Nick Carr on August 7, 2015 0 Comments History of Belgian Pale Ales Finding the Belgian pale ale in amongst the forest of other better known Belgian beers is a bit like floundering around in a deep wilderness on a night with very little moon. The categories of Belgian beer lend evidence to just how prolific, experimental, and far-reaching the Belgian brewer was as he plied his art. Throw in the beers that have no definable category, add the less-then-concrete borders separating the named categories, and you have something rather muddy and not at all certain. It is likely the Belgian pale ale was brewed in one form or another all the way back in the mid-1700s, but it would take the rising popularity of German “light beers” for the pale ale to truly come into its own. The late 1800s saw the newly minted refrigeration technology coming into common use and with it came the ability to brew and store lagers anywhere. No longer were lager brewers tied to caves and the seasons. This sudden freedom saw a shift in the European brewing continuum with the spread and immediate popularity of the “new” light, sophisticated-seeming German lagers and crisply pleasing Czech pilsners. The Belgian brewers couldn’t have helped but sit up and take notice of this shifting tide. To combat this suffocating popularity they revamped their recipes. They drew some inspiration from experience with British ales and interestingly, used much the same ingredients as the encroaching threat. They went with pale malts and much the same noble hops used in pilsners. But the yeast remained all Belgian, creating a light colored ale with, a low hop profile, notes of pear and orange esters, and spicy phenols. What they came away with was a session beer or “everyday beer” equal to the pilsner, but with its own distinct, and very much Belgian character. It is said that these same pales satisfied British fighting men stationed in Belgium during World War I. The style solidified somewhat after World War II into what we see in most examples today. A version of a pale ale that showcases a light but present malt profile, gentle handling of hops (often using aged hops), little noticeable alcohol, some bitterness, and of course, the fruit/spice of Belgian yeast. Style Profile & Characteristics The guidelines for the Belgian Pale Ale beer style are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what you should expect from a belgian pale ale. Quick Characteristics Color Range: 8 – 14 SRM Original Gravity: 1.048 – 1.054 OG Final Gravity: 1.010 – 1.014 FG IBU Range: 20 – 30 ABV Range: 4.8 – 5.5% Appearance: Clear amber to light copper color; Thick, rocky head that clings to the glass Aroma: Malts should be noticeable, ranging from toasty to biscuit-like; Fruit characteristics will be noticeable, but mild; Low to mid hop profile; No Diacetyl. Flavor: Smooth maltiness with notes of biscuit, toast or nut flavors; Orange or pear fruitiness may be present; Very little hop flavor; Low to medium bitterness; Medium dry & sweet finish. Mouthfeel: Body will be mid-low to medium; Carbonation will be present in low-to-medium levels; Alcohol warmth is low, if present at all. Food Pairings: Crisp Salad, Grilled Fish, Rosemary Lamp Chops, Pork Sausage The BJCP classifies the Belgian Pale Ale style as a “Belgian Ale.” It can be found in their guidelines as category 24B. Other beer styles in this category include: Witbier (24A), and Bière De Garde (24C). Appearance: Pours a wonderfully clear amber to light copper color. Showcases a thick rocky head that clings to the glass, but often falls faster than other Belgian ales. Aroma: Malt runs toasty to biscuit-like and should be quiet noticeable. It will have some fruit character, though not on the same level with other Belgian ales. Fruit often presents with orange or pear character. Hop profile is low to mid-range, usually mild, with floral or spicy notes that complement the peppery/spicy yeast phenols. There should be no diacetyl at all. Mouthfeel: Belgian pales present across the mid-range; mid-low to medium body and medium carbonation. Alcohol level is low, giving this beer only low warming qualities, if there at all. Taste: Smooth malt combines with low hop character and light fruity and spicy notes with extremely low phenols. Malt profile is softly sweet with notes of biscuit, toast, and nut-like flavors. It may have the same orange or pear-like fruitiness often found in the aroma, but will be much more restrained than in other Belgian ales. Will have very little hop flavor and only low to medium bitterness (bitterness will be more prominent in drier examples). In the best examples this bitterness combines with small amounts of peppery phenols. Finish can be medium dry to medium sweet. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Examples of the Style The Belgian Pale Ale and Blonde Ale are categorized together in both the Great American Beer Festival (just added in 2014) and World Beer Cup, so I’ve included only the ones specifically named as pales, as well as the examples that truly fall under the ABV range of a Belgian pale (4.8-5.5%) and thus actually are a sessionable or “every-day” ale are underlined. Notice there aren’t many examples. Rainmaker Ale from Stormcloud Brewing Company (Frankfort, MI)Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2014. Their Flagship ale; available on tap at Stormcloud. St. Stusan Ale from Galaxy Brewing Company (Binghamton, NY)World Beer Cup Winner, Silver, 2014. Available on tap at Galaxy Brewing. Ommegang Rare Vos from Ommegang Brewing Company (Cooperstown, NY)World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2012. Available Year Round. Popular Belgian Pale