Homebrewing Belgian Style Beer
Belgian Beers and Belgian Style Beers were the beers that busted my beer cherry wide open when I first started brewing. The complex flavor profiles and general lack of what I considered the norm at the time absolutely blew my mind (I started my beer life as a crusher of American Light Lagers), and took it in a whole new direction. How do I make such an incredible beer? What are the process components to such a complex, yet seemingly simple, recipe? I read every book that I could get my hands on involving Belgian Styles and how to brew them, and it seemed liked every brew day was something ridiculously big, Belgian and obnoxious. I must say, not much has changed!
My love for these styles never really left, but it has evolved quite a bit over the years. I now know that I prefer a dry, fruity balance like the Trappist Breweries make to a spicy, phenolic bomb of beer styles like Saisons or Golden Strongs, even though it’s rare that I'll turn one down. This week on BrewCranium, we’ll talk about making your favorite Belgian Style, whatever that may be, and the components to this wistful, complex and delicious category of beer.
It Starts With A Canvas
When we make a Belgian Style beer, we aren’t looking for clean and neutral. We are looking for stone fruit, raisins, cloves, spice, coriander, and many other flavor esters and phenols that, while they CAN be added separately, they shouldn’t necessarily BE added separately. Most of these flavor compounds come down to the yeast, yeast cell health, and fermentation temperatures. As you may know, Belgian Yeast Strains perform very well above and outside of standard Ale fermentation temperatures, usually accentuating our favorite characters in a given strain.
The way that the malt and sugar has always seemed to me, especially in Belgians but also in many other styles, is as a canvas. You are building malt flavors and sugar flavors around your chosen yeast strain, and doing everything that you can to accentuate the flavors, esters and phenols of that strain to get the best possible amalgamation of that strain’s strengths on that canvas. My favorite example of this is our Belgian Blonde Ale.
This was created as a crowd pleaser for my favorite cousin’s wedding. I knew we had lots of light lager drinkers, and didn’t even know the other half of the family, so my instinct was on clean and dry, with a bit of a kick. Let’s be real, it was a wedding, and I was going to make sure this crushable beer came in at at least 7%!! So I took what is now one of my favorite Belgian Strains, White Labs WLP 530 Abbey Ale, because it sounded nice and fruity, and backed it with a clean, white canvas. A little bit of Aromatic malt for a distinct malt flavor, some wheat for head formation, foam retention, and to help with body, and a Belgian Pilsner Malt for authenticity and to keep the color nice and light. The yeast took this light and simple grain bill and transformed it into a lightly sweet, complex and crushable beer.
When making your canvas, start with the two most important goals. First, what do you want? Abbey Tripel? Quad? Golden Strong? Something that you want to bottle condition with brettanomyces, Orval style? After you choose what to make, it’s easy to choose the yeast strain, especially since we have so many amazing Belgian Strains available to us. If you want fruity, choose White Labs 530 Abbey Ale or Wyeast 1214 Belgian Abbey. You want spicy? How about White Labs 570 Belgian Golden Strong? Or even Wyeast 3711 French Saison? These are just a couple of strains to do your due diligence on once you find your chosen style. There is even well documented works that suggest which breweries provided which yeast, which makes it really easy to make a decision on yeast after an evening of tasting. Check out one of our favorites, Mr. Malty, by clicking the link!
Every Canvas Needs Color
When I say color, let’s be honest. I mean sugar, and lots of it! Belgian Candi Sugars are widely available in multiple colors (Lovibonds), and their flavor is insanely good, but you can also use regular old dextrose. Sometimes, dextrose can add a perception of dryness which is just enough to compliment your beer, and for lighter Belgian Styles, you’re not far off from what the breweries in Belgium are doing!
For more complex beers, Candi Syrups and Sugars are amazing. They add a shot of super fermentable beet sugar, usually cooked to a certain lovibond that is known for adding very specific flavors to many beers. These processed sugars are the key difference between a good beer and an incredible one. It’s like using molasses or treacle in an English Style Barleywine, making incredible jumps of flavor complexity because of the processes used to create them.
The best way to tell the difference, and to see what you like the most, is to try brewing our Belgian Golden Strong recipe, once as mandated, and once with dextrose. You can tell the difference immediately, and while they both come out incredibly delicious, there’s a certain je ne se quoi about the beet sugar and the process that turns it into Candi Sugar, and how it comes out in the finished beer.
Mashing and Extracts
Most Belgian beers are made with a ‘continental pilsner’ malt, which is really a fancy way of saying pils from your continent. I like to use pils from their continent, as I feel that it is a little more complex due to their growing and malting conditions, and it always makes my beer seem a little more authentic, or at least made me think so. Maybe that’s just me, and I’ve had incredible homebrewed Belgians with American pils, which is high quality and very consistent malt. Also, if you’re making your beer with extract, American pilsner is really your only choice!
