Belgian Dark Strong Ale: A quad by any other name

Belgians can be kind of touchy when talking about beer styles. They often think of every beer as unique. While they do have beers that can defy classification, some beers share enough common characteristics that allow them to be grouped for ease of discussion. Belgian dark strong ale is one of those styles.

You won’t find any Belgian beers labeled as this style, however. Many often just use a number (typically denoting the obscure and archaic Belgian brewing degrees measure of original gravity), while some may use a differently colored cap or a special name. You might find some labeled Grand Cru, but this is more of a statement of quality than style.

Photo by Charles A. Parker/Images Plus

Belgian dark strong ale as a beer style is entirely a fabrication of those of us who desire to categorize and compare beer. It was named as such because the name is descriptive — all the words in the name carry meaning. And it is meant to contrast against the Duvel-like Belgian golden strong ale style.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) includes Belgian dark strong ale as style 26D within Category 26, Trappist Ale (soon to be renamed Monastic Ale). The other styles within this category include Trappist single (soon to be renamed Belgian single), Belgian dubbel, and Belgian tripel.

With this progression of multiples, why not call the style Belgian quad? Well, in Belgium the term quadrupel isn’t generic — it’s the name of a specific beer (LaTrappe/Konigshoeven Quadrupel). So to avoid confusion, we use the more generic name. Many breweries in the US do call this style quad, however; treat them as synonyms, not separate styles (even though the Brewers Association has separate styles for Belgian-style dark strong ale and Belgian-style quadrupel, they are very similar).

Regardless of what it’s called, it’s a wonderful kind of beer — hopefully, we can all agree on that. It’s certainly one of my absolute favorites.

Belgian Dark Strong Ale History

Belgium has a long history of brewing, and also of religious institutions being related to brewing. It also has a long history of commerce, with the attendant protectionism, marketing, promotion, and myth wrapped up in the history.

While many breweries claim a brewing tradition that goes back several centuries (Leffe, for instance, claims a tradition starting in 1240), this might lead you to believe that there is a continuous history, or that those who claim a religious affiliation actually have one. The first notion is almost certainly false, and many instances of the second one are as well.

Two major events impacted brewing in Belgium. The French Revolution (and the subsequent invasion of modern Belgium, which was then occupied by the Habsburg Austrians, in 1794) closed all churches and religious orders, and suppressed religious worship. Many abbeys and monasteries were destroyed, and property was confiscated. Religious brewing ceased at this time. After Napoleon was defeated, Belgium later gained its independence in 1830. Some monasteries related to brewing were established or reopened then (Westmalle in 1836 was the first).

World War I (1914–1918) was the second major event to impact brewing, as Belgium was a trench warfare battlefield and occupied territory. The occupying Germans requisitioned breweries for their copper, and resources were scarce. Some breweries opened or reopened in the inter-war period (Westmalle in 1922, when it first produced its dubbel). Westvleteren started making their 12 right before World War II (1939–1945). Belgium received less direct impacts from this war, but it was still occupied by the Germans from May 1940 until its final liberation in February 1945.

Belgian dark strong ale as a beer style is entirely a fabrication of those of us who desire to categorize and compare beer.

Other modern examples of Belgian dark strong ales from Trappist monasteries began to appear after World War II: Chimay in 1948 and Rochefort in 1952. More Trappist monasteries started producing beer later, such as Achel towards the end of the 20th century. LaTrappe began making their Quadrupel in 1991, although this brewery is in the Netherlands.

Not all Trappist breweries have a Belgian dark strong ale type beer. Orval is known for its flagship beer, as well as a smaller version. Westmalle does not produce a beer of this type. But the breweries at Chimay, Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Achel certainly are enough to illustrate the range of the style.

Inspired by the popularity of Trappist beers, other breweries started producing beers of similar type (which is basically the definition of a style) around 1960. Many of these beers were called Abbey beers and had a religious connection, although only the Trappists brewed beer under the supervision of monks on religious ground. Many breweries licensed the names and imagery of Abbeys, but do not operate breweries themselves. Leffe, for instance, is owned by ABInBev.

The Trappists created the International Trappist Association in 1997 to protect its trademark. Abbey brewers followed in 1998 with the Certified Belgian Abbey Beer mark. Some breweries making similar beer just use vaguely religious names and aren’t affiliated with these institutions at all. Yet all of them owe their beers to the types first produced by the Trappists.
One thing to note about Trappist beer is that it isn’t a style; it’s a source of origin. Technically, any beer made by a Trappist brewery is a Trappist beer. They could make an imperial stout or IPA, and it would be called Trappist. So the use of the word in a more generic sense to represent a beer style can be confusing; hence the decision by the BJCP to change the style category name in the next edition of the style guidelines.

