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Beer Styles - Belgian Ales
Saison, Flemish Sour, Belgian Ale, Belgian Strong Ale
Styles & Seasonals
June 30, 2005
Written by Oakes
Saison is a name that reflects the farmhouse beers of Wallonia, the French part of Belgium. Whether Saison can be pinned down as a specific style is debatable, though there are two main types of saison. The first is the type exemplified by Saison Dupont – a dry, yeasty, hoppy, slightly strong golden-to-tan-coloured ale. The other is a spiced, funky slightly strong golden-to-tan-coloured ale with an abundance of house character. This latter type is typified by Saison de Pipaix. Other types may exist, but these two seem to cover the majority of beers that are labeled as Saisons.
The running similarities though are the colour, the strength and the free-form approach to brewing. Indeed, it is a style only in the vaguest sense, as some brewers freely experiment with darker colours, higher strengths, and brews that do not reasonably fit within the Dupont nor Pipaix paradigms.
Saisons date back to the turn of the 20th century at least, when they were brewed as a refresher or restorative for manual workers. This is where the hoppiness (not especially common in Belgium) and tartness come into play. It is also why beers were kept to a moderate (by the standards of both Belgium and the time in general) 6% or so.
In terms of naming, Saison is sometimes referred to as Farmhouse Ale, though that is a misleading assertion. At this point in time, not all Saison comes from a farmhouse brewery but more importantly, not all farmhouse styles of beer are Saison. Many other styles from other countries are also farmhouse beers (many of these are described under Traditional Ale).
Most popular examples: Ommegang Hennepin (USA), Saison Dupont (Belgium), Fantôme Saison (Belgium), New Belgium Bière de Mars (USA), Moinette Biologique/Foret (Belgium)
Some of my favourites: Saison de Pipaix (Belgium), New Belgium Saison (USA), Fantôme Hiver (Belgium), Dupont Avec Les Bons Voeux (Belgium), Saison Dupont (Belgium)
Colour: 1 – 2.5
Flavour: 3 – 4.25
Sweetness: 0.5 – 2.25
This style encompasses two beers that are widely thought of as classics, and an entire spectrum of beers in between. One on side, you have the sour brown ales of Flanders such as Liefmans Goudenband. On the other hand, you have the sour red ales of Flanders such as Rodenbach Grand Cru. Some writers consider these to be different styles, others do not. I do not because while these two beers seem quite distinct from one another, other examples of the style fill in the space that lies between these two beers. To choose two examples at random, you’ll probably have a tough time distinguishing red from brown.
This is especially true if you are drinking a fruited example. As with fruit lambic, these beers are made by aging the beer in barrels with the fruit added to the barrel.
Flemish sour ales are all more tart than just about any other style, but they are not necessarily mouth-puckering affairs. In general, the beauty of the style lies with the balance between the fat, tangy amber malts and the tartness from lactic infection.
The beer is typically aged for upwards of 2 years in wooden barrels, from which it derives a significant amount of character.
Most popular examples: Duchesse de Bourgogne (Belgium), Rodenbach Grand Cru (Belgium), Liefmans Goudenband (Belgium), Liefmans Kriekbier (Belgium), Petrus Oud Bruin (Belgium)
Some of my favourites: Rodenbach Grand Cru (Belgium), Petrus Aged Pale (Belgium), Liefmans Goudenband (Belgium), New Belgium La Folie (USA), Liefmans Odnar (Belgium)
Colour: 3 – 4.25
Flavour: 3 – 4.5
Sweetness: 1 – 3.5
Belgian Ale/Belgian Strong Ale
The beers of Belgium are known for being idiosyncratic. Conformity to beer style is not part of the culture in the industry there, and indeed many of the notions regarding the styles of Belgian beers come from foreign writers. A significant number of the beers are remnants of local styles that once had several examples and today only one or two. Other brewers simply do not concern themselves with style at all when they brew.
