BJCP Course – Class #3 (Dark Lager & Belgian Strong Ale)

Chuck's Wall-o-Malt

For an introduction to this series, click here.

The third of 11 BJCP classes was held on Sunday June 5.  The technical topic for this class was malt.  We had an overview of the malting process, types and characters of base malts, types and characters of specialty malts, and a discussion of what styles of beer are typically brewed with what types of malt.  We then took a field trip to Chuck’s Wall-o-Malt, which contains jars of 78 different types of barley malt, unmalted barley, malted and unmalted wheat, oats, rye, etc., etc., etc.  It was very fun and interesting to smell and taste some malts that I’ve never used before (chocolate malted wheat, for example).

Our tasting session for this week included two categories: smooth and subdued Dark Lager (BJCP Category 4) and punch-you-in-the-face Belgian Strong Ale (BJCP Category 18). 

For a reminder on how the tastings are organized, click here.

 

4. Dark Lager

All set for the Dark Lager flight.

 

This category includes three subcategories: Dark American Lager, Munich Dunkel, and Schwarzbier (literally “black beer” in German).  The beers in this category are the closest modern-day equivalent of the very first lagers produced in the early 19th century.  Typically brewed with dark Munich malts, these beers generally have a rich malty profile balanced by a very clean dryness from lager yeasts.

Click here for the BJCP Style Guidelines for Dark Lager.

Subcategory: 4A. Dark American Lager

As always, I turn to my 1993 edition of Michael Jackson’s Beer Companion to do a little research on the history of the category and see what I can learn about each individual style.  Unsurprisingly, Jackson doesn’t cover the fairly recent Dark American Lager style (other than to mention Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, whose beer I have never sampled).  So without any wisdom from the master, I’ll have to go solely off of the BJCP description of the style.  Generally speaking, beers of this style tend to have a smooth, medium-light body with some slight roasty or caramel flavors and not much hop aroma or flavor.  If you read the BJCP description, you’ll see a lot of phrases like “little to no,” “moderate to none,” and “none of this, none of that.”

4. Baltika #4 
Medium amber with a light tan head.  It has a slight caramel aroma with faint floral/spicy hops and a hint of fruity esters.  The flavor is sweetish with a low caramelly molasses character.  While the hop bitterness is medium-high, there isn’t any noticeable hop flavor.  The mouthfeel is very smooth and has a surprisingly crisp finish given the beer’s sweetness.  This is a very sessionable beer, in my opinion.  Not very complex or interesting, but tasty and easy-drinking enough to have several of.

2. Shiner Bock
Living in Texas, this was of course one of the first beers I ever drank.  Despite its name, it isn’t a true Bock (the alcohol, body, and flavor are all too low).  A bit darker in appearance than Baltika #4, the aroma is predominantly metallic and minerally with a hint of grainy malts.  The flavor has a very subdued malt character and a metallic hop bitterness.  The mouthfeel is smooth and has a medium-dry finish.  Those of us at the tasting mostly agreed that this beer doesn’t have much character.  Its aroma and flavors are very simple, clean, and decidedly bland.  But…if you’re looking for something to drink a six of, you could do worse.

1. Dixie Blackened Voodoo
Darker than the two previous examples, Blackened Voodoo is a dull medium brown but with the same tan head as the others.  The aroma presents a medium-low roast character and a hint of spicy American hops.  The flavor is roasty and malt forward, with hints of toffee.  I also detected some fruitiness to the beer, but no one agreed with me on that point.  The beer has a nice round body and a bit lower carbonation than the two previous beers.  It ends with a dry finish and is overall pretty delicious.  There is a little bit of a tang on the finish/aftertaste that I found interesting, though others found it a bit off-putting.

Subcategory: 4B. Munich Dunkel

Unsurprisingly, the use of Munich malt (a type of medium-dark malt popularized by and developed for this type of beer) is prevalent in this style.  Dunkels tend to be substantial without being overbearing.  Prominent flavors include a full, round malt character without much roastyness, and melanoidins (which are products of the Maillard reaction such as browned bread crust and the tasty crunchy bits off of a seared steak or roasted meat).  As such, “liquid bread” is a good descriptor for this style.

