“What’s your favorite type of beer?”
“Oh, I love a good Belgian! Big, robust, a meal in their own. They are the best beers I have ever had….”
How many of us have stepped into a conversation that sounds like this? Saying that your favorite style is “Belgian” is akin to saying that your favorite team is Baseball. One must think of Belgian beer much the same way one thinks of French wine. “I’m not having red, I’m having a rich Bordeaux.” “I’m not drinking a Belgian beer, I am drinking a Trappist double”, or a “Flemish sour.” Belgium is one of the richly diverse of all the beer producing countries, with many distinct styles and flavor profiles.
This being said, how does one decide on a Belgian bier to imbibe? Now that the cold, wet weather has broken, and the sun is out and we yearn to be outside I suggest an exploration into the Belgian Blonde Ale.
Blondes are as iconic to a hot European summer day as an ice cold American lager is here. The most well known producer is Duvel, though many breweries also create amazing examples. Light in body and easy drinking, it is one of the most common, easily quaffable brews around. At 6-7.5% ABV you won’t feel bad about quenching your thirst with more than one.
Really? This is a Belgian? Light, easy drinking? But, I thought Belgian meant that it was 10%, heady, a meal on its own, something I have to cellar to appreciate.
Not at all. This is a beer with restraint, and many almost Pilsner-like qualities. Belgian blondes are highly carbonated and have a medium body which often gives them a creamy mouthfeel. They have citrus fruit esters and slight spice notes, which mixed with their medium ABV creates a complex, but still lighthearted beer. Much of the flavor comes from the use of Pilsner malt which gives off a somewhat sweet, cereal grain note. It is common practice in this style to add table sugar to the wort which adds a touch of sweetness to the finished product. Table sugar is used primarily due to cost, but if you would like, candy sugar will do the trick as well.
Although blondes have a dry mouthfeel, they have very little hops added to them. These beers should have a medium or less bitterness. Classic Belgians should have one or more of the noble varietals of hops, with many of the American being too upfront and robust. Most of the bitterness of these beers actually comes from the alcohol and high carbonation. So experiment, if you dare, with hops levels and when to add flavoring hops. Many micro-breweries have started to experiment with hops, but have started altering the form from their classically styled European counterparts.
Because this style is so wide spread in Belgium, there are many strains of yeasts that encompass the classic flavor profile. Many of the classic Belgian yeasts will do the trick, and it is your call as to which particular flavors you are looking for. You want a yeast that will produce great lemon, orange, and grapefruit notes, along with light phenolic pepper/clove notes. Remember the spice should be secondary to the fresh citrus and the grain notes of the Pilsner malt.
What should I be drinking this brew from? The bottle? A stein?
No, no no!! As with most Belgian beers the blondes are bottle conditioned, which means they are unfiltered and create sediment in the bottom of the bottle. Since the sediment is quite off-putting it is best to drink a blonde from a glass. A tulip glass is best suited here because the shape will allow for an ample head and focuses the nose.
Belgian Blonde Ales are the perfect answer to a hot summer day in the yard, or rush hour traffic. The lighter alcohol and body will quench your thirst without making you feel full, or put you under the table. It’s refreshing sweetness, lightly bitter hops and high carbonation will make you feel like you are sitting at a street-side table in a Brussels cafe. Prost!