Article

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

by the numbers
OG:1.075–1.110 (18.2–25.9 °P)
FG:1.010–1.024 (2.6–6.1 °P)
SRM:12–22
IBU:20–35
ABV8–11%

I used to hate judging the Belgian strong category in competitions. Long ago, so many of the beers were syrupy sweet alcohol bombs that I found it most unpleasant. While Belgian dark strong ale is a beer with a higher level of alcohol, it should not be syrupy sweet. Luckily, with brewers practicing better fermentation control the typical Belgian strong ale category in competitions is now much more pleasant to judge.

Belgian dark strong ale ranges from 8 to 11% ABV with significant fruity esters and optional spicy notes from fermentation. The warming alcohol should be subtle and smooth. The body should be medium to full and the malt character rich and complex. Good examples will have some malt sweetness as well, but it can range from somewhat dry to fairly sweet. Even though hops play a role in balancing the overall character of this style, fermentation is really the centerpiece. Belgian dark strong ale is a complex mix of fruity esters (raisin, fig, plum, cherry, and more), alcohols (floral, spicy, sweet, bitter), and sometimes a delicate phenolic spiciness (pepper, clove). One thing to note is that the color of this style has a wide range, from deep amber to copper-brown.

The base malt for this style is continental Pilsner malt. Pilsner malt lends a slightly sweet, grainy malt character to the beer. If you can source it, Belgian Pilsner malt is ideal. If you cannot, do not worry, even the Belgian brewers use other continental Pilsner malts. If you are an extract brewer, try to use an extract made from Pilsner malt. Recipes for this style range from very simple to overly complex. I have made award-winning examples using both. If you want to go with a simple, more traditional recipe, Pilsner, Munich and dark Belgian candi syrup is all you need.

Overly complex recipes are often too malty and the flavors are muddy. Yet, despite that, my early complex recipes for this style always scored higher than the less complex versions. Specialty malts such as aromatic, melanoidin, CaraMunich®, Special B®, and biscuit are all fair game in this style. The trick is to build a rich malt character, with a balanced malt sweetness, while avoiding an overall muddy, generic maltiness. Good fermentation helps with this, but keep the total specialty malts down below 20% of the total grist.

When brewing a bigger beer with high starting gravities, you normally target a lower mash temperature to ensure a highly fermentable wort. In the case of Belgian dark strong, most judges seem to prefer the fuller, richer character that a higher mash temperature provides. You do not want it to be excessive, but a mash temperature around 152 °F to 154 °F (67 to 68 °C) is a good starting point. For extract brewers, most light colored extracts attenuate well enough. Whether all-grain or extract you can use a portion of simple sugar, such as table sugar or a Belgian-type candi sugar. Keep in mind that you want a rich beer, with a medium to full body, so do not over do it. Generally, 5 to 10% of the grist is plenty. If you want to use lots of Belgian dark candi syrup for character, then you might also need to raise the mash temperature to compensate.

The dryness and firm bittering of most higher gravity Belgian ales comes from a combination of alcohols, phenols, carbonation and minimal hops. I prefer to stick with noble hops such as Saaz, Hallertau, or Tettnang. Traditionally, breweries also use Styrian Goldings and in a pinch other varieties such as Mount Hood, Liberty, or Kent Goldings are fine as well. I prefer a single large charge of low alpha hops near the beginning of the boil. The flavor of that early addition can carry through and will provide a subtle hop character. Nowadays more brewers are experimenting with increased hop character in all beers, but I would still avoid going with late additions in this style. The bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) ranges between 0.2 and 0.5, although most brewers will want to target approximately 0.3 unless you are getting a very dry finish from fermentation.

The characteristic fruity/spicy flavors and aromas of this style come from fermentation, not from the addition of fruits or spices. While some brewers may add spices, the problem is that spices will never really take the place of proper fermentation. The subtle complexity that comes from fermentation cannot be faked by spice additions. It is better to focus on perfecting fermentation.

There are several great yeast strains for brewing this style, but two of my favorites are White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) or Wyeast 1762 (Belgian Abbey II). Other excellent choices are White Labs WLP500 (Trappist Ale), WLP540 (Abbey IV Ale Yeast), WLP545 (Belgian Strong Ale), WLP550 (Belgian Ale Yeast), Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity), and Wyeast 1214 (Belgian Abbey). When selecting yeast, keep in mind that this style is more about the fruity notes than spicy phenols.