Sensory Profile

The name Belgian dark strong ale gives you the first clues about this style. It’s a Belgian ale, so it has a spicy and fruity yeast character. It’s darker than golden ales, and it’s usually above 8% ABV in strength. But to stop here is to do a great injustice to the style; it’s like calling sushi (sashimi for true fans) “cold dead fish.”

The aroma and flavor are malty and rich, but the beer shouldn’t be heavy. As with most Belgian ales, the beer is well attenuated with a dry finish. Bitterness is typically restrained, although the Westvleteren 12 is somewhat of an outlier with a higher level that tends to be equally balanced with the malt. Some examples can seem somewhat sweet if the beers are young or if the bitterness is on the low side.

The malt profile is rich and complex, with a deep bready-toasty base and some darker caramel notes. Fruitiness adds complexity to the malt, with the fruit taking the form of dried and/or darker fruit like raisins, plums, figs, dried cherries, or prunes. Peppery and spicy phenols give an accent note. The alcohol can add its own complexity, but should never be hot or solvent-like.

Formerly business partners until the rise of the Trappist certification, two world-renowned Belgian dark strong ales: Brouwerij St. Bernardus’ Abt 12 on the left and Trappist brewery Brouwerij de Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren’s Trappist 12 on the right. Photo by Bernt Rostad

The body can be fairly lean, although younger versions can seem richer and creamier. Carbonation is typically quite high, which causes the beer to have a well-formed and long-lasting head. The color can range from dark amber to a deep copper-brown color, but not black. Likewise, the beer shouldn’t have a roasted malt character.

Hops take a back seat in this beer, with aroma and flavor often absent or very low. Bitterness helps keep it from being cloying or syrupy, but the finish should be dry and malty with significant yeast character. These beers age well, and sometimes have a light beneficial oxidation character.

Contrasting with other styles, a Belgian dark strong ale is darker than a Tripel or Belgian golden strong ale, and stronger than a dubbel. Authentic examples are rarely spiced, although Rochefort is thought to use a trace of coriander. I think saying that the style should have an overt spiced character is fair, since the yeast (and alcohol) often bring a fairly spicy quality.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

I used to think that you had to carefully select malts to build the flavor profile for a beer like this, using malts like Special B for raisiny flavors and Caramunich® III for plum and dark caramel flavors. But those were the days when we couldn’t get good candi syrups that provide those characteristic flavors. While it doesn’t matter which form you use, I think it’s easier to use syrups. The hard candi rocks generally had little flavor and have mostly disappeared from use.

Belgians like to step mash, as do Germans, to produce dry, well-attenuated beers. The use of sugar (up to 20% or so) also helps with this character, although the use of crystal malts can increase the final gravity along with adding flavor. I have seen Belgian breweries use a wide variety of malts, although the most common malt I saw there was Dingemans Pils malt. However, Munich-type malts add a very desirable richness in these beers so should be part of the grist.

Belgian brewers often blend a variety of malts of the same or similar types to get a more complex flavor, so don’t feel too limited (see Josh Pfriem’s “Tips from the Pros” in the January-February 2019 issue for more on this concept). A touch of dark malt for color adjustment is sometimes used, although roasted flavors shouldn’t be perceived in this style. Dark malts have an anti-oxidant effect that can increase beer stability, so I like to include a pinch.

Hops are simple in this style; a bittering addition is all you really need. A light aroma and flavor addition can be nice as long as it is kept in the background. Noble continental hops are most common. Spicy, herbal, and floral qualities that complement the yeast are preferable.

The yeast provides much of the character of the beer (along with the dark candi syrup). The Abbey-type strains are most common. You want ones that provide complex esters with some phenols. The esters should be darker fruit types, and the phenols should be peppery and spicy. Using the banana-and-clove hefeweizen-type yeasts are not appropriate for this style (it might make the beer taste like a weizenbock).

There is no consensus on fermentation temperature for these beers. Multiple breweries often use the same yeast strain but at different temperatures. The Belgian yeast strains usually give a very different character at various temperatures, which is one reason I like to recommend that you find a strain or two you prefer and then run multiple experiments to learn how it performs.

Fruitiness adds complexity to the malt, with the fruit taking the form of dried and/or darker fruit like raisins, plums, figs, dried cherries, or prunes.

Many Belgian breweries tend to use shallow or open fermenters, which encourages ester formation and also allows the fermentation temperatures to not get extreme. I worry about sanitation with these methods, so I tend to go cool on the fermentation and just let it rise (which is how some Belgian breweries do it too).

