This is shaping up to be the year of the Belgian strong ale. Max Tieger opened his new brewpub with Farmer's Daughter, one example. Double Mountain came out of the gate with a combo IPA and Belgian strong (IRA). And Deschutes' first foray into Belgians led them to brew a strong golden. It's a welcome change in direction for Oregon breweries, which have been dominated by big English-inspired ales, and I hope represents further maturation of brewing culture here.
Belgian beers are harder to categorize than other styles because, outside broad groups, they are mostly individualistic. So a Belgian "strong" may be an abbey-style ale, a blonde (Leffe, Affligem), or a golden in the style of Duvel or Delirium Tremens. By cocking your head, you can shift many of these beers into another, related category or find an argument for why they fit into none. Generally speaking, they're yellow/gold, alcoholic, spicy and fruity, and smooth. But each one is distinct. One style or two hundred--it's not always easy to say.
However, one of the clearest examples is Moortgat's Duvel. After trying the Deschutes Golden (a review that some folks seem to think was overly critical), I decided to go back to this touchstone beer and see what made it such a standard. As American breweries use elements of these beers in their own recipes, it's good to remember what the original is like.
The name Duvel ("DOO vul") is a corruption of the Flemish for "devil," has inspired a whole series of rivals and imitators, and their names signal their inspiration--Judas, Lucifer, Deugniet ("rascal"), and so on. Although I haven't seen it stated explicitly, the name seems to refer to misleading, seductive power of this beer--it looks and tastes like a much lighter, smaller beer than it is. The devil in these details read 8.5--the beer's strength. Drinker beware.
I was amazed again when I had a bottle over the weekend. It is fantastically lively. The instructions on the bottle say "pour unhurredly," but unless you've got a large glass, you can't pour slowly enough to stop the massive head from rushing to the rim. You pour in increments, steadily building the pure white froth up like a vanilla cone. The beer is pilsner pale (made in fact with pilsner malt) and roils with bubbles. Still, it's not at all viscous, evidence of ample added sugar that gives the Devil it's juice.
It is hopped with Saaz, and their essence is captured in the head. The flavor, however, is very gentle, boardering on sweet. The Saaz add a robust bitterness and the characteristic spiciness sets off the sweet nicely; it finishes mostly dryly, with just a bit of residual sugar. However, it is in no way challenging--all the notes are beguiling and you really have to remind yourself of the strength to avoid quaffing.
So what are the lessons of Duvel? It is apostacy among Oregon brewers to add sugar to a beer. Moortgat doesn't even bother with candi sugar--they throw in regular old sucrose. Boosting alcohol with malt means a much heavier, maltier beer. This may be a frontier worth exploring.
Duvel is fermented three times after infusions of sugar and yeast (two strains are used). It's bottle-conditioned and aged for at least 6 weeks in cold storage before heading out into the world (the expiration date of the bottle I tried this weekend was November 2009). Bottle-conditioned beers, because they contain live cultures, age better than "dead" beers. The pocket of air in non-conditioned beers inevitably leads to oxidation, which happens more slowly in bottle-conditioned beers, which are preserved by the yeast. Bottle-conditioned beers continue to slowly ferment as well, which removes sugars and dries a beer out.
I hope breweries continue to experiment with Belgian styles, and if they do, I hope they start to experiment with the methods Belgian breweries use. Although they are at odds with the way a lot of commercial breweries operate--getting beer out the door as soon as possible, focusing on "freshness" above maturation--I suspect they're critical to achieve the types of beers Belgians manage.