Beer Styles: Belgian Blond / Golden Ale

There is a broad range of golden-colored beers made in Belgium (and copied all over the world), which includes a variety of style names or appellations that can be confusing at first glance. We see Trappist Singles, Abbey Tripels, Saisons and Strong Golden Ales. When we sample such beers, however, it is often quite difficult to say exactly what makes one style different from the other.

The American BJCP (Beer Judge Certification Program) Style Guidelines list four different styles of golden-colored Belgian ales: Belgian Blond Ale, Belgian Golden Strong Ale, Trappist Single, and Belgian Tripel. These categories may be useful in pointing out basic differences, though the dividing lines between them are overlapping and less than clear, and there are many blonds which do not neatly fit into any of these categories. To avoid confusion, throughout this article, the family of golden-colored Belgian beers will be referred to as simply Belgian blonds. All official BJCP nomenclature will be italicized.

To briefly summarize (with examples), Belgian Blond Ales are 6-7.5% ABV, with appreciable malt sweetness, spiciness from the yeast and/or additives, and relatively light hopping (Leffe Blond, Val-Dieu Blond). Belgian Golden Strong Ales are 7.5% or more, with more hops, slightly less spiciness, and subtle fruit flavors (Duvel, Delirium Tremens). Trappist Singles are less than 6% alcohol, very dry, and very hoppy, with a lighter yeast profile (Westvleteren Blond, St. Bernardus Extra 4). Belgian Tripels are strong, dry and floral, with light, crisp malts but, generally, have a fuller body than Belgian Golden Strong Ales (Westmalle Tripel, Chimay White).

Other BJCP styles which share common traits include Belgian IPA and Saison. Belgian IPA is a hybrid style, which I shall merely touch upon. As I wrote about Saisons in issue #14, I will omit them here.

One thing that must be understood from the start is that “Trappist” or “Abbey” in the name does not designate any specific style, though beers using these terms may share common characteristics. “Trappist” is an official appellation, meaning that the beer was brewed within a Trappist monastery, which is part of an active religious order in the Catholic Church. “Abbey” is an unofficial attribution, meaning that the beer is named for, although not usually brewed within, a Catholic monastery. Some brewers of “Abbey” beers donate money to the monastery in exchange for the privilege of using its name, others do not.

Belgian blonds run from about 4.5-10% ABV. They are pale to deep gold in color. These beers are generally made with a high percentage of pilsner or other pale malts, sometimes with small additions of specialty malts and/or candi sugar. The sugar is used to keep the beers light while adding alcohol and body. Some blonds add spices such as coriander, though many do not. Hop aroma ranges from low to moderately aromatic, and both bitterness and sweetness may range from low to moderately high. Hops used are European varietals, especially Saaz and Styrian Goldings, with herbal and light citrus aromas, rather than the huge citrus and tropical fruit character of New World hops. What all Belgian blonds share is golden-blond color, relatively high carbonation and, most decisively, the use of Belgian yeast strains. Such yeasts produce various chemicals, like esters and phenols, which provide a “spicy” or “fruity” character to the beer that is much more distinctive than cleaner American or British ale yeast. Even un-spiced Belgian blonds often seem spicy, and give off fruity aromas of oranges, peaches, apples or even melon, all on account of their yeast.

As all Belgian blonds have a certain yeast-based spiciness, when speaking of that spiciness, we must keep in mind that any Belgian blond will be “spicier” than a typical American pale ale or IPA, or a German or Czech lager. “Spicy” is thus a relative term. “Hoppy” is also relative. 45 IBUs, which is about the hoppiest a Belgian blond gets, is middle of the road for an IPA. No beers in this category sport mind-boggling hopping rates. Since they use only pale malts, however, the hops come through much more clearly than in beers with more flavorful specialty malts (like caramel). Thus these beers often seem hoppier than they actually are.

Considering all the varying characteristics mentioned previously, there are some trends that I have noticed, although none of these are strict rules. First is that higher alcohol tends to bring out more sweetness. This is natural, as there is more sugar to be fermented, and thus more to remain behind. A well-made Belgian Golden Strong Ale, however, should always finish dry, even if there is noticeable sweetness up front. Second is that hop character tends to be inverse to spiciness. Belgian blonds are usually spicy or hoppy, but not both. Beers with lots of both hops and spices can be confusing to the palate. On the other hand, beers with little of either are bland. Hoppy blonds almost never use added spices. Third, it seems that sweeter blonds tend to be spicier rather than hoppier. This is less universal, but possibly comes from the idea that sweet and spicy go better together than do sweet and bitter.