While some writers attempt to offer categorizations for every Belgian beer out there, that does not reflect the way the industry is structured. Here we leave those hundreds of Belgian ales that do not fall into a set category (the Abbey classes, Saison, Wit, Lambic, Flemish Sour) in catch-all categories, divided along the lines of strength. Given the high-potency nature of Belgian ale, those lines have been drawn (rather arbitrarily) at 7.5% abv.
It may be reasonable to guess that if an ale is from Belgium, it stands a good chance of fitting into the Belgian Ale or Belgian Strong Ale style, as Belgian brewers tend not to brew the styles of other countries (outside of pilsner and pale lager).
But what if a beer is not from Belgium? In order to categorize it as a Belgian-style beer, we must have some understanding of what the term means. It is not based on strength, colour, malt or hops. Those all vary from one extreme to another. The biggest factors are yeastiness, spiciness and individuality.
Belgian ales tend, in general, to be yeasty. Yeast manifests itself in sweaty, dusty accents that can be hard for the beginning taster to pin down. Yeastiness also means that the beer will have the by-products of fermentation – esters and phenols – in greater proportions than styles native to other countries. Esters are fruity flavours (not to be confused with fruit flavours) – nuances of fruit as what a wine taster would find. Phenols can vary quite widely in how they present themselves. Some are palatable – bubblegum, smoke, medicine – and some are not. The palatable ones tend to be deliberate and are what you’ll find in Belgian ales. The unpalatable type (Band-Aid, nail polish, paint thinner) are not deliberate and are considered a flaw in any type of beer, even Belgian.
Spices are a traditional component in beer, but are seldom used in Germany, England or America. They are still fairly common in Belgium, adding their own unique accents alongside the hop. Coriander seed is the most common, but there are a couple of dozen others as well that are used. The difference between spices used in Belgian ales and those in Spiced Ale is that with Belgians the spice is there to lend an accent to a beer, not to be the dominant flavour.
Individuality is vital to Belgian brewing. The character of a beer should reflect the brewery and the brewer. If a brewer is crazy, the beer should be crazy. If a brewer is modest, the beer should be modest. If a brewer is brash, likewise so should the beer be brash. While these elements are finding their way into American brewing, Belgium is still the only country where these characteristics are ubiquitous. It’s an intangible, and therefore not readily apparent to everyone, but Belgian ales that operate outside the specific national styles should be individuals, unique from their peers.
Within the category of Belgian Ale, one trend has emerge and that is towards a vaguely yeasty, metallic tasting, somewhat bland amber ale type, as typified by Palm Vieux Temps, de Koninck and others.
Within the category of Belgian Strong Ale, there is at least one vaguely definable substyle, the Duvel-type of strong golden, dry, estery (non-tripel) ale.
Most popular examples (Belgian Ale): Orval (Belgium), Leffe Blond (Belgium), Ommegang Rare Vos (USA), North Coast Pranqster (USA), De Koninck (Belgium)
Some of my favourites (Belgian Ale): Orval (Belgium), XX Bitter de Ranke (Belgium), Snoqualmie Falls Spring Fever (USA), Witkap Pater Single (Belgium), Russian River Damnation (USA)
Most popular examples (Belgian Strong Ale): Chimay Blue (Belgium), Duvel (Belgium), Trois Pistoles (Canada), Maudite (Canada), Delerium Tremens (Belgium)
Some of my favourites (Belgian Strong Ale): Abbaye des Rocs (Belgium), La Chouffe (Belgium), Trois Pistoles (Canada), ‘t IJ Vlo (Netherlands), Deus (Belgium)
Colour (Belgian Ale): 1 – 4.5
Flavour (Belgian Ale): 1.75 – 4
Sweetness (Belgian Ale): 2 – 4
Colour (Belgian Strong Ale): 1 – 4.5
Flavour (Belgian Strong Ale): 2 – 4.5
Sweetness (Belgian Strong Ale): 1 – 4.5
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