Brewing Belgian Beers (#1): Introduction

As many of you may have heard, the Washington, D.C. based club B.U.R.P. (Brewers United for Real Potables) is planning a two-day combined conference and contest to feature Belgian beers, brewing, and beer culture for November 11 and 12, 1994. This will include the first-ever homebrew contest focussing exclusively on Belgian beers, and it will be an AHA-sanctioned event. Obviously we hope that many of you will want to enter, and within a week or so we'll announce the availability of entry materials. Watch this space also for some very exciting information and announcements regarding the conference portion of the Spirit of Belgium event and how you can join in.

But whether you enter the contest or not, we're hoping this event will give more people a chance to learn about Belgium's beer styles and how to make them. So we've prepared a series of articles for HBD that look at six different Belgian styles, provide brewing parameters, tasting descriptions, samples recipes, and lots of additional information. If you've already brewed some Belgian-style beers, perhaps this will help you tweak your recipes or solve some problems. If you're new to the style, I hope we can get you started with some good information.

The series will be divided into eight parts. I'll send one each day to HBD, though when they appear will be subject to the amount of overall traffic. The chapters will be as follows:

Part 1
Introduction (this article)
Part 2
Belgian ales
Part 3
Doubles
Part 4
Oud bruins (Flanders brown)
Part 5
Belgian strong ales
Part 6
Triples
Part 7
White beers
Part 8
Ingredients and where to find them
By the time these have appeared I should have all the contest entry materials ready, and will let you know how to get them.

A few notes on the upcoming posts:

1) There'll be nothing on lambics in this series. Brewing these is a more complex undertaking, and takes a long, long time. If you're interested in lambic-style beers, or in Belgian beers in general, you should consult with the experts. Subscribe to Lambic Digest by sending a message to:

LAMBIC-REQUEST@LONGS.LANCE.COLOSTATE.EDU

2) Some of the information you'll see will eventually turn out to be wrong. Homebrewers are still learning to brew many of these beers, and the quality and authenticity of our brew has increased dramatically over the past two years. However, there's still lots of puzzles to solve, and our Belgian brewing wisdom is still evolving. One reason we're having the conference and contest is to encourage people to experiment and learn, which we hope will get us all closer to our goal of making celestial Belgian-style brewskis in our own homes. So keep in mind that the articles cover what we know now, but that things might change.

3) You'll find some misspellings, gramatical errors, and other literary pecadillos. If I waited to post until everything was perfect, we'd be looking at posting in the year 2000.

4) Steal this book. If you think your local homebrewing club would be interested in publishing portions of these posts in its club newsletter, please do so. We only ask that you not alter the recipes, and that the brewers who provided them get full credit for their work, and that this material not be published in a commercial or for-profit publication without written permission from me.

Now, a few notes on brewing Belgian-style beers that you should keep in mind when you read the posts:

1) Watch your fermentation temperatures!!! If you're brewing any of the beers over, say, 1.060, you're definitely going to need to keep the ambient temperature below 65F. The stronger the beer you make, the cooler you want to get keep it while it's fermenting. I have a thermostat-controlled refrigerator, and when I'm making Belgians I usually set it at 60F. Remember that fermentation itself creates heat, so your beer is going to be warmer than the room it's in, particularly if you're brewing a strong one. Do yourself, your friends, and your beer's judge a favor: keep it cool while it ferments, and you'll avoid a thousand crashing headaches. Take if from someone who's been there.

In Pierre Rajotte's book, BELGIAN ALE, he mentions that some Belgian breweries use warm fermentations. This is true in a few select cases, but I can guarantee your beer will be better if you ferment it very cool.

2) Aerate. When fermenting strong beers the health of your yeast is a major issue. The little guys get real tired out when they hit wort at 1.080, so give 'em all the help you can or you're going to experience a lot of stuck ferments. Many homebrew vendors are selling aquarium pumps with in-line air filters, and if you're serious about brewing Belgian beers you should invest the $15-20. Again, I can guarantee you that with 30 minutes of aeration just after pitching, your lag times and ferments will improve dramatically.

3) Pitching rates. How many Frat brothers does it take to kill a keg of Bud? Not many, huh? How many would it take to kill a keg of dopplebock? A lot more. The same applies to yeast--when the alchohol levels go up, they need help. Most Belgian-style worts are very high in gravity, and you'll need A LOT of yeast to get a good ferment going. Aeration helps, but count on pitching AT LEAST 1.5 quarts of yeast into anything you brew. For beers in the 1.080 range, you could double that. To avoid diluting your beer back down to Bud range, you can often make your starters early and let the yeast settle out. Pour off the barm (clear liquid), and add a pint of fresh wort just before you start to brew. You'll have lots of yeast wide awake and ready to go by pitching time, and your total fluid volume will be quite small.

As always, we at BURP Labs hope you'll find the materials to follow to be useful, and don't mind discussion or disagreement. We love Belgian beer, and a lot of you do, too. Anything that moves us toward getting more of it is to the good.

A bientot!


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