Break the Rules Like a Belgian Brewer

No nation has a more interesting and diverse brewing tradition than that of Belgium. This small European country is divided between two major language groups that speak a dialect of Dutch as well as French, but united in their love of a wide range of beer styles. More than 100 breweries vary in size from small artisanal operations recreating historical beers that otherwise would be extinct to the headquarters of the world’s largest (by volume) brewing conglomerate, InBev.

Over the past two decades there has been a swell of interest in Belgian-style beers in North America.  Several small breweries — and at least one medium-sized brewery — now devote all or much of their efforts to recreating or reinterpreting these beers on this side of the Atlantic.

Many homebrewers come late to Belgian brewing. Some of them require a more complex brewing process, longer aging, and blending of more than one beer, as opposed to more straightforward styles. Specific gravities can be somewhat higher, requiring more ingredients and larger equipment capacity. Some of these ingredients — for example, spices, exotic brewing sugars and bacterial culture — may have to be obtained outside the normal homebrewing channels, or even improvised. However, not all Belgian styles require a monk’s patience, a nobleman’s budget or a professional brewer’s equipment. So these obstacles should not stand in the way of any homebrewer with the interest, desire and a moderate level of experience.

As for the rewards, some of these styles are only sporadically imported and distributed commercially, and therefore have limited availability in North America.

Breaking the rules

To some extent, Belgian brewing is a matter of bending — or even outright breaking — the rules associated with more conventional beers. Clarity is often not a priority, as some Belgian beers are decidedly cloudy. Witbier and lambic recipes sometimes specify what is called a “turbid mash,” in which the mash liquid is boiled and added back to the grain solids as a means of raising the temperature between steps. Some Belgian beers include a variety of adjunct grains, both malted and unmalted, such as wheat, oats and corn. Likewise, sugars account for 20 percent or more of the total fermentables in some of these brews.

Belgian styles tend to be high in original gravity, low in the final gravity and correspondingly high in alcohol. This requires highly fermentable wort. All-grain brewers can employ a saccharification rest at a lower temperature (148–150 ºF/64–65 °C); this encourages the production of simple sugars that are more easily metabolized by the yeast. A rest in (or ramp through) lower temperatures may also help. Extract brewers should use the most fermentable (typically also the lightest in color) extract they can find, and also increase the percentage of ordinary sugar in the recipe to make up for the fact that malt extract tends to be lower in fermentability.

Many of the yeast strains used in Belgian brewing are available only in liquid form, although recently a couple of dried varieties have become available. In general, you will want to make a large yeast starter — 1–2 qts. (~1–2 L) for 5-gallon (19-L) batches — and aerate the chilled wort extremely well. Some commercial Belgian ales are brewed with pitching rates lower than the usual ale rate. With lower pitching rates, however, you risk the chance of a stuck or overly sluggish fermentation.

Carbonation levels also tend to be higher in many of these beers. For these reasons, Belgian breweries often pitch additional yeast at bottling. A neutral ale strain (dried yeast is convenient for this) will produce carbonation with little additional effect on flavor.

The major yeast suppliers produce a variety of Belgian yeast strains, but sometimes you may wish to use one that is not easily available. In some cases it’s possible to culture the yeast sediment from a bottle of a commercial Belgian-style beer. This may not be successful in every case — as the yeast may not be very healthy due to the high alcohol content, long aging or poor handling — but it may be worth a try if you are adventuresome and enjoy “yeast ranching.”

Many Belgian beers feature distinctive estery and phenolic flavor profiles. This is a consequence of the yeast, but also greatly influenced by the fermentation temperature. Each strain has its own character and suggested temperature range; sometimes deliberately manipulating the temperature profile can produce rather different beers from the same yeast. It’s worth experimenting to determine what seems to work best. As mentioned, Belgian styles tend to be well attenuated. One method of encouraging more complete fermentation is to raise the temperature as fermentation activity begins to subside. This can make Belgian brewing a good summertime activity when the temperature in your fermenting space may be relatively warm. Some Belgian styles (saison, for example) are fermented at temperatures as high as the low 80s Fahrenheit (around 28 °C). In many cases, however, the beer is pitched  at lower temperatures — 65–70 °F (18–21 °C) — and allowed to heat up during fermentation. And, even with warmer than average fermentation temperatures, many Belgian beers require more time to attenuate than an English-style ale of the same starting gravity.