6. Hofbrau Dunkel
This beer pours medium brown with hints of orange in the color.  There was a slight skunkiness in the aroma (due to the green bottle), which otherwise smelled husky and of bread crust.  The rather underwhelming flavor of this beer was made up of a pretty two-dimensional bready malt character.  The mouthfeel was smooth and the finish was somewhat dry.  Overall, a pretty forgettable beer.

5. Ettaler Kloster Dunkel
Medium-light brown in appearance, the nose of this beer has a very clean and simple sweet malt character.  There is a relatively complex malt flavor with hints of caramel.  The mouthfeel is smooth and creamy, with a round body and dry finish.  There was a pretty big jump in quality and character between the last beer and this one.  Straight-forward, but quite tasty.  Kloster Ettal is a monastary in Germany that produced this beer.  My fairly limited experience with German monastic brewing is that they tend to have a bit more of a rustic and complex character than their pure commercial counterparts.  I’d say this holds true here compared to the other two Munich Dunkels.

1. Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel
Darker in color than the other two, the aroma of this example is of subdued malt with a hint of cereal and prominent melanoidins (bread crusts, etc.).  The flavor has a quite prominent toffee character backed by the deep flavor of Munich malt.  The mouthfeel is smooth and it has a very dry finish.  Ignoring the BJCP for a minute, I think I much preferred the Ettaler Kloster.  But the very clean and straightforward character of the Ayinger is what makes it the #1 commercial example for the style.

Subcategory: 4C. Schwarzbier (Black Beer)

Possibly the oldest of the Dark Lager styles, Jackson seemingly refers to this style as “Kulmbacher” as named after the type of beer historically brewed in Kulmback, Franconia.  These tend to be the roastiest of the Dark Lagers in this category and have a bit more hop character.  This can be a really wonderful style of beer but many of the commercial examples are less than phenomenal.  The best example that I’ve ever had is Flekovsky Lezák 13° from the U Fleku brewery in Prague (the beer is only available for consumption at the brewery/pub).  It’s over-priced and served in small glasses, but don’t miss it if you go to Prague.

3. Samuel Adams Black Lager
Dark brown with a roasty aroma with coffee notes and some noble hop character.  The flavor is immediately roasty then dies off into either a sour or a smokey taste (this we argued a bit…I say smokey).  There is a tingle of carbonation and then a medium-dry finish.  Compared to the dunkels, this was not as smooth.  I don’t like smoke on a beer without a big wallop of malt to back it up, so the smokey nature of this was a little bit unpleasant.

2. Kulmbacher Monschof Premium
Dark Brown like the Sam Adams, but with amber highlights.  The complex aroma is of smooth caramel, fresh tobacco, coffee, and chocolate, with the chocolate becoming more prominent as the aromatics dissipate.  The flavor lends a hint of roasted malt bitterness in an overall complex malt character.  Smoother in mouthfeel than the previous beer.  The flavor isn’t as bold and complex as the aroma, but overall the beer is very interesting but consequently doesn’t really seem to line up with BJCP’s style guidelines.  I’d buy this for home consumption, but of course it isn’t available in Texas.

1. Kostritzer Schwarzbier
With a similar color as the Monschof, the aroma of the Kostritzer is sweeter and less complex.  There is a slightly roasty, bready malt character to the aroma.  The malt profile is fairly basic and with a medium level of bitterness.  Someone said it is like a “dark Pils,” which I think is a pretty accurate description.  Overall, the beer looks, smells, and tastes like the BJCP style guidelines say it should, but it is fairly uninteresting.

18. Belgian Strong Ale

The class hard at work...