One question many brewers have about Belgian beers is fermentation temperature. Often homebrewers will say, “Brewery X ferments their beer at xx °F, so that is the fermentation temperature I use.” However, that most likely will not be the right temperature for you. Temperature is only one of many fermentation parameters. For example, fermenter height plays a role in flavor development, with very tall fermenters (like big commercial cylindroconical types) suppressing ester and fusel alcohol production. The shape of the brewery’s fermenters, their pitching rates, their oxygen levels, their yeast collection and repitching methods may all be different from yours, which changes the production of esters, fusel alcohols and other aspects of fermentation. When you use the same fermentation temperature in your brewery with disregard for the other parameters, you may end up with fruit salad dissolved in paint thinner. Well, maybe not that bad, but pretty darn close. Do not let “how the classic brewery does it” determine your process unless you are using the same equipment and methods. Instead, get to know the beer style intimately and work on adjusting your process until you are making an outstanding example. It might take many tries and a vastly different process for you to achieve those results, but that is the fun of homebrewing.

With most of these yeasts I recommend pitching at a rate of 0.75 million cells per milliliter per degree Plato (see the pitching rate calculator at www.mrmalty.com for help in calculating this for your beer). Pitch the yeast and allow 12 to 36 hours for the majority of yeast growth, then ramp up the temperature for the rest of fermentation to ensure good attenuation. For example, pitch the yeast at 68 °F (20 °C) and at the end of the next day slowly begin raising the temperature each day. Try to end up at 72 °F (22 °C) by the last 1⁄3 of fermentation. You may find a higher or lower temperature or a faster or slower rise in temperature gives you the ideal result, so do not be afraid to tweak the parameters until you get it right.

One concern with a beer this big and full of specialty malts is getting enough attenuation to avoid too sweet a finish. Many brewers go with lower and lower mash temperatures in an attempt to achieve this, but that is not always the problem. It isn’t that you need to get rid of all of the long chain dextrins. Those dextrins are not very sweet and they can be present in a dry beer. The important thing is to make sure you ferment out all of the simpler sugars completely. If you leave a lot of unfermented maltose, then the beer is going to taste sweet, even though it might attenuate well. The key to attenuation is starting with a healthy pitch of yeast, aerating or oxygenating properly and controlling fermentation temperatures.

Oxygen is important to yeast health and is necessary for fermentation to reach terminal gravity in a reasonable amount of time. However, too much or too little oxygen can have unintended consequences, so adding the right amount of oxygen is important. That is difficult for many homebrewers, but you should try to control the amount of oxygen added by measuring timing and flow rate. The amount of oxygen required is a balancing act and can result in excessively high or low esters and fusel alcohols. If you are using air, there is no chance of over-aerating your wort, but there is a chance of under-aerating. If you are using oxygen with a sintered stone, a good starting point for 5 gallons (19 L) is a flow of 1 L per minute for 1 minute. You might go up or down from there, as experience shows you what is right for your brewing. If you find yourself getting stuck fermentations when brewing high gravity beers, you can add a second dose of oxygen between 12 and 18 hours after pitching. The second dose should be about 1⁄2 to 3⁄4 the normal amount of oxygen. This will give the yeast the ability to rebuild their cell membranes after having replicated. They will better tolerate the high alcohol environment ahead with this additional dose of oxygen.

If you are having trouble getting the beer to attenuate enough, one trick that might help a little is waiting until the fermentation is nearly done before adding the simple sugars. Wait until fermentation has started to slow and then add the sugar. When I do this I dissolve the sugar in just enough boiling water to make a thick syrup. Once it cools, I add it to the beer.

If all else fails and you still are not getting full attenuation, you can pitch an actively fermenting lager yeast into the stuck beer, which will consume some complex sugars that the ale yeast will not. Do not add this extra dose of yeast if they are not in an active fermentation state, because they will just settle out in a high alcohol, low sugar environment. Make a small starter and wait until the yeast are at high kräusen before you add it to the beer.

If your beer is attenuating properly but still tastes sweeter than it should, it might be fermentation related compounds that are making it seem sweet. If that is the case, then you need to revisit your fermentation parameters and /or try a different yeast strain.

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.103 (24.4 °P)
FG = 1.024 (6.0 °P)
IBU = 31 SRM = 21 ABV = 10.6%

Ingredients

13.44 lb. (6.10 kg) Best Malz Pilsen or similar Continental Pilsner malt (2 °L)
2.75 lb. (1.25 kg) Best Malz Munich malt (8 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Special Aromatic malt (20 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Caramel Munich 60 malt (60 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Caramel Munich 120 malt (150 °L)
13.4 oz. (380 g) cane or beet sugar (0 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Best Malz melanoidin malt (28 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Great Western wheat malt (2 °L)
8 AAU Hallertau pellet hops
(2 oz./57 g at 4% alpha acids) (60 min.)
White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) or Wyeast 1762 (Belgian Abbey II) 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 153 °F (67 °C). Hold the mash at 153 °F (67 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. With the low mash temperature, you may need to lengthen the rest time to 90 minutes or more to get full conversion. 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 wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.5 gallons (24.4 L) and the gravity is 1.080 (19.3 °P).

