Last weeks release of Getsumengaho got me thinking about Belgian Beer. Yo-Ho classified their beer as a Belgian Pale Ale, but what does that mean?
The term Pale Ale came about in the early 1700s to denote beer made with malt that had been dried in a coke fired oven rather than over a wood fire. This new process allowed brewers to make beers that were much lighter in color and flavor than had been previously possible. These days almost all malt is dried this way, and the differences in color and flavor come from the barley variety and the temperature at which the malt is dried. Higher temperatures give a darker, more burned flavor to the finished beer.
Belgian brewing is probably most famous for the abbey related beers like the Trappist Chimay. There is also the wild fermented lambic beers, and the strong, dry and easy to drink pale ales. The terms Belgian Pale Ale and Belgian Blonde can be synonymous and usually refer to a heavily carbonated beer that is very light in color with low hop flavor and with an alcohol by volume of 4-7%. These beers often have a bit of “spice” in the nose and flavor, but while some Belgian styles will use actual spices, here the flavors come from the yeast. The Belgian Pale ale also has a big brother, the Belgian Strong Pale Ale. The most famous example of this version is the excellent Duvel. The Strong Pale Ale is a beer of similarly light color and flavors, but that has an abv of 7-12%. Duvel means Devil, and that is an appropriate name for such a powerful and easy drinking beer. Many other breweries have copied this naming convention for their own stronger Belgian beers.
These beers are not very strongly hopped, and have a pretty minimal malt character as well. They are easy drinking, with that nice slightly funky, slightly spicy character that you get when you use Belgian yeast. The light color and crisp flavor is obtained by using regular sugar as an adjunct ingredient. Malted barley has more than just fermentable sugars in it, so the more malt that is used to make a beer the more flavor and body it will have. This is why very high alcohol beers like Imperial IPAs and Imperial Stouts are often very heavy. In contrast to barely malt, average every day table sugar will ferment totally, it leaves nothing but alcohol and co2 behind. This lets you add alcoholic strength to your beer, while keeping the color and body very light. This is why Duvel and the other big Belgian beers taste and feel light despite their hefty abv.
Using something like table sugar in beer is not new to Belgian brewing. Their brewing traditions have long embraced using adjuncts, things that are not malt, hops and yeast. In fact, one of the purposes of the famous Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law) was to reduce competition with Belgian beers that were using spices and fruit.
Japanese brewers have really embraced the Belgian Wit style, but the Pale Ale is less popular. However, there are some pretty easy to find imports. Both Leffe Blonde and the Kristoffel Kloosterbier are in stock at my local Yamaya, though while delicious enough neither is really fantastic. The Orval Trappist Ale is absolutely fantastic, and also present locally. For those who want a bit more pizazz the stronger Duvel is widely available as well.
Getsumengaho itself certainly falls into the Pale Ale/ Blonde category here, though the brewers have taken some liberties by using a fair amount of more citrus flavored American hops for flavoring. The beer is still not very bitter, but the spicy Belgian yeast notes combine really well with the orange and lemon flavors from the hops. I enjoyed the beer a lot, it tasted great and was very drinkable. It felt like a great beer for the back patio on a warm June night. Seeing this sort of stylistic melding in the Japanese craft scene is very heartening. Of course I am disappointed that Getsumengaho is limited and only available from Amazon.co.jp, but I am happy that it exists in the first place.
What do think of Belgian styles? What is your favorite Belgian Pale Ale? And what style should I cover in my next style guide entry? Let me know in the comments!