Trappist examples of the style are bottle conditioned (the Belgians say, “refermented in the bottle”). Remember that higher alcohol beers can use some cellaring to develop their character. I think many are best between six-months and two-years old, but I do like keeping some older “reserve” bottles for special occasions.

Homebrew Example

I’m presenting a fairly complex recipe that uses layers of malt flavor to build a solid base that displays the yeast character well. A mix of Pilsner, pale ale, Munich, dark Munich, and aromatic provide a rich malty flavor with considerable depth. I think the dark Munich and aromatic are important for the final malt flavor, while the other malts could be consolidated if you wish. I like to use continental malts, Belgian if available, otherwise German maltsters.

The darker flavors come primarily from dark candi syrup like D2, which also adds some dark-fruit qualities. Some additional brown sugar provides more flavors like toffee and molasses. Crystal malt adds some caramel. The sugars also help with attenuation, as does a step mash. You don’t want this to taste heavy like a barleywine.

I like the combination of Saaz and Styrian Goldings in many of my Belgian beers, and it’s pretty true to commercial examples. Bitterness is on the lower side so that the beer finishes malty. If you need to adjust your water to add calcium, use calcium chloride since this is a malty beer and the sulfur flavors won’t work as well in the overall balance.

Of course I’m using my favorite Belgian yeast, Wyeast 3787, which comes from Westmalle. I like to start fermentation on the cool side and let it free rise during fermentation to ensure good attenuation. This yeast often quits if you try to cool it prematurely so I tend to let it do what it wants. I like to see the beer drop bright before packaging, which also helps ensure the yeast are done breaking down byproducts they produce during fermentation.

While I often keg this beer, it really is most traditional to prime and bottle condition it. If you do keg the beer, use a lower pressure over a longer time period in a cold environment to help develop the tiny bubbles that make this beer so attractive when poured into a goblet. But if you do bottle it, it’s easier to give me one . . .

Belgian Dark Strong Ale by the numbers:
OG: 1.075–1.110
FG: 1.010–1.024
SRM: 12–22
IBU: 20–35
ABV: 8.0–12.0%

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.091 FG = 1.015
IBU = 24 SRM = 26 ABV = 10.2%

7 lbs. (3.2 kg) Pilsner malt
3 lbs. (1.4 kg) pale ale malt
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) Munich malt
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) dark Munich malt
1 lb. (454 g) aromatic malt
1 lb. (454 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
2 oz. (57 g) chocolate malt
1 lb. (454 g) dark candi syrup (0 min.)
1 lb. (454 g) amber (brown) sugar (0 min.)
5 AAU Saaz hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
3.6 AAU Styrian Goldings hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 3.6% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Saaz hops (5 min.)
Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity) or White Labs WLP500 (Monastery Ale) or LalBrew Abbaye Belgian Ale yeast
1 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp. of calcium chloride directly to the mash.

This recipe uses a step mash. Mash in the Pilsner, pale ale, Munich, dark Munich, and aromatic malts at 144 °F (62 °C) in 23 qts. (22 L) water. Hold for 45 minutes. Raise the temperature to 158 °F (70 °C) and hold for 15 minutes. Add crystal and chocolate malt. Begin recirculating and raise temperature to 168 °F (76 °C) and recirculate for 15 minutes. Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding hops at the times indicated in the recipe. Add the sugars at the end of the boil and stir to dissolve.

Chill the wort to 64 °C (18 °F), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. Allow the beer to free rise in temperature during fermentation.

Rack the beer, prime and bottle (or cask) condition, or keg and force carbonate the beer.

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.091 FG = 1.015
IBU = 24 SRM = 26 ABV = 10.2%

6.5 lbs. (2.9 kg) pale liquid malt extract
3.25 lbs. (1.5 kg) Munich liquid malt extract
1 lb. (454 g) crystal malt (40 °L)
2 oz. (57 g) chocolate malt
1 lb. (454 g) dark candi syrup (0 min.)
1 lb. (454 g) amber (brown) sugar (0 min.)
5 AAU Saaz hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 5% alpha acids)
3.6 AAU Styrian Goldings hops (10 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 3.6% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) Saaz hops (5 min.)
Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity) or White Labs WLP500 (Monastery Ale) or LalBrew Abbaye Belgian Ale yeast
1 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Step by Step
Start with 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat to 158 °F (70 °C).

Turn off the heat. Add the crystal and chocolate malt in a mesh bag and steep for 30 minutes. Remove and rinse grains gently.

Add the malt extracts and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Turn the heat back on and bring to a boil. Follow the all-grain recipe’s step by step for boil, fermentation, and packaging instructions.

Issue: May-June 2020