Santa Fe Brewing Co. just released the latest brew in their Ever Changing Series, the (ECS) Belgian Strong Ale. It’s big, bold, and very Belgian. The 3 Bs of the powerful, yet un-hoppy brews. Now, before I get into exactly what I mean by all that, I want to discuss Belgian beers briefly to help us understand where the Belgian Strong fits into the wide spectrum of Belgians out there in the marketplace.
Belgian beers in their lightest iterations are easy to drink. At the top end, they can be more of a challenge to the taste buds. The majority of the uninitiated, the non-self-styled-beer-geeks, are familiar with the Belgian-style Witbier or Belgian White. And why not? They’re like adult Capri-Suns. That sweeter, fruit-forward, lower IBU flavor profile certainly appeals to the masses who are just experiencing their first brews that aren’t American light lagers (even if two of those more popular Belgian-style whites are owned by the big guys). I’m certainly guilty of having enjoyed a, let’s say, Blue Moon back in my early twenties. And I’m quite guilty now of getting “accidentally drunk” off of Mr. Rice’s Double White.
The term “Belgian” can mean so many more styles, though. And a Belgian beer can be so much more. American craft beer aficionados and, well, the rest of the world are more familiar with styles like the Trappist and Abbey Ales like the Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupels, Pales, Darks, and Blondes. There are of course the farmhouse ales like one of my favorites, the Saison (don’t tell the Crew), and the Bier De Garde. And recent hits like sour beers have good Belgian roots, like Lambics, Flanders Reds and Browns … I’m sure I’m forgetting some, but that’s why this is a discussion, not a lecture.
Belgian beers can share similar characteristics and qualities, like spicy phenols, fruity esters, and that effervescence you only thought you could get from popping a cork on New Year’s Eve. And of course, those Belgian yeast strains. Amazing strains. How great thou art! But saying that Belgians belong in one big Belgian category is like saying sharks, whales, and fish are the same animal because they live in water. Belgian beers are very diverse. In America we’ve tried to wrangle them into something like 17 categories. A Belgian brewer, however, will tell you that there are no styles in Belgium. Take that BJCP!
That said, the BJCP can be helpful. The Style Guidelines give us ranges and targets to hit in order to be traditional and push the boundaries of tradition. Does it mean that the beer you brewed in your brewery is wrong because it doesn’t fit a category? F**k. No. Pardon my French-style sour language. I can’t discuss every Belgian style in one article. And I won’t. But I’ll talk Belgians all day at the bar with you; just tap my shoulder. In this article, I’m taking a look at Belgian Strong Ales because that’s the beer I have in front of me.
Belgian Strong Ales, according to the BJCP style guidelines are generally between 15-40 IBUs and between 6-percent to 11-percent ABV. The aromas can be complex malty, spicy, sweet, and fruity. They vary in appearance from dark to light blonde in color. The flavors can be sweet — complex malts, caramel, fruity esters, spicy phenols, present alcohol — with generally a clean, dry finish. They’ve even been described as “yeasty.” They can have medium body to high carbonation, and their overall impression ranges from delicious to crazy delicious, in my opinion.
Currently, Category 18: Belgian Strong Ales, looks like this (for now).
18A. Belgian Blond Ale
18B. Belgian Dubbel
18C. Belgian Tripel
18D. Belgian Golden Strong Ale
18E. Belgian Dark Strong Ale
Santa Fe Brewing Co.’s ECS Belgian Strong Ale fits somewhere among those styles. Thanks to Josh at the Brewery, I have the details for you:
- 9.6% ABV
- 17 IBUs
- 3787 aka Trappist High Gravity yeast
- German Pilsner Malt grain
- Malted White Wheat
- Belgian Special B
- And minimal use of Saaz hops
- Additional ingredients — lots of Dark Belgian Candy Syrup
Though it fits the Belgian Strong Ale ranges well, it doesn’t settle into any of those styles. While the BJCP committee might cringe, the Belgian brewer would nod his head in approval. And from all that I’ve learned about Belgian beers and their uniqueness, I approve as well, even applaud what Santa Fe Brewing Co. has done.
I bumped into a couple distributors of major brewing companies who were visiting from Albuquerque during the release party. About the Belgian Strong Ale, Dave said, the beer is “outstanding.”
Kevin said, “I love it! It’s not too Belgian-y, and the Belgian flavor is good, but it doesn’t linger like a lot of Belgians out there. It’s great!”
Also refusing to fit into a style, here’s my own take on a review:
This beer is a meeting with an old friend. He’s the same dark amber color you remember, but there’s a little more lace around his crown. Immediately, the two of you pick up right where you left off. You’re already familiar with his philosophies on maltiness and candied sugars, and you’ve heard his takes on fruity esters, but you really appreciate them now. He tells you his spiciest stories, but they seem a bit subdued, perhaps from familiarity. He peppers you with anecdotes about the old farmhouse where the two of you used to sneak plums and raisins and figs from your mother. Those were the good times. The two of you soon get drunk together and begin to share too much. The hours blur and so do the stories, but they’ve all been good tales, easy transitions, no surprises. It seems as though he’s only gotten better at telling them. Old memories swim around in your glass and they taste like warm fruit wrapped in oak. They leave you smacking your tongue in delight. But after a long talk, it’s time to leave. Before saying goodbye, he tells you a joke about hops, and how a beer can do without, and you laugh yourself into a hiccup. The friendly conversation finishes with a warm vanilla hug, and a dry hand shake. He says to you, “It’s not goodbye, old friend. It’s until next time.” And you believe him.
For me, the beer was great. It feels like it hits closest to the Strong Dark style, if I tried to put it into one of the styles in that category, but why do so? I can see why the brewers at SFBC refused to label it. It’s its own thing, yet undeniably Belgian. It’s as big as I want a Strong style to be, but with generous amounts of complex flavors that can keep you taking notes as you sip. It is also great for those long conversations with old friends, too. And it has that dry finish that Santa Fe Brewing does so well. It was a joy to sit down with this one, and another one just like it. It’s not as monstrous as Belgians such as La Trappe’s Quadrupel, but if you like the Trappist Ales and their many variations, I think you’ll dig this one. If this is your first Belgian beer that is bigger and darker than a White or Double White, good. It won’t scare you away. It will, however, strongly urge that you join the club. This is a beer that can and should be enjoyed by anyone, but it’s also a beer that’s really only “gotten,” by those who fuss over the importance of flavor and beers brewed the hard way … like brewing with finicky Belgian yeast. Congratulations, Santa Fe Brewing Co.! Your Belgian is as strong as your kung-fu. Drink it in, my friends, and remember — life is a pint glass; fill it with only the best stuff.
The ECS Belgian Strong Ale is available now on draft at the Brewery and Eldorado Taproom, various lucky craft-friendly bars, and it should be available in bombers for Brew-quenos in a couple weeks.
For more @nmdarksidebc and #CraftBeer info, follow me on Twitter @SantaFeCraftBro.