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Friday, May 06, 2016

Considering the Belgian Tradition

Palm Brewery, Steenhuffel

Post updated; see below.

We are quickly approaching the tenth edition of Cheers to Belgian Beers, which comes on May 13-14. The original idea behind this fest was educational, to "help introduce Oregonians to the breadth of style and flavors of beers brewed in Belgium." (That comes from the press release.) Initially, brewers just agreed to use the same yeast strain and brew whatever they liked. As it evolved, the Oregon Brewers Guild, which organizes it, tweaked the structure so breweries didn't all brew the same type of beer; they're now sorted by color and strength.

All good so far, right? Well, I wonder. Does it still serve its mission? Are people learning anything about Belgian beer? As a way of getting ready for the fest, I wondered if it might not be useful to consider some of the hallmarks of Belgian brewing and then see how well the fest reveals these to people.

We think of "Belgian" as a pretty good description for a school of beers ... until we think about them very much. In fact, it's not even so great as describing the two populations, Flemish- (Dutch, really) speaking northerners, and French-speaking southerners. They have never formed a cohesive whole, and for a couple of years recently their troubles were serious enough they couldn't form a government. If you consider the range of native beer styles, you see a similar range of incoherence: Belgian breweries make everything from simple little pale and brown ales to titanic abbey ales, from sweet, heavy, spiced ales to bone dry saisons, stouts, hoppy ales, and of course the several exotic funky styles. Calling all of them "Belgian" is asking that word to do a lot of heavy lifting.

Dubuisson Brewery, Pipaix

If you want to try to tie these up with a single bow, you could say that, in Belgium, the distance between some of the old styles and the new ones is shorter than anywhere else. Reading about bizarre old German ales doesn't make you think of modern ones. But Peeterman, the brown beers of Mechelen, Liege saison? These extinct beers are familiar to fans of certain contemporary products. There's a wonderful old text that describes beers from the mid-19th century, and if you read that and then tour around modern Belgium, you can discern a line between the two.

Another way to group these beers is in the way they're made. From a sensory perspective, the range is too diverse to identify a through-line. But if you visit a few breweries, you see that the beers are made in a similar way, and issue from a national philosophy about what beer should taste like. There are three major hallmarks.
  • Yeast character. This is the main thing people mean when they say "Belgian." Ale yeasts are teased to produce as much character as possible, whether wild strains are in play or not. Belgians practice “high fermentation” (warm fermentation), and it is often very warm when compared to other countries—mid-70s for pitching is not unusual, and terminal temps in the eighties or nineties is not unheard of. The result is beer with tons of fruity esters and spicy phenols. Brewers may also stress yeast by under-pitching it, which also causes it to create esters and phenols. (Many times they do both.)
  • Secondary fermentation. Nearly every ale brewery in Belgium (from Duvel to Dupont to Rodenbach) has a “warm room.” It’s a temperature-controlled space where bottles ripen while bottle-conditioning. For Belgians, the carbonation is only a secondary effect--the real goal is refermentation in the bottle. That’s when the yeast flavors mature and evolve. It’s why you mostly don’t find Belgium’s famous ales on tap; to properly develop, beer must go through this secondary fermentation.
  • Sugar. It’s common for Belgian beers to be strong--7% and higher is completely typical. To keep the beers light on the palate and attenuative, breweries regularly use sugar, often in high proportion. (Occasionally they use adjunct grains, deploying a cereal cooker, to achieve the same thing.) It's also worth noting that nearly all breweries just use dextrose, not whatever it is Americans think “candi” sugar is. Plain old corn sugar is the ticket.

These three things work together, too. Secondary fermentation builds on the yeast character formed during primary fermentation, and the use of sugar creates a thinner body so malts don't mask the flavors produced by yeast. As in all national traditions, once certain proclivities get a toehold, they tend to build on each other. These three elements are not mandatory, of course, but you find them in simple, large-scale breweries, in breweries using wild yeasts, in saison breweries, in monastery breweries. 


So back to Cheers to Belgian Beers. Does it function as a great way to highlight these qualities? Yes and no. Yeast is the key flavor-driver in Belgian beer, but Belgians consider secondary fermentation a key part of the flavor development. When you skip that step, you lose some of the complexity. Many Americans skip the sugar when they're making Belgian-style ales, too, and this leads the beers further away from their Flemish inspirations. In educational fests like this, subtleties do matter. The goal should be trying to point out all the elements of this tradition so people can begin to recognize them. I've missed the past couple CTBB, so I'll go with this in mind.

If you're interested in prepping your palate, go buy a few bottles of Belgian beer and attune yourself to those fermentation characteristics.

Update. On Facebook, a number of people mentioned mashing regimes as an important part of Belgian brewing. They're correct! I skipped it because it's fairly technical and I figured the average beer drinker wouldn't care. The mention of sugar and highly attenuative beers was meant to point to that. But for the geeks, a bit more. One way Belgians goose their yeast is by adding a ferulic acid rest somewhere in the 113-122˚ F range. Certain yeasts ("phenolic off-flavor positive" or POF+) metabolize ferulic acid to create a phenolic or spicy flavor in beer. This is very common. Belgians also tend to use two saccharification rests, a low one of around 144-145˚ F and a high one somewhere between 154˚ F and 163˚ F, to get maximum fermentability out of their malt. This, along with the use of sugar, is another way they thin the body of their beers.

At St. Feuillien

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