Brewing Belgian-Inspired Beers at Home

I have always been a bit infatuated with Belgian beers.  I (finally!) got my hands on a copy of Brew Like a Monk, and there were numerous “ah-ha!” eureka moments that stuck out to me for brewing a proper Belgian-inspired beer.

Whenever you get a Belgian brewer talking, you’ll invariably hear about two things: “digestibility,” and a rant about how they hate the concept of “styles.”  This is echoed not only by Stan Hieronymus in Brew Like a Monk, but numerous interviews of brewers on the Brewing Network, Basic Brewing, and other podcasts.  I’ll leave the debate about styles for another time; “digestibility” is the word of the day.

Digestibility is ensuring your wort is highly fermentable, controlling fermentation to ensure a high degree of attenuation for a dry finish, and making sure the malt character is not muddled.  Many cite the sweetness of American examples of Belgian styles as being the biggest difference between those made in the US and those made in Belgium.  With few exceptions, the beers spotlighted in Brew Like a Monk are between 85 and 95% apparent attenuation, with a couple being lower or even higher; this was my first ah-ha while learning about this style.

belgian beers

Inspiration.

Malt Bill:
The use of pilsner malt was my second ah-ha, having always assumed the use of pale malt; many say pilsner malt has a certain je ne sais quoi which simply cannot be replicated by pale ale malt.  Breweries in Belgium almost exclusively use European pilsner malt, perhaps with a just  bit of two-row pale, Vienna, Munich, or light crystal malt layered in for complexity.  Many prefer a mix pilsner malts from various maltsters to get this complexity without any “darker” malts.  Dark or roasted malts can muddle the yeast flavors: frequently there is a negative flavor interaction with yeast phenolics and the roast flavors.  Hieronymus recommends keeping malts darker than 40L under 7% of the grist.

Mashing:
Step mashing is traditional.  A few examples are 135-145-165-172F/ 57-63-74-78C (Achel), 118-144-162-174F/ 48-62-72-79C (Rochefort), and 113-144-158-172F/ 45-62-70-78C (Ommegang) with 10-30 minutes at each step.

The first step is a protein rest to boost free amino nitrogen (FAN, a yeast nutrient) for adjunct rich worts.  But, this can hurt head retention and mouth feel with today’s well-modified malts.  The second rest is the first saccrification rest and promotes a high degree of fermentability by favoring the β-amalase enzyme activity over α-amalase; the bulk of conversion occurs during this step.  The third mash rest is for higher brew-house efficiency, but does not significantly alter the sugar profile.  Barley starch does not completely dissolve into water until 150-155F/ 65.5-68C, so efficiency suffers if the mash never hits this temperature.  Finally, mash-out denatures (destroys) the enzymes, locking in the sugar profile.

If you prefer single-infusion like I do, Hieronymus recommends mashing at 146-149F/ 63-65C and accepting the slight hit to efficiency.  Mashing at a lower pH, closer to 5.2 than 5.5, will also favor a more fermentable mash (again favoring β-amalase), but this effect is minor compared to temperature.

Adjuncts:
Belgian brewers make great use of adjuncts, much to the horror of most American craft brewers who consider adjuncts to be in the sole realm of the mega-brewers.  But many Belgian beers cannot be brewed without the addition of sugar to the boil or, less often, pure wheat starch to the mash, which help increase the fermentability of the wort and dry out the finished beer.  Remember: digestiblity!

My third ah-ha revelation was not that they used adjuncts, but that they represent such a large portion of the grist.  Most brews fall into the range of 10-20%, with some as high as 30%, and very few all-grain.  This is not a percentage of fermentables, but percentage by weight (both John Palmer and Jamil Zainasheff were nice enough answer my email to confirm this).  Ah-ha number 3.5!  Both percentages make about the same recipe when dealing with a grist without adjuncts or roast grains, but pure sugar contributes nearly double the fermentables per weight compared to base malt, while many dark-roast grains contribute almost no fermentables.

“Belgian” rock candy (candi?) is not used, but rather white sugar, like table sugar (sucrose) or corn sugar (dextrose).  Turbinado sugar is sometimes used by American brewers, but brown sugar (sucrose with some molasses left behind) is not typically appropriate.  Many brewers, home and commercial, have used both the rocks and normal sugar and noticed no difference, other than price.  Tests at White Labs have shown that the flavors attributed to the rock candy actually come from the yeast.  One American commercial brewer even had these rocks lab tested looking for a cheaper replacement, only to have the lab tell them just to use sucrose.