Liquid and Dry Malt Extracts have come a long way since the 80’s, and Briess now makes not only a very consistent extract, but a damn delicious one. I’ve both brewed and tasted Belgian beers brewed with extract, and they are absolutely among my top picks. Clean and delicious malt profiles come from fresh, well made extracts, and luckily, in this day and age of brewing science and popularity, all of that is at our fingertips!
If you are going to go All-Grain, remember that pilsner malt is less modified and requires a 90 minute boil. This is something that extract pilsner brewers can skip, but All-Grain brewers cannot. If you do, you can get a vegetal, cooked corn characteristic that will ruin the whole endeavor.
Another thing to consider is that most Belgian breweries are using a step mashing process, doing a protein rest at the very least. This is a trick a friend from our homebrew club taught me years ago, which has since been corroborated by lots of research. You can pull better numbers and efficiency out of a pilsner malt without affecting the body or head retention with that extra rest between 122° F and 138° F, 136° F being the optimal temperature for proteinase. BYO did a fantastic article on step mashing, enzymes and optimal temperatures that you can check out here for more information.
Adding this protein rest step to your Belgian can help you get better performance and flavor out of your mash, however if your system is not set up to do multiple steps, it’s not the end of the world. You can still make an incredible beer with the smart addition of specialty malts, and maybe some extra pilsner, to make up for the lack.
Fermentation is Key
However you mash or whatever extract you use, your fermentation will be a key factor to how your beer comes out. For Belgians, I always try to consider how the pro’s have done it for a few hundred years in Belgium, which is pretty much to let the yeast do it’s thing.
These days, we are in the golden age of brewing. We have access to clean, strain specific yeast and temperature control. While I wouldn’t change having access to clean, strain specific yeasts, temperature control can make or break a Belgian strain, and maybe not in the way you think! If you ferment most Belgian strains at strict ale temps, say 65° F, you are bound to get cleaner and less estery or phenolic flavors, which is great if you are fermenting your Imperial Stout with WLP530 and just want a touch of fruit, most likely hidden by the malt profile, but not so much if you want your Dubbel to be big and fruity.
My rule of thumb, unless I’m trying to get specific flavors from a specific strain, is to pitch at room temp and let them run. Some Belgian strains are known for being….prolific (try WLP530 or Wyeast 3787 without a blowoff tube if you want to see something cool), and you should consider a proper pitch or something close to it and a blowoff tube. By letting them free-rise in fermentation and allowing them to fulfill their full ester and/or phenolic potential generally makes for a better finished product. This is why we always recommend Saison styles and strains in the summer for brewers that don’t have temp control. Let them get hot, do their thing, and enjoy the incredible product!
All About the Bubbles
Most commercial examples from Belgian Craft Breweries and American made Belgian Style craft beer is highly carbonated, some beers like Orval (because they bottle condition with brettanomyces) can be as high as 5 volumes of CO2, which is a lot! This is why you see so many Belgian beers with cork and cage packaging. It’s not only an awesome presentation, but it helps with the higher volumes of CO2. For perspective, Champagne and Sparkling Wine generally sit around 6 volumes, while mass produced light American lagers sit around 3 volumes. Most craft and homebrews like pale ales are closer to 2.5 volumes.
This is something to consider when kegging or bottle conditioning your beer, as the carbonic acid added by high volume CO2 definitely plays its part in adding a crisp character and helping to cut through residual sweetness, or at least the perception of it.
If you want to try this, let us know next time you get your recipe kit! Traditionally in homebrewing, an ounce of dextrose per gallon has been the norm, although over the years we’ve found that that puts most beers towards 3 volumes, and is too much for most beers. For Belgian styles, though, it’s about right! Grab that extra ounce when you bottle condition, and even some corks and cages for fun!!
Alcohol, Like Age, is Just a Number
Is it, though? You’ll see that most Belgian Styles boast a higher ABV, but not all of them. Styles like Belgian Pale Ale and Belgian Blonde (except ours, of course!) sit in the 5% to 6% range, which is just fine. You can make an incredible Belgian beer and still keep it sessionable, although for many styles, this isn’t the case. I always think of Trappist Monks, fasting for days on end, living on beer. I’m not fasting like that, but I do appreciate solidarity, and if they’re going to make it and live on it, I figure the least I can do is show some love!
Whatever Belgian Style you decide to brew, you’ll love doing it, and it’s worth putting the India Pale Ale recipe aside one time and brewing a little outside of the box! Belgian Styles are complex, and will be like nothing else you’ve brewed. Keep it simple, have some fun, and watch the yeast blow up a fermentor or two!
Thank you for reading! We love to hear your comments, so don’t be shy! Let us know your thoughts below and keep the conversation going! Cheers!