Continental European ales represent styles originating in Europe outside of the United Kingdom. Many of these styles were first brewed as “farmhouse” specialties intended to last throughout the season, and incorporating regional, readily-available ingredients and spices. Today, these styles are brewed far outside their countries of origin and pose unique challenges for brewers in terms of creating beers that are balanced and representative of their original styles. This category includes styles such as alt and kölsch beers, as well as Trappist and Belgian-style ales.
In the beginning there was ale and then man introduced lager. Much like the North American Gray squirrel has pushed the indigenous, genteel English Red squirrel onto the endangered species list, so have lagers styles pushed traditional ale styles into the background in many parts of Continental Europe. Some ale styles still live on in Germany and France and many would be surprised to know that one of the best selling craft brewed ales in the U.S. is actually based on a German ale style (Sam Adam’s Boston Ale).
Non-Belgian Continental Ale Styles
Kolsch is an ale style emanating from Cologne in Germany. In Germany (and the European Community) the term is strictly legally limited to the beers from within the city environs of Cologne. Simply put Kolsch has the color of a pilsner with some of the fruity character of an ale. This is achieved with the use of top fermenting yeasts and pale pilsner malts. The hops are accented on the finish, which classically is dry and herbal. It is a medium to light bodied beer and delicate in style. Most examples one will encounter in the US are brewpub draft interpretations produced during the summer months, though some commercial brewers produce a summer ale in the kolsch style.
Put simply an Altbier has the smoothness of a classic lager with the flavors of an ale. A more rigorous definition must take account of history. Ale brewing in Germany predates the now predominant lager production. As the lager process spread from Bohemia, some brewers retained the top fermenting ale process but adopted the cold maturation associated with lager. Hence the name ’Old Beer’ (Alt means old in German). Altbier is associated with Dusseldorf, Munster, and Hanover. This style of ale is light to medium-bodied, less fruity, less yeasty, and has lower acidity than a traditional English ale. In the US some amber ales are actually in the alt style.
Classic Belgian Ale Styles
Sooner or later, all beer enthusiasts that enthuse long enough and hard enough end up "discovering" the ales of Belgium. Potently strong, generally packaged in odd shaped bottles, often with a cork and wire cage closure, they often involve every bit as much ceremony as one would lavish on opening a fine bottle of wine. Although the Belgians are great wine drinkers, they also have one of the great beer drinking cultures in the world. In Belgium beer is exalted in the same manner as wine. For a small country it is host to an extraordinary diverse range of beer styles. It quite possible to find the right Belgian ale to fit any occasion, before, after or during a meal. US brewers have been slow to start replicating the Belgian ale styles. With many styles their alcoholic strength would not endear them to large volume production or even a presence in some States. However, many brewpubs will produce a strong Belgian-style ale in the winter season.
Belgian Style Golden Ale
Belgian golden ales are pale to golden in color with a lightish body for their deceptive alcoholic punch, as much as 9% alcohol by volume. The benchmark example, Duvel (Devil) from Belgium, is quite heavily hopped to give a floral nose and a tangy, fruity finish. Typically such brews undergo three fermentations, the final one being in the bottle, resulting in fine champagne-like carbonation, and a huge rocky white head when they are poured. Often such beers can be cellared for six months to a year to gain roundness. These beers are probably best served chilled to minimize the alcoholic mouthfeel.
Belgian Style Strong Ale
Beers listed in this category will generally pack a considerable alcohol punch and should be approached much like one would a Barley Wine. Indeed, some of them could be considered Belgian style barley wines, such as those beers from Brasserie Dubuisson. Expect a fruity Belgian yeast character and a degree of sweetness coupled with a viscous mouthfeel.
Belgian Style Red Ale
These are also known as ’soured beers’ and their defining character classically comes from having been aged for some years in well-used large wooden tuns, to allow bacterial action in the beer and thus impart the sharp ’sour’ character. Hops do not play much role in the flavor profile of these beers, but whole cherries can be macerated with the young beer to produce a cherry flavored Belgian Red Ale. These styles are almost exclusively linked to one producer in northern Belgium, Rodenbach. These ales are among the most distinctive and refreshing to be found anywhere.
