderate, but may not seem as high due to the flavorful malt profile.

Pilsner or pale ale malt contributes the bulk of the grist with (cara) Vienna and Munich malts adding color, body and complexity. Sugar is not commonly used as high gravity is not desired. Saazer-type hops, Styrian Goldings, East Kent Goldings or Fuggles are commonly used. Yeasts prone to moderate production of phenols are often used but fermentation temperatures should be kept moderate to limit this character.

  • Color: 8 – 14 SRM (Gold to Amber)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Moderate (20 – 30 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 4.8 – 5.5% (Normal)
  • Related Styles: Strong Bitter
  • Commercial Examples: De Koninck, De Ryck Special, Palm Dobble, Palm Speciale

Biere de Garde

A fairly strong, malt-accentuated, lagered artisanal beer with a range of malt flavors appropriate for the color. All are malty yet dry, with clean flavors and a smooth character.

Three main variations are included in the style: the brown (brune), the blond (blonde), and the amber (ambrée). The darker versions will have more malt character, while the paler versions can have more hops (but still are malt focused beers). A related style is Bière de Mars, which is brewed in March (Mars) for present use and will not age as well. Attenuation rates are in the 80-85% range. Some fuller bodied examples exist, but these are somewhat rare. Age and oxidation in imports often increases fruitiness, caramel flavors, and adds corked and musty notes; these are all signs of mishandling, not characteristic elements of the style.

  • Color: 6 – 19 SRM (Gold to Light Brown)
  • Perceived Bitterness: Low (18 – 28 IBUs)
  • Alcohol: 6 – 8.5% (Elevated to High)
  • Related Styles: Saison
  • Commercial Examples: Ch’Ti (brown and blond), Jenlain (amber and blond), La Choulette (all 3 versions), St. Amand (brown), Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts (blond), Russian River Perdition

Author: Jake Neely

I am the founder of Lumbercake, a news writer for Tenemu.com, an artificial intelligence researcher by day, and husband to @feralscribe (https://feralscribbler.com/). I think a drink can be a profound experience precisely because it tells a story, and people love stories. We use narratives to understand our world and each other and when a drink's story is woven into that narrative, it becomes a centerpiece that anchors the intangible experience into our senses for one fleeting moment. My deepest passion is for food and beverage, especially beer, whisky, wine and their possible pairings. I am on track to finish my WSET Spirits level 2, WSET Wine level 3, and Certified Cicerone certifications in 2019. My other interests include history, literature, fine watches, and horror movies.

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