Article

Belgian Pale Ale

by the numbers
OG: 1.048­–1.054 (11.9–13.3 °P)
FG: 1.010–1.014 (2.6–3.6 °P)
SRM: 8–14
IBU: 20–30
ABV: 4.8–5.5%

Mick, the bartender at the Monk’s Kettle in San Francisco, serves me a De Koninck. He pours it in a traditional bowl-shaped De Koninck beer glass, called a bolleke once it is filled with beer. The beer is light copper in color with a rocky, white head. As I drink, the beer transports me back to Antwerp, Belgium, home of the De Koninck brewery. I once spent the day running around Antwerp and by the afternoon I was hot, tired, and thirsty. I eased into a bar and ordered a De Koninck, which is the everyday beer of the locals and perhaps the world’s best commercial example of Belgian pale ale. A bolleke of this refreshing, easy-drinking beer quickly cooled me down, washing away the heat and exhaustion of my day and cementing itself as another treasured entry in my personal beer moment library.

Many brewers assume any Belgian beer is either high in alcohol or sour and funky, which isn’t true. Belgian pale ales generally range from 4.8 to 5.5% ABV and are neither sour nor funky. They range in color from amber to copper and their bitterness ranges from 20 to 30 IBU. They are well balanced beers, with moderate alcohol levels and an even finish, making them a nice choice for whiling away a hot afternoon. De Koninck, like most Belgian pale ales, has an initial malt sweetness which trails off into an even or maybe slightly dry finish. The finish of a Belgian pale ale should be neither sweet nor overly dry. (If you’re sampling these beers keep in mind that the balance of a bottled De Koninck is often a little bit sweeter after being shipped around the world.) This beer also has a malty character (grainy, bready, biscuity) and a pear and orange fruitiness that is clearly evident but not really bold. Other examples of the style, like Speciale Palm, Dobble Palm, Russian River Perdition and Ginder Ale may or may not have the same pear and orange notes, but moderate fruitiness in both the aroma and flavor is required. While the fruitiness can be readily apparent, it shouldn’t be as bold as some other Belgian beer styles and it should not be so prominent that it overshadows the malt character. Any spicy phenolic notes, when present, should not be more than a low background note; a tiny touch of clove-like spiciness is all it takes. These beers should also have a slight touch of caramel malt apparent, but don’t assume that means it is a sweet character. We’re talking about caramel flavor, independent of the caramel sweetness. This might come across to some as a rich toasty note instead. In either case, a background note is all it takes. Overall, this is an easy-drinking, everyday beer, and it is important to brew Belgian pale ale with that in mind. Many poor examples of this style have too bold a spicy character and way too sweet a finish. It is not uncommon for new brewers to mistakenly turn this into a big, alcoholic, very phenolic beer.

If there is a key to brewing this style, it is balance and restraint. This goes for ingredients and especially for fermentation character. While there are esters and phenols from fermentation, it is much more restrained than most Belgian-style beers. It can be tricky to get all of the factors aligned for an ideal result. De Koninck is reported to go through fermentation at 77 to 80 °F (25 to 27 °C), but the times I’ve tried fermenting that warm, it resulted in hotter alcohols and more fruitiness than I prefer. So, for my process I use a reduced fermentation temperature around 66 to 68 °F (19 to 20 °C) which seems to better mimic the profile of De Koninck and other examples. There are many factors that work in concert with fermentation temperature to create esters and phenols in a beer, such as yeast strain, yeast health, oxygen levels, wort composition, and fermenter geometry. You may find a higher or lower temperature gives you the ideal result, so don’t be afraid to tweak the parameters until you get it right.

One would think that the perfect base grain for Belgian pale ale would be Belgian pale ale malt. This is two-row malt, kilned similar to British pale ale malt. However, the most often used base malt for this style is continental Pilsner malt. Pilsner malt lends a slightly sweet, grainy malt character to the beer, different from Belgian pale ale malt. If you can source it, Belgian Pilsner malt is ideal. If you can’t, don’t worry, even the Belgian brewers use other continental Pilsner malts. If you’re an extract brewer, try to use an extract made from Pilsner malt.

A splash of caramel malt adds color and hints of caramel flavor. Don’t add so much that the beer has a bold caramel flavor or the balance becomes sweet. I’ve used everything from CaraVienne (~20 °L) to CaraMunich® (~40, 50 and 60 °L) with good results. I would not recommend using something lighter than 20 °L nor anything darker than 60 °L. The caramel character should be like caramel, not raisin or sweet candy. Too dark or too light a caramel malt will result in a different character for the beer; 4 to 10% caramel malt in the 20 to 60 °L range is about right.

One thing I love about some commercial examples of Belgian pale ale is the upfront grainy/bready malt character and to mimic it I like to add 1 to 3% of a specialty grain, such as biscuit, aromatic, or Munich. You can experiment with other character grains, but remember this beer is all about balance and drinkability, so don’t overwhelm the base flavors with specialty malts. A little goes a long way.

