For our 23rd session, we took on Category 25 — the Strong Belgian Ales.
Category 25. Strong Belgian Ale
Of the category summary, my notes say “no need for highlights — whole thing is a highlight”:
This category contains the pale, well-attenuated, balanced to bitter beers, often more driven by yeast character than malt flavors, with generally higher alcohol (although a range exists within styles).
|25A. Belgian Blond Ale||25B. Saison||25C. Belgian Golden Strong Ale|
|15 – 30 IBU||20 – 35 IBU||22 – 35 IBU|
|1.062 – 1.075 O.G.||1.048 – 1.065 (standard) O.G.||1.070 – 1.095 O.G.|
|1.008 – 1.018 F.G.||1.002 – 1.008 F.G.||1.005 – 1.016 F.G.|
|6.0 – 7.5% ABV||3.5 – 5.0% (table)
5.0 – 7.0% (standard)
7.0 – 9.5% (super) ABV
|7.5 – 10.5% ABV|
As the category summary indicates, there is a lot of overlap in the sensory characteristics of these three beer styles. All of them are pale — though Saisons (rascals that they are) can veer off into amber varieties. High attenuation and a dry finish is also a shared defining characteristic — though this does not imply that they should necessarily have thin bodies. And while all of them should be bitter on balance, it’s really only the Belgian Golden Strong Ale that should ever be “highly” bitter (and even then, not approaching American IPA levels by any means). Lastly, all three of them have their flavor profiles largely driven by their yeast, though the specific impressions will vary.
What distinguishes each style? Of the three, the Belgian Blond Ale should show the most subtle yeast character; it also should have the sweetest overall aroma and flavor. The Saison has a wide variety of interpretations, but should be strongly yeast expressive, with citrusy esters and peppery phenols; and while not strictly required, the style guide suggests that a Saison “should” contain a non-trivial proportion of “non-barley cereal grains” (e.g., wheat, rye, spelt). Lastly, the Belgian Golden Strong Ale is another style with a strong yeast character — pome fruit esters and peppery phenols; but I also like how you can summarize it as “basically a Tripel” but paler and lighter-bodied and crisper and drier.
We had a bit of a small group, but after talking through a couple quick points (chiefly which styles we would score), we got into it.
- 25A. Belgian Blond Ale. Abbaye de Leffe Blond. Judged/scored; structured tasting. The group’s scores were pretty evenly distributed between 34 and 44; and while it wasn’t exactly a divisive beer, there was a variety of interpretations on what was appropriate vs. not. Several of us picked up a banana note, but some interpreted it as an ester, and others as a phenol. Some suspected slight DMS; others acetaldehyde’s “green apple”; still others believed that they sensed a smoky character that could have been oxidized. The consensus was that the beer was good-tasting, but perhaps a little oxidized and that perhaps there had been a problem with fermentation.
- 25B. Saison. La Saison d’Epeautre by Brasserie de Blaugies. Judged/scored; structured tasting. Group scores ranged from 33 to 39. In discussing the beer, the consensus was that the beer was a “by the numbers” decent saison — but that it lacked the complexity that we would expect from the style. We reviewed our sensory impressions and compared them to the style guide, and while we found so many places where we could “check that box”, we also found those elements to be “present but weak”. This led us into a discussion of how to weight those considerations when scoring.
- 25B. Saison. Homebrew Sorachi Ace Saison clone. Not scored; casual comparative tasting. It was an interesting comparison to the last one. Comparing a standard to a super, for starters. But also to give spit-ball scores and be able to check assumptions against the verifiable facts.
- 25B. Saison. Homebrew example. Not scored; casual tasting. Very herbal; basil or mint and/or thyme? Floral. Perhaps a little under-attenuated, and not quite bitter enough. Would likely have scored in the high 20s or low 30s.
- 25B. Saison. Another homebrew example. Not scored; casual tasting. Oxidized and sherry-like, honey-like notes taken on by the malt. There was also an inappropriate berry-like ester. Estimated a low to mid 20s score. (That said, it was at least a year old and might have been just fine twelve months ago.)
- Guess that style exercise. I poured four ounce samples of Negra Modelo into opaque red cups and distributed these to the group members. After a few minutes of structured tasting, I polled the room for their guesses:
- American Brown Ale
- American Strong Ale
- Dunkles Bock
- Strong Bitter
Dark American Lager1
After the guesses were in, I revealed the beer and the fact that it’s marketed as a Vienna Lager. “Altbier was… pretty close.” (Seems most folks overestimate the alcohol content though?)
- 25C. Belgian Golden Strong Ale. Brouwerij Van Steenberge Piraat. Not judged; casual tasting. Consensus was that, while tasty, the beer was under-attenuated and, though not full-on solventy, a little hot. Likely low 30s.
- 25C. Belgian Golden Strong Ale. Duvel. A
3-5year old bottle of it. Strongly oxidized. Normally a beer that I love, but this was quite nearly undrinkable.
- Bonus beers. A Dark Mild. A smoked chipotle stout. A cocoa-chili stout.
- Study your styles; know the comparisons. The performance on the “guess that style” was a bit of a surprise to me — just how far off most of the guesses were.
- Don’t be afraid to judge on “complexity”. The numbers matter, but you can’t know those (not really). And as we’ve seen a few times, a beer can technically have a certain quality that it’s “supposed to have” and still not come across as well-executed. This matters; factor that into your score.
- Seems that someone had accidentally flipped his BJCP style guide app to the 2008 guidelines.