Belgian Style Amber Ale
This is a not a classic style but nonetheless encapsulates various beers of a similar Belgian theme that do not fit into the more classic mold. Expect amber hued, fruity and moderately strong ales (6%ABV) with a yeasty character. Typical examples of the style would be Flemish beers such as De Koninck and Straffe Hendrik.
Belgian Style Blonde Ale
This is not a classic style of Belgian ale, but covers the more commercially minded Belgian ales that are lighter in color and moderate in body and alcoholic strength. Fruity Belgian yeast character and mild hopping should be expected.
Biere de Garde
Biere de Garde is a Flemish and northern French specialty ale generally packaged distinctively in 750ml bottles with a cork. Historically, the style was brewed as a farmhouse specialty in February and March, to be consumed in the summer months when the warmer weather didn’t permit brewing. Typically produced with a malt accent, this is a strong (often over 6%), yet delicate bottle conditioned beer. These brews tend to be profoundly aromatic and are an excellent companion to hearty foods.
Flemish Style Brown Ale
These are complex dark beers most closely associated with the town of Oudenaarde in Flanders. The authentic examples are medium to full bodied beers that are influenced by a number of factors: high bicarbonate in the brewing water to give a frothy texture; a complex mix of yeasts and malts; blending of aged beers; and aging in bottle before release. In the best examples, the flavor profile is reminiscent of olives, raisins, and brown spices and could be described as ’sweet and sour.’ These beers are not hop-accented and are of low bitterness.
Saison beers are distinctive specialty beers from the Belgian province of Hainuat. These beers were originally brewed in the early spring for summer consumption, though contemporary Belgian saisons are brewed all year round with pale malts and well dosed with English and Belgian hop varieties. Lively carbonation ensues from a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The color is classically golden orange and the flavors are refreshing with citrus and fruity hop notes. Sadly, these beers are under appreciated in their home country and their production is limited to a small number of artisanal producers who keep this style alive. With a typically hoppy character, Saisons are an extremely esoteric style of beer that should appeal to any devotees of US craft beers, if you can track them down. Occasionally, US brewpubs will attempt a version.
Abbey Ales (Dubbel, Tripel, Singel)
Monastic or abbey ales are an ancient tradition in Belgium in much the same manner as wine production was once closely associated with monastic life in ancient France. Currently, very few working monasteries brew beer within the order, but many have licensed the production of beers bearing their abbey name to large commercial brewers. These "abbey ales" can vary enormously in specific character, but most are quite strong in alcoholic content ranging between 6% alcohol by volume to as high as 10%. Generally abbey ales are labeled as either Dubbel or Tripel, though this is not a convention that is slavishly adhered to. The former conventionally denotes a relatively less alcoholic and often darker beer, while the latter can often be lighter or blond in color and have a syrupy, alcoholic mouthfeel that invites sipping, not rapid drinking. The lowest gravity abbey ale in a Belgian brewer’s range will conventionally be referred to as a Singel, though it is rarely labeled as such.
According to EU law, Trappist ale may only come from abbeys of the Trappist order that still brew beer on their premises. Historically, six are in Belgium: Brasserie de Rochefort, Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle, Brouwerij Westvleteren/St Sixtus, Bières de Chimay, Brasserie d'Orval, Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis (aka Achel) and one, La Trappe comes from the Netherlands.
Although the styles may differ widely between them, they all share a common trait of being top fermented, strong, bottle conditioned, complex, and fully flavored brews. At most, each abbey produces three different varieties of increasing gravity. These can often improve with some years of cellaring. In all there are 18 different Trappist beers from the seven monasteries. The brands from the well known and well distributed Trappist abbeys are: Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle, Westvleteren, La Trappe, and relative newcomer Achel. Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, La Trappe, and Westmalle are currently widely distributed in major US markets, but thanks to the hype of online rating sites (present company excluded) Wesvtleteren will prove very hard to find on a consistent basis and will require a trip to the monastery for a ration. Trappist ales are among the most complex and old fashioned of beers that one can find--little wonder that many connoisseurs treat them as the holy grail of beer drinking.
News Splash! The 20-teens have welcomed the addition of four new Trappist breweries, including one in the US. Stift Engelszell in Austria, St. Joseph’s Abbey in United States, Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht in the Netherlands, and Tre Fontane Abbey Italy join the venerable ranks of the most humble and transcendent of breweries on earth.