If Belgian brewers desire something to help darken up the beer and add additional character and complexity, they rely more on some form of dark sugar syrup than on body-building phenol-rich dark malts.  Candy Syrup, Inc., distributed by many home brew shops, is a good place to start.  Many attempt to make their own, but there is no  consensus on a perfect recipe as of yet.  Unlike candy rocks, these syrups exhibit the complex chemical reaction products from Maillard reactions and caramelization.

Hops and Spices:
Hop character is generally very low, for balance and spicing only.  There are some exceptions,  but even these exceptions do not use hops to American levels of excess.  Orval, for example, uses the interplay between brett in the secondary and dry hopping to add a funky complexity.  Noble varieties and their relatives are preferred.  Hieronymus recommends a BU:GU ratio of about 3:8 (equal to 0.375) for most styles, and a little higher for tripels and a little lower for strong darks.

When spicing, you have used to much if it can be identified during tasting.  More often than not, spices are not used at all, relying instead on the yeast to contribute the spicy character.  American brewers of Belgian styles tend to be far more reliant on added spices than their Belgian counterparts.

Fermentation:
The goal is to have a complete fermentation to a slight dryness for most styles, while coaxing out the desired flavor profile from the yeast and limiting fusel alcohols.  A common practice is to pitch on the colder end of the range, then let the temperature rise steadily throughout the fermentation process.  Most Belgian strains will stop fermenting if the temperature drops even by a degree or two, so it must be kept at a constant or slowly rising temperature.  Some strains tolerate or thrive at extremely high temperatures- Dupont yeast is (in)famous for this quality.

Generally, American brewers of Belgian styles follow the standard practice of 1 million cells/mL/°P, but most Belgians use rates lower than this.  It is probably advisable for home-brewers to use the standard rule of thumb to ensure proper attenuation.  Belgian brewers typically top-crop yeast for many generations, allowing the yeast to adapt and attenuate farther.

Most recommend a well-aerated wort, with pure O2 systems being ideal, especially for higher gravity brews.  But, one commercial brewer likes the flavor profile from way over-pitching and stressing the yeast by not adding additional oxygen.  The moral is, pick a yeast strain and experiment with it to see what works for you.  Unlike cleaner California ale strains which perform roughly the same across a broad range of conditions, the fermentation character of a Belgian strain can be vastly different.

A few styles use Brett, generally in secondary or bottle fermentation.  Most notably, this is where Orval gets its “funky” character from.

Post Fermentation:
After the primary fermentation, a secondary “fermentation” at 28-38F/ -2.2-3.3C for two to four weeks is employed, with time and temperature brewer dependent.  The primary purpose is to force the yeast to flocculate, as Belgian yeasts can take a very long time to do so.  This will also force some additional phenols and proteins out of solution, promoting age-stability, reducing haze, and smoothing out the beer.  For the home brewer, gelatin at the end of primary will help settle out the yeast, though this may affect bottle conditioning.

The beer is then usually dosed with additional sugar and sometimes extra yeast- not always the same as the primary strain- for re-fermentation and bottle conditioning.  The beer is finally stored in a warm room, around 75F/ 23C for two weeks or more before leaving the brewery.

– Dennis,
Life, Fermented

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About Dennis
Home brewer, home chef, garage tinkerer. Author of Life Fermented blog.

4 Responses to Brewing Belgian-Inspired Beers at Home

  1. Anonymous says:

    Thanks Dennis – good info here. Would love to see a recipe or two …

    • Dennis says:

      Anon: I have my starter going for my first brew based off of this information, a tripel I will brew this weekend. I will definitely post the recipe and tasting notes when its finished, but I have dedicated this winter to huge beers (1.110 RIS, 1.105 brett’ed barleywine, and this 1.085 tripel), so it will be some time until any of them are ready.

      Until then, Brew Like a Monk has some great guidelines for many of the commercial Belgians (though not exact recipes per se); this would be a great place to start if you are comfortable with putting together your own recipes with guidance. Otherwise, I would recommend Brewing Classic Styles for specific recipes, including extract options.

      If you send me an email, I can send you my brew log for the tripel (or any other beers of mine) now, before I get tasting notes and post them. Or, if you don’t have access to these books and want guidance on a specific style I would be happy to look up that style for you and give my two cents. But, both of these books are definitely worth picking up for your own library.

      • Anonymous says:

        Thank you Dennis and thanks for all the info on you blog. I have Brewing Classic Styles, and a friend has Brew Like a Monk so I’ll take a look. Will probably do a strong dark belgian this summer when temps are a bit higher in my basement.

    • Dennis says:

      Hey, just posted a tripel I brewed based on this info. Likely more Belgian-type brews to come eventually, but it might be a while looking at the ol’ brew calendar. You can see the recipe here.

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