How sweet it is

Belgian brewers often use various sugars in their brewing. This boosts the alcohol content and increases fermentability without leaving a sweet finish. Because the yeast more easily metabolizes these simple sugars, it results in a drier rather than sweeter beer. Many Belgian beers “hide” their alcohol surprisingly well and are relatively refreshing despite a high original specific gravity. The use of sugar in the range to 10 to 20 percent (by weight) of the total fermentables is not at all uncommon. Typically, the sugars are added at the end of the boil.

There is some controversy about the kind of sugar used. Texts on Belgian brewing and homebrew recipes often refer to “candi” sugar, which usually has been interpreted in North America to mean the large crystalline sugar used in rock candy. This is available in light, amber and dark colors. The darker varieties have noticeable caramel and even slight licorice flavors, but lack the intensity of the sugars used by Belgian brewers. Recently it has been revealed that most Belgian breweries actually use sugar syrups that have been caramelized to varying degrees.

For styles and recipes calling for light or clear candi sugar, you can substitute white table sugar in the same amount. The differences between clear sugar syrup and common cane or beet sugar are minimal; as a practical matter, they are just about equally fermentable. The brewer of a silver medal-winning tripel at the Great American Beer Festival stated that he used the same cane sugar as his brewpub’s restaurant kitchen.

Age before beauty

Higher alcohol beers tend to benefit from long aging, and Belgians are no exception to this rule. The beer should be transferred to a secondary fermenter when fermentation is complete. This removes the beer from the yeast that can have a negative effect on flavor if left for a long time. During conditioning, the higher alcohols produced in a warm fermentation break down, and other undesirable byproducts are reduced, making the beer less “hot” and encouraging the flavors to blend and mellow.

Any fruits used in Belgian brewing are typically added when the beer is racked to the secondary fermenter. Especially for sour styles, secondary yeast strains or bacterial cultures may be added at this time. These are available as blends from the major yeast producers, or as individual cultures. Some of them take months, or even as long as a couple of years, to complete their job. You are likely to want to sample the beer periodically in order to determine the progress and the overall effect on the flavor. Some sour-beer brewers maintain separate equipment for their “wild” brews so that their other, “normal,”  beers are not contaminated due to contact with them.

Some Belgian beers are matured in wooden casks, occasionally for years. The effect of the wood can be imitated by the use of oak chips or pellets. Because of the unpredictability, blending of these Belgian styles is a common practice. Often a portion of aged beer produced with the help of additional microorganisms is blended to taste with a younger, conventionally fermented beer. This allows the brewer to control the sourness and “wild” character, achieving a level of flavor and character unique to each batch.

Embrace your inner Belgian

Belgian-style brewing has its challenges and may not be for everyone, but if you have any interest whatsoever in these wonderful and diverse beers from this small nation across the ocean, you owe it to yourself to indulge your curiosity and creativity. It just might be the beginning of a magnificent obsession that results in something of which you could once only dream. Moreover, there is the exciting possibility of creating unique beers unduplicated anywhere else and by anyone other than you.


Make Caramel Syrup: A more flavorful — and authentic — alternative to amber or dark “candi” sugar.

Over medium heat in a clean, very smooth skillet, add about a cup of white table sugar with a teaspoon of cream of tartar or lemon juice or a pinch of citric acid. (This will help “invert” the glucose-fructose bond in the sucrose). The sugar will melt, become pale yellow, turn tan, various shades of brown and finally nearly black. A medium shade is about right for amber syrup. Stir constantly so that the solution doesn’t actually burn. Use a high temperature silicon rubber spatula or metal spoon that will not char or melt.

Remove the skillet from the heat before the sugar smokes, smells burnt or catches fire (yes, it eventually can flame if you are not careful). Pour the melted, caramelized sugar onto a piece of aluminum foil on a surface that heat will not damage, such as a thick cookie sheet or cutting board covered with a towel. Scrape the skillet clean with the spatula or spoon. The hardened sugar will look like peanut brittle and range in color from medium gold to very dark, depending on how long it was heated.

Allow the caramelized sugar to cool and then melt it in a pan over low heat, stirring in enough water to achieve the consistency of thick syrup or honey as well as the desired color. Briefly bring the syrup to a boil. It will have a very rich caramel flavor that definitely contributes to the beer, and also darkens it. However, the fermentability is limited, so you will want to add the equivalent amount of white sugar to achieve the same weight of “candi” sugar called for in the recipe. Add the syrup and any other sugars at the end of the boil. – Jeff Renner

Issue: July-August 2006