CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In my last column, I spent some time discussing the history and importance of Belgium in brewing and beer culture. I tackled the subtle differences between Abbey and Trappist beers.
In this column I will try to further untangle the Belgian beer web by simplifying the complex subject of the beer generally known as "Belgian Strong Ale."
Belgian Strong Ales come in two basic varieties: Golden Strong and Dark Strong.
Golden Strong beers are very light in color and high in alcohol. Many are "Devilishly" named, such as Duvel (pronounced Doovull), Flemish for devil. Duvel is the standard-bearer of this style, forming a ginormous frothy white head on top of a beautifully golden, clear ale. This beer (as most of its stylistic brethren) is dangerously smooth and drinkable, but it packs a real kick at 8.5 percent alcohol by volume.
These beers are not supposed to be challenging to the palate, just dangerously drinkable. The best beers in this category have little to no noticeable warming alcohol in the aroma or flavor. The brewer must have excellent yeast and fermentation control to pull this off -- and it's not easy. The beer's initial fermentability is achieved with the use golden syrup derived from sucrose.
Other Goldens that rate are "Piraat" (The Pirate), which is a slightly darker and stronger beer. Piraat pushes the envelope, being almost too complex but it still fits in and is available locally. I like golden ale as an aperitif or paired with simple creamy cheeses.
The Dark Strong category has a wide range of contenders and players. A few of the strongest Trappist ales are often considered in this style category. Complexity in these beers is the norm; these beers often gush with flavors of dark dried fruits, pears and berries. "Date and raisin" is not an uncommon description with best examples also adding some bready notes to go along.
Brewers use a variety of toasted barley malts along with dark candied syrups derived from sucrose to achieve high fermentability, dark color and fruity complexity. The warming flavor of alcohol is easier to hide in these beers, but peeks out once in a while in some examples. High carbonation is expected and naturally achieved by conditioning in the bottle. Care must be taken not to shake the yeast cake before and while serving either Dark or Golden ales.
There are a few very nice Dark-Strong ales available locally; Gulden Draak is one that comes to mind. The stronger dark Trappist brews, such as Chimay (Blue Label) and Rochefort 10 are also good choices. These beers can take on more challenging food pairings such as stronger cheeses and heavier, heartier fare like roasted meats and game.
For more on the craft of beer, see Rich Ireland's "Beers to You" blog at thegazz.com.