Quality Belgian blonds are re-fermented in the bottle. This is a process wherein wort or sugar, plus yeast, is added to each bottle when it is filled. Carbonation results from the fermentation of that sugar. This is the root of the typically Belgian carbonation of these beers—they are highly carbonated, but not gassy, instead producing lots of small, soft bubbles. Bottle re-fermentation is also why many Belgian blonds taste better from the bottle than on draft. Not only does it get the carbonation right, but the extra yeast and fermentables bring on a maturation process that helps the beer develop over time. A 3-4 year old Belgian blond will have lost most of its hops and thus taste sweeter, but it will still be much tastier than an IPA or lager of the same age.

I’ll now give a list of recommended Belgian blonds that are widely available in Japan.

Light and hoppy:
De Ranke XX Bitter: Like a Trappist Single with huge, lovely hops.
De La Senne Taras Boulba: Huge flavor for 4.5% ABV. Crisp and hoppy.
Also: La Rulles Estivale, De Leite Ma Mere Speciale, Lupulus HopEra
From Japan: Yorocco Cultivator.

Light, spicy:
Chimay Gold: Clean and dry, with big, soft flavor.
Witkap Pater Stimulo: Dry and bitter, but very fruity and somewhat spicy.
Also: Val-Dieu Blond, Gruut Blond, Kapittel Watou Blond.
From Japan: Konishi Shirayuki Blond.

Strong and Hoppy
Westmalle Tripel: Dry, fruity, bitter. The classic tripel.
Chimay White: Yeastier, less hoppy, dry and delicious. Best on tap.
Also: De Ranke Guldenberg, Duvel, De Dolle Arabier, Moinette Blonde.
From Japan: Outsider Drunk Monk Tripel comes closest.

Strong and Spicy:
Tripel Karmeliet: Sweet, spicy, and complex; finishes dry.
Kasteel Blond: Big sweetness and juicy fruits, bitter finish.
Also: Achel 8 Blond, St. Feuillien Tripel, De Dolle Dulle Teve, La Rulles Triple.
From Japan: Kobushi Hana Grand Cru, Baird Bureiko Jikan, Atsugi Triple.

For me, it is the light and hoppy, “single-type” blonds that are most appealing. Sadly, most of the true singles are never imported to Japan. Westmalle Extra and Westvleteren Blond are drinkable, characterful session beers, but they rarely leave their brewery cafes. They are another reason to make a trip to Belgium. There is, however, a new wave of dry, hoppy blonds that are associated more with Belgian “craft” brewers than monasteries. These are listed above, and must be tried.

There are also thousands of Belgian blonds produced in the USA and other parts of Europe. In my experience it is generally the Italians who have produced the best copies. They make many hoppy, dry, flavorful blonds, often with local ingredients added.

In America, it seems that most brewers have skipped attempting to duplicate the authentic Belgian character, and have gone straight on to barrel aging, using wild yeasts and otherwise pushing the style into the direction of sour beers or farmhouse ales. Either that, or they use American hops and make Belgian IPAs. Of those American beers that try to be authentic, many end up very sweet and spicy, often to a fault. Rather than brew such beers, I suppose it is better to make a Belgian IPA or a wild-yeast blond.

A few Japanese breweries brew these kinds of beers. Far more prefer to make B-IPAs or Saisons (many of which actually fit better into the blond category). There are more of the spicy style done in Japan than the hoppy, and when hops are used, they usually are New World hops, not European. One new example is Yorocco Cultivator, which uses citrusy New World hops in perfect union with Belgian yeast. Do try to find one. Many Japanese craft brewers see Belgian beers as a difficult-to-brew curiosity, but more are succeeding at making good ones. Hopefully, that trend will continue. For now, the best bet is to find imported bottles that have been properly shipped with refrigeration.

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All Beer Styles articles are written by Mark Meli, author of Craft Beer in Japan.

This article was published in Japan Beer Times #27 (Summer 2016) and is among the limited content available online. Order your copy through our online shop or download the digital version from the iTunes store to access the full contents of this issue.