Belgian brewery established at the peak of the industrial revolution
Saturday 23 October 2021
This article is from
A Brief History of Beer
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In the world of traditional Belgian brewing, Duvel is a relative whippersnapper at 150 years old, one of a clutch of Belgian breweries established at the peak of the industrial revolution. It’s undoubtedly one of the best-known Belgian ales internationally and, while it may not be the oldest, it serves as an instantly recognisable reference point for many. Strong and pale, with intense carbonation, light, biscuity malt and powerful phenolic and ester notes.
The brewery’s Simon Brooks explains that, in terms of process and ingredients, Belgium has always had a “fermentation-first” brewing tradition. Whereas many modern craft brewers will arrange the other ingredients primarily to frame the hops, Belgian beers are built around the flavours that come out during fermentation.
“I think that’s what makes Belgian beers distinct,” he says. “It’s a historical thing, really, because the native hops of Belgium have never been that exciting. It’s sort of like hops in the UK. Duvel actually uses Saaz and Goldings; the same hops you might find in a lager. So without lots of hop character, you need to wake the beer up with something else; in Belgium, that’s always been partly about malt, but much more about the fermentation.
“It’s a very diverse family of yeasts that are used in Belgium, but they all have something in common, which is very high rates of esters and phenols. That’s what gives you that characteristic fruity, banana, peardrop, peppery, clove kind of flavours and aromas. And I think a lot of the most renowned Belgian beers are in that realm really. Duvel is, definitely, with very pale malt that doesn’t impart masses of flavour.”
Interestingly, Duvel started out essentially as a clone of a Scotch ale, subjected to a warm fermentation and a long conditioning period to give it those hallmark Belgian notes and lively carbonation. Indeed, up until 1971, it was a much darker beer, switching to its current light straw blonde colour to reflect drinkers’ changing preferences.
“What makes Belgian beer history so interesting for me is that it’s so innovative, while simultaneously being so slow-moving,” says Simon. “For example, Duvel has been in its current guise for 50 years now. And in that time, there have been other variants that have come and gone, but there’s been not a huge amount of playing with the formula. It’s all been about making one perfect product.
“And I think that’s where craft brewing is very different; you have to constantly diversify your products, or else you just get forgotten. That said, I think there are some brewers in the UK that are gradually coming round to a more Belgian way of working – I’m thinking of folk like Five Points and Thornbridge – where they’re building their business around one or two really cool beers.”
Belgium’s brewing tradition clearly gets a lot of respect from modern craft brewers, particularly those involved in wild and mixed fermentation, and I would argue its influence among progressive US brewers continues to grow. However, in many ways it still stands apart from the mainstream, not cross-pollinating ideas in the same way as British, American and German beer culture has.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Belgian attitude to defining style; something we’re obsessed with. “I’ve met a lot of very experienced head brewers in Belgium and they’re so unconcerned with style,” says Simon. “In the UK, we go to a tap room, and be told ‘this is a DDH pale’ or something like that. Whenever I’ve been offered something new and experimental in Belgium, they don’t try to describe it in the kind of terms that we all inherited from Michael Jackson. So, for example, La Chouffe is really hard to categorise – it’s not a blonde, it’s not a triple – so at the end of the day it’s… just La Chouffe!”
There is some crossover at the leading edge though, and the Duvel beer in this month’s box, 6.66%, is a great example of this, as it takes many of its cues from modern craft brewing and beer culture. Perhaps most noticeable on the brewing front is the gentle but distinct dry hopping, which adds a soft, fresh, tropical note uncommon in traditional Belgian ales. While not exactly a session beer, the slight drop in ABV does change the character, and brings 6.66% into the ballpark where you might consider ordering a pint if you were feeling brave.
Which brings us to arguably the most significant difference in 6.66%: the carbonation. Traditionally, Belgian beer culture has been very bottle-centric, with keg beer seen as if not second-class, then certainly in a different category to serious ales. For Duvel, the focus on bottles has been practical as much as cultural, as its very high level of carbonation (around 2.5 volumes) makes it impossible to serve on draught without complex, specialist equipment. Brewed specifically to work with less carbonation, 6.66% is Duvel’s nod to the pint-drinking, keg-driven world of (particularly British and Irish) craft beer.
“The objective with 6.66% was to take that distinctive Duvel character, give it a slightly softer palate, more drinkability, and make it available on draft because that’s what a lot of markets want now, including the UK. It’s got a very strong fermentation character. It’s very, very crisp and refreshing. It’s still got a nice biscuity malt base to it. But the subtle dry hopping makes it a little bit softer. It’s also partially filtered, so there’s a little bit of haze and a slightly softer mouthfeel as well.”
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