Belgian pale ale has a medium to medium-light body. For all-grain brewers, a mash temperature around 152 °F (67 °C) strikes a nice balance between fermentable and non-fermentable sugars. For extract brewers, most light colored extracts will get you fairly close. If not, you can make your extract-based wort more fermentable by replacing a portion of your extract with table or corn sugar. To build body in an extract-based beer, you can steep a specialty malt such as CaraPils® to increase the non-fermentable sugars in the wort.

Bittering is also moderate, balancing any residual sweetness. Target a bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) between 0.4 and 0.6. The bulk of the hopping should be as a bittering addition at 60 minutes. Like the other aspects of this style, hop character is restrained. Because hop flavor and aroma is not much more than a background note, you can use almost any floral or spicy hop, such as Saaz, Kent Goldings, Hallertau, Tettnang, Mount Hood or Liberty. De Koninck uses Saaz hops, but again the overall result is very subtle, especially in the bottled product. While not to style or traditional, I think this is a style that can support more hop flavor and aroma than is common in commercial examples. It isn’t to style, but in the past I’ve enjoyed this beer with an ounce or more of hops at flame out. Don’t use citrusy or catty American-type hops, as they seem to clash with, rather than accentuate, the phenols and ester from fermentation. Stick with the floral or spicy varieties if you decide to experiment with bold hop character.

Two great yeasts for brewing this style are Wyeast 3655 (Belgian Schelde) or White Labs WLP515 (Antwerp Ale). You can’t go wrong with either product. If you can’t get either of those yeasts, you might try Wyeast 3522 (Belgian Ardennes) or White Labs 550 (Belgian Ale). When selecting yeast, try to pick one that produces minimal or no spicy phenols and moderate fruity esters. Whatever yeast you use, remember to work with it to keep the esters in check. You might change the pitch rate up or down and try fermentation temperatures on the cooler end of the yeasts’ range. If you want to use dry yeast, your best choice is probably Fermentis Safbrew T-58.

Antwerp Afternoon

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.052 (12.8 °P)
FG = 1.012 (3.1 °P)
IBU = 27 SRM = 8 ABV = 5.3%

Ingredients

10.0 lbs. (4.54 kg) Durst Pilsner or similar Belgian Pilsner malt (~1.6 °L)
10.0 oz. (284 g) Dingemans Cara45 malt (~60 °L)
4.0 oz. (113 g) Dingemans Biscuit malt (25 °L)
5.5 AAU Kent Golding pellet hops
(1.1 oz./31 g) 5% alpha acid (60 min.)
1.25 AAU Kent Golding pellet hops
(0.25 oz./7 g) 5% alpha acid (0 min.)
White Labs WLP515 (Antwerp Ale) or Wyeast 3655 (Belgian Schelde) yeast

Step by Step

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 152 °F (67 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. Infuse the mash with near boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting the wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.5 gallons (24.4 L) and the gravity is 1.040 (10.1 °P).

The total wort boil time is 90 minutes, which helps reduce the SMM present in the lightly kilned pilsner malt and results in less DMS in the finished beer. Add the bittering hops with 60 minutes remaining in the boil. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil and add the last hop addition just before shutting off the burner. Chill the wort rapidly to 66 °F (19 °C), let the break material settle, rack to the fermenter, pitch the yeast and aerate thoroughly.

Ferment around 66 °F (19 °C) until the yeast drops clear. With healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in a week, but don’t rush it. The cooler than average ale fermentation temperature can extend the time it takes for the beer to attenuate fully. Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2.5 volumes.

Antwerp Afternoon

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.053 (13.1 °P)
FG = 1.013 (3.2 °P)
IBU = 27 SRM = 8 ABV = 5.3%

Ingredients

7.0 lbs. (3.17 kg) Pilsner liquid malt extract (2.3 °L)
10.0 oz. (284 g) Dingemans Cara45 malt (~60 °L)
4.0 oz. (113 g) Dingemans Biscuit malt (25 °L)
5.5 AAU Kent Golding pellet hops
(1.1 oz./31 g) 5% alpha acid (60 min.)
1.25 AAU Kent Golding pellet hops
(0.25 oz./7 g) 5% alpha acid (0 min.)
White Labs WLP515 (Antwerp Ale) or Wyeast 3655 (Belgian Schelde) yeast

Step by Step

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malts. Mix them well and place loosely in a grain bag. Steep the bag in 1⁄2 gallon (~2 liters) of 170 °F (77 °C) water for about 30 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with warm water. Allow the bags to drip into the kettle for a few minutes while you add the malt extract. Do not squeeze the bags. Add enough water to the steeping liquor and malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.045 (11.2 °P). Stir thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil.

Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is 1 hour after adding the bittering hops. Add the Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil and add the last hop addition just before shutting off the burner. Chill the wort rapidly to 66 °F (19 °C), let the break material settle, rack to the fermenter, pitch the yeast and aerate thoroughly.
Ferment around 66 °F (19 °C) until the yeast drops clear. With healthy yeast, fermentation should be complete in a week, but don’t rush it. The cooler than average ale fermentation temperature can extend the time it takes for the beer to attenuate fully. Rack to a keg and force carbonate or rack to a bottling bucket, add priming sugar, and bottle. Target a carbonation level of 2.5 volumes.