Ales: Because of the low count listed above, I’ve included ten of the most popular Belgian pale ales. Orval Trappist Ale from Brasserie d’Orval — Florenville, Belgium Leffe Blonde from Abbaye de Leffe — Dinant, Belgium Rare Vos from Ommegang Brewery — Copperstown, NY Redemption from Russian River Brewery — Santa Rosa, CA Ommegang BPA from Ommegang Brewery — Copperstown, NY Rayon Vert from Green Flash Brewery — San Deigo, CA Belgian Session from Boston Beer Company — Boston, MA Affligem Blond from Brouwerij De Smedt/Brouwerij Affligem — Opwijk, Belgium Belgian Pale Ale from Coors Brewing Co. — Golden, CO Karma from Avery Brewery — Boulder, CO Tips For Brewing a Belgian Pale Ale If you’re interested in brewing your own Belgian pale ale recipe at home, here are a few tips you should know going into the process. The Grain Bill: Start with a high quality Belgian pilsner or pale malt. German pale/pils malts will work here too, but for the sake of authenticity try for the Belgian. This base malt should constitute anywhere from 100% to as low as 40% your total grain bill. To this you can add a painters palate of lighter malts, such as pale, Vienna, Munich, or Victory. These can add a range of warm flavors, from caramel, nutty, toffee, to slight biscuit. These should make up no more than about 40% of your recipe. Specialty Malts Specialty malts could include the “cara” derivative of Vienna and Munich. These are processed like other crystal malts, bringing a much sweeter flavor. Also there is the option of biscuit and aromatic malts to increase your malt complexity even further. The aromatic brings a sweet caramel, while the biscuit a drier and crisper toastiness. Any of these malts or some combination can make up 10% of the grain bill. Adjuncts Adjunct sugars are sometimes used, even making up 10% of a recipe sometime. Remember that adding sugars will make the ale drier and lighten the mouthfeel. If you do decide to use a sugar be sure it is unrefined and has some flavor to it (Piloncillo, Belgian candi syrup, and honey are a few suggestions). Any adjunct sugars can be added straight to the brewpot. Extract Brewing As far as extract brewing goes, I’d recommend doing a mini-mash with at least some specialty grains. You can either buy a kit, which will have all the ingredients you need, or make up your own. If making your own, replace the Pilsner or pale with a pale extract and any Vienna or Munich with a high quality amber malt (there is Munich extract malt available). Spice: You’re brewing a Belgian so it stands to reason you’d consider adding some sort of spice to your brew. You can, but it isn’t necessary. Though this pale ale still has the spicy and fruity characteristics of other Belgian styles, it is much more subdued, and the yeast should create enough esters and phenols during fermentation to cover these levels. That being said if you do want to add spices there are lots to choose from. Orange peel, coriander, licorice, star anise, could all conceivably be used, but… oh, so gently. Be ever judicious on your spices no matter the beer you’re brewing, and my advice — leave the spices in the cabinet for this pale ale. The Mash: Use a simple infusion mash. Resting temperature should be right around 152°F for an hour. Then mash out at 170°F and sparge. Hops: Belgian pales are often brewed with aged hops giving a delicate hop profile. You can age whole leaf hops in a brown paper bag stored in a cool dry place for one to three years… but, it doesn’t really help you brew that Belgian pale you had your heart set on starting tomorrow does it. In that case using low alpha hops is your best bet. Some good choices would be: Saaz, East Kent Goldings, Northern Brewer, or Styrian Goldings. Hop additions are usually the generic three: 1-2 ounces at the beginning of the boil. 1 ounce 15 to 20 minutes before flameout. Possibly ~1/2 ounce at end of boil (along with any spice). Obviously, these are very general guidelines and as always it is best to experiment. Just remember, for this particular beer style, the hops are there for balance and should remain rather low key. Yeast: Yeast is the star of any Belgian brew. You want a Belgian yeast; there is no alternative. Not in a Belgian pale ale. These strains contribute complex fruity and spicy notes. If using dry yeast, SafBrew T-58 is a good bet. In the realm of liquid yeasts you have a whole lot to choose from. A couple examples are Wyeast 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) or White Labs WLP575 (Belgian Style Blend). Fermenting: Belgian brewing stresses the yeast, that’s where the unique esters and phenols come from, but you don’t want to overdo it. Raise the temperature too much and you’ll end up with a beer undrinkable or right near it. Make a starter of your yeast. Let them multiply and become healthy before casting. Because you are going to ask a lot of them, they need to be healthy and moving from the start. Also, aerate the cooled wort before casting your yeast. Oxygen is essential for healthy yeast and the boil has driven most of it out of the wort. Agitation and splashing are probably the easiest methods of aerating for the average homebrewer. Ferment at a temperature of 65°F. This will stress the yeast just enough to give you the zest you want without going too far. Takeaways Before Brewing: There is a lot to explore here, but remember that it is often better to make your first recipe simple, expanding and experimenting as you have more experience and a better idea of what nuances you want in your perfect Belgian pale. Keep playing, take great notes on each batch you brew, always be mindful of good brewing practices, and good beer will come. Cheers!