The total wort boil time is 90 minutes, which helps reduce the S-Methyl Methionine (SMM) present in the lightly kilned Pilsner malt and results in less Dimethyl Sulfide (DMS) in the finished beer. Add the bittering hops with 60 minutes left in the boil. Add the sugar and Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Chill the wort rapidly to 68 °F (20 °C), let the break material settle, rack to the fermenter, pitch the yeast and aerate thoroughly.

You will need 3 packages of liquid yeast or you can make a 4-L starter from 1 package. Pitch yeast at 68 °F (20 °C), aerate or oxygenate, and let the temperature rise slowly to 72 °F (22 °C) by the last 1⁄3 of fermentation. Ferment until the yeast drops clear. With healthy yeast, the bulk of fermentation should be complete in a week, but do not rush it. It is important for the beer to attenuate fully. If you have trouble getting enough attenuation in big beers, you can hold off on adding the sugar to the boil. Instead, after the fermentation looks like it has started to slow, mix the sugar with just enough boiling water to make a syrup, then add that to the fermentation.When finished, carbonate the beer to approximately 2.5 to 3 volumes and serve at 45 to 50 °F (7 to 10 °C).

Belgian Dark Strong Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.103 (24.4 °P)
FG = 1.024 (6.0 °P)
IBU = 31 SRM = 21 ABV = 10.6%

Ingredients

9.5 lb. (4.3 kg) Pilsner liquid malt extract (2 °L)
2.75 lb. (1.25 kg) Best Malz Munich malt (8 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Special Aromatic malt (20 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Caramel Munich 60 malt (60 °L)
14.1 oz. (400 g) Franco-Belges Caramel Munich 120 malt (150 °L)
13.4 oz. (380 g) cane or beet sugar(0 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Best Malz melanoidin malt (28 °L)
7.1 oz. (200 g) Great Western wheat malt (2 °L)
8 AAU Hallertau pellet hops
(2 oz./57 g at 4% alpha acids) (60 min.)
White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) or Wyeast 1762 (Belgian Abbey II) yeast

Step by Step

Freshness is vital for a great beer. If you cannot get fresh liquid malt extract, it is better to use an appropriate amount of dry malt extract (DME) instead, since it does not oxidize nearly as fast and tends to be fresher. This recipe has several grains that need starch conversion: Munich, aromatic, melanoidin, and wheat malt. While there are Munich and wheat malt extracts that you can substitute, there are no substitutes for the others. The best thing to do is a partial mash. It is essentially the same as steeping your specialty grains, just pay attention to temperature. You will not get perfect conversion of the starches, but it is better than blindly steeping grains.

Mill or coarsely crack the specialty malt and place loosely in a grain bag. Avoid packing the grains too tightly in the bag, using more bags if needed. Steep the bag in about 2 gallons (~8 liters) of water at 160 °F (71 °C) for about 60 minutes. Lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and rinse with more 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 6.5 gallons (24.4 L) and the gravity is 1.080 (19.3 °P). Stir thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring to a boil. Follow the boiling, fermentation, and packaging instructions for the all-grain version.

Belgian Dark Strong Ale Commercial Examples

Achel Trappist Extra
Brouwerij der St. Benedictusabdij de Achelse
Hamont-Achel, Belgium
www.achelsekluis.org

Allagash Black
Allagash Brewing Co.
Portland, Maine
www.allagash.com

Brother Thelonious
North Coast Brewing Co.
Fort Bragg, California
www.northcoastbrewing.com

Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue)
Bières de Chimay S.A.
Baileux (Chimay), Belgium
www.chimay.be

Judgment Day
The Lost Abbey
San Marcos, California
www.lostabbey.com

Rochefort 10 (blue cap)
Brasserie de Rochefort
Rochefort, Belgium
http://users.pandora.be/gerritvdb/rochefort/English/RochefortIndex.htm

Salvation
Russian River Brewing Co.
Santa Rosa, California

Home

St. Bernardus Abt 12
Brouwerij St. Bernardus
Watou, Belgium
www.sintbernardus.be

Trois Pistoles
Unibroue
Chambly, Quebec
http://www.unibroue.com/

Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap)
Brouwerij Westvleteren
Westvleteren, Belgium
www.sintsixtus.be

Issue: July-August 2012