Abbey Ales, while sounding quite monastic and perhaps synonymous with Trappist Ale, are actually neither. Belgian Abbey Ales take their name from a once monastic/Trappist brewery. Today the Abbey Style brands that we see take their name from a historic monastery. Some are under license from the actual monastic order while others have simply branded the name of a monastery long closed. Regardless of the chosen name, Abbey Ales most mimic Trappist style brews borrowing the single, double (Dubbel), and triple (Trippel) moniker to indicate strength and at times the color. Abbey Singles are typically quite substantial having an alcohol strength hovering around 5-6% abv, and are amber in color with rich malty tones. Doubles are a bit stronger with a deep bronze to chestnut color and a dark, fruity character, while triples tend to be lighter in color (a cloudy golden hue is most common) and strength of roughly 8-9% abv. Of course, each brand has its own unique character.
Belgian Amber Ale
Belgian Ambers, like American style Ambers is a vast subject covering many slight variations. Unlike American style Amber Ales that are more or less synonymous with Red Ale, Belgian Red Ales are a very different animal so don’t make this error. Belgian Amber Ales are often medium-bodied, mildly sweet with roasted malt flavors, and a very subtle hop impression. These Ales can be sipped through the evening as their strength, while potent, is not overwhelming as many Belgian styles can often be. As with any broad category the quality range is wide encompassing commercial brands and small microbrews.
Belgian Blonde/Golden Ale
This is one of these vague categories and a relatively new category that has significant commercial importance. Stylistically you could say that Belgian Blonde Ale has the strength of an Abbey Dubbel with the appearance and character of a Trippel. It is often consumed as a hearty session beer being the ale Belgian Ale lover’s answer to Pils. These Ales are pale to deep gold and almost always cloudy with a thick, creamy, white head. The nose is mildly spicy with classic fruity Ale characteristics including scents of wild honey, orange, and fresh bread dough. Belgian Blonde Ales are often slightly sweet on entry and drying as the palate evolves, kept dry with mild hops notes, a soft spice impression (anise, coriander, and clove), and citrus notes. These Ales should not be confused with Belgian Strong Golden Ales, which often look much the same but as the name would suggest they pack a punch and most certainly are NOT intended to be session Beers, although I have treated them as such and suffered dearly the morning after.
Belgian Red Ale (aka Flanders Red Ale)
If you are not sure if you have ever had a Belgian Red Ale, then you haven’t. These Beers are very distinctive and for many they are not typically loved at first meeting. (I carefully avoided calling it an acquired taste as I loathe that expression.) These Flanders Reds are sometimes referred to as “Sour Ales” as they are certainly sour and dry with perhaps more wine like notes than any beer that is typically encountered. As the name would suggest, the color is most typically red, while deep amber is found, with an intense sour fruit note reminiscent of cherry, passion fruit, and citrus.
While the fruit notes are unmistakable, the red hue is due to the malt that is kilned to a brick red color (often referred to as Crystal Malt) and very long boiling times, which further caramelize the sweet wort. No fruit is added to this style of Ale. The fruity notes are achieved from extended aging in wood, which encourages the development of lactic acid in the Ale, which in turn encourages the production of sour fruity esters that give this style its telling characteristic.
Blending is very important to the style as a bottle of purely old Ale, (typically about 18 months in wood barrel) would be far too tart to be considered pleasant. The classic blend for bottling includes roughly 70% of young Ale and 30% aged Ale. If you have yet to try a Belgian Red, a bottle or two should be sought out. Perhaps you will fall in love at first sip but more likely you will do well to spend some time with it coming to a mutual understanding being either positive or negative. Without a doubt the most famous Beer of this style is Rodenbach, which can be found in the US and much of the Beer drinking world.
Belgian Strong Golden Ale
Often categories are firmly associated and nearly defined by a single product, and such is the case with Belgian Golden Strong Ales and the iconic Ale, Duvel. To those who have tasted a glass of Duvel, the experience is indeed a memorable one. As the name suggests, these are strong Ales and they demand a healthy dose of common sense and moderation when imbibing. This style is a close cousin to the Abbey or Trappist Tripel while being a good bit drier, less fruity, and with a crisp finish. This style is an excellent aperitif although it can perform nicely after dinner and with cheese. The color is pale to deep to gold and slightly cloudy as most are bottle conditioned. The aromas and flavors feature a perfect balance of fruit and spice (most often reminiscent of apples with coriander and white pepper). While dry, semi-sweet malt notes are omnipresent as would be expected with a Beer of this strength (more malt equals more sugar, which becomes more alcohol). Despite the high alcohol strength, roughly 8-10% abv, the best examples of this style mask the alcohol well behind a wall of intense, complex flavors and textures never feeling “hot” on the palate. The classics of this style should be considered a “must try” and will serve to offer context and understanding to Belgian Beers at large.
In a country that produces some of the most outstanding and unique styles of Beer, there is also a need for a light, thirst quenching Lager that offers relief on a hot summer’s day. Certainly the style and the moniker is borrowed from Pilsen, which is somehow acceptable as most every Beer producing nation turn outs a light colored, easy-drinking Lager that is a mainstay in virtually every pub, club, and restaurant. Even in Belgium, which offers the greatest variety of Beers, people consume the nation’s top Pils, Jupiler, at a greater rate and volume than any other. In truth there is not much difference stylistically in Belgian Pils than a Pilsner from a Scandinavian brewer.
Trappist Ales are very strictly defined Abbey Ales brewed at a monastery of an exact order. Only seven, six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands, breweries/monasteries in the world are permitted to use the Trappist designation. All of these monasteries follow the Cistercian Rule, which is native to the Burgundy region of France, and were forced to leave during the chaotic Napoleonic period.
Trappist Ales do differ greatly dependent upon the brewing monastery. They do all share a common characteristic of significant strength and being bottle conditioned. These are among the most coveted Beers among Beer aficionados.