Note: in the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, Belgian and French Ales are broken out into several different categories. First of all is Category 24 Belgian Ales contains the maltier to balanced, more highly flavored Belgian and French ales, including Witbier, Belgian Pale Ales, and Bière de Garde. In Category 25 Strong Belgian Ale contains the pale, well-attenuated, balanced to bitter beers, often with more yeast character than malt flavors and generally with higher alcohol (although a range exists within styles). They have included Saison as style 25B. Belgian Specialty Ales seem to have disappeared from the guidelines altogether.
Belgian and French Ale, as Michael Jackson said in his article, Belgium's Great Beers "represent some of the oldest traditions of brewing in the Western world." These beers are fashionable and uber-popular right now so it just makes sense to learn a little about these beers. You will find that this category is a "catch-all" for some of the most unique styles of beer known to man. When you first try some of these beers, you may not even recognize them as a "beer" per se.
Belgium has its share of lagers and these are very popular. In fact, if you make the mistake of ordering "a beer" in Belgium, you'll probably get one of these lagers. But instead, if you want one of Belgium's oak aged Red Beers, a White Beer, a Spiced Beer, a Fruit Beer, a Farmhouse Saison, a Golden ale such as Duvel, any of the Trappist or Abbey ales, a Belgian Pale Ales or beers made with candy sugar, any of a host of bacteria and wild yeast, beers aged in caves or any one of the diverse regional "Special" beers, you'll have to do some research to know what you'll get, or even what you want. Such is the artistry of Belgian brewers and by extension such is the marvel of Belgian Beer.
We think that we here in America have the largest diversity of beers in the world. But this is a relatively new occurrence. Belgium has had this diversity for centuries in its native styles of beer. As you will see, there are many more Belgian Ales than will fit neatly into this Belgian and French Ale category. From the winey-tasting Lambics to the Belgian and French Farmhouse Ales, diversity, distinction, and personality are the keywords here.
Belgian and French Ale style beers possess a really huge range of flavors, colors and strengths. Some truly defy description and classification. But no matter what kind of beer we are talking about here, weak or strong, light or dark, sour or sweet, these beer styles are all brewed with special yeasts that impart the typical characteristics we all know of as "Belgian". Belgian brewers don't stop there. They employ methods of brewing which sometime fly in the face of the established "norms". This might include processes such as high temperature fermentations, or their lack of fear in using native "wild" yeasts and bacteria or any and all kinds of adjuncts and spices.
Belgian yeast evolved through artificial selection to produce high levels of esters (fruity notes) and phenols (spicy notes such as pepper, cloves, etc). High fermentation temps, sometimes in the upper 80's °F and up accentuate or exaggerate these flavor and aroma characteristics. The use of wild yeast and lactic acid producing bacteria is another hallmark of Belgian beers. The yeast when used together with these other organisms produce the sometimes "funky", sometimes sour and always distinct Belgian characteristics.
One other characteristic which sets Belgian and French Ale apart is the use of adjuncts. Belgian brewers have never been afraid of using a multitude of spices and different types of sugar (mostly made from beets) in their brews. Not all ales in this category will use spices and/or sugar, but when it is used, you normally can't reproduce the style without them.
As you can see, there is a wide variety in the styles included in this category. Michael Jackson calls these and other Belgian styles "The Fine Wines of the Beer World". Volumes, literally, have been written about Belgian beer styles. In fact, Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium (Media Marketing Communications, Antwerp, 2005) and Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski, Farmhouse Ales by Phil Markowski part of the Classic Beer Styles Series, (Brewers Publications, Boulder, CO), are part of the advanced reading section of the recommended reading for the BJCP Exam. I highly recommend you get both books for your brewing library.
Information for this article was adapted in part from Michael Jackson the Beer Hunter website and the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines.
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