If there’s one thing to know about Belgian ales, it’s that there is an incredible amount of variability between the individual beers within each style and a lot of similarities between the styles (one brewery’s Tripel can sometimes be another’s Dubbel).  The same goes for this category which includes everything from very light to dark, sweet to dry, malty to bitter and fruity, very alcoholic to really f&#%@ing alcoholic.  So, to say this portion of the tasting was challenging is a bit of an understatement.  Of course, it was also very fun.

Click here for the BJCP Style Guidelines for Belgian Strong Ale.

Subcategory: 18A. Belgian Blond Ale

The lowest alcohol of the five styles in this category, Belgian Blond Ales tend to be the least complex of the Belgian ales.  But compared to the entire spectrum of the beer world, their complexity is still on the high end.  There are many similarities aroma and flavor-wise between this style and Tripels and Golden Strong Ales, though the Blonds also tend to be cleaner and have a more subdued yeast character that allows pilsner malt notes to come through in the aroma and flavor.

(unlisted). Omer Traditional Blond 
Unable to find three of the official BJCP commercial examples for this style, Omer was included in our tasting flight.  Light gold in color with a big white head, Omer has an aroma of earthy hops, pils malt, and complex fruity/perfumey esters.  The flavor is sweet with honey notes and is balanced by spicy hops and hints of lemons.  There is a subdued alcohol note, as well.  Omer is medium-dry with a prickly carbonation and a bit of an alcohol warming sensation. 

4. Grimbergen Blond
Medium gold with a frothy white head.  Buttery diacetyl notes are prominent in the nose.  Once the diacetyl burns off, the aroma is spicy with a light-colored fruits character.  The flavor is very soft, with lemongrass and pils malt sweetness.  The beer is fairly tart and has a medium level of carbonation and body.

1. Leffe Blond
Similar in appearance to the Grimbergen but with a foamy rather than frothy head.  The aroma is of fruity with prominent banana, clove, and band-aid phenolics.  The most prominent flavor note is band-aid (plasticky/rubbery) followed by cloves and bananas.  The flavor is sweet, but without much discernible malt character.  The mouthfeel is spritzy and has a sweet finish.

Subcategory: 18B. Belgian Dubbel

This is one of my favorite Belgian styles.  Darker than most of the other styles in this category, Dubbels tend to have ruby highlights and a complex malt character with raisins, prunes, and caramel notes.  Yeast also plays a prominent role in the aroma and flavor of Dubbels, but compared to Blonds, Tripels, and Golden Strong Ales, the complexity of the malt profile balances that of the yeast.  While brewed by non-monastic breweries as well, Dubbel is probably the most popular style of beer brewed by Trappist monks among American drinkers.

3. LeTrappe Dubbel
Deep copper in color, the aroma of this beer is of dark fruits, spices, and pepper.  There are also more subdued notes of bananas and a hint of alcohol.  The flavor is rich and sweet with a complex malt character and prominent raisin notes.  The body is medium-full and there is a slight alcohol warmth present.  Overall, the aroma of this beer is more complex than its flavor, but in total its a very rich and enjoyable beer.

2. St Bernardus Pater 6
This beer is medium to light brown in color.  A bready, husky malt aroma caries with it notes of caramel and toast, but doesn’t present any fruity esters like the LeTrappe.  There is a noticeable alcoholic flavor present in this beer, along with caramel and bready malt characteristics.  The body is medium-full.  We had two bottles that were poured and there were some significant differences between the two (due to the natural bottle conditioning [i.e., live yeast present in the bottles] of this beer).  Specifically, one of the bottles had a prominent aroma and flavor of artificial grapes.  Several people commented that it had a noticeable “grape Flintstone vitamin” character.

1. Westmalle Dubbel
While similar in color to the St Bernardus, the Westmalle had a much fuller, foamier head.  The aroma had hints of spearmint and toasty malt.  The flavor of the beer was pretty strait-forward and lacked the complexity that I tend to expect from a Dubble.  Beyond that, there was a buttery diacetyl aftertaste, which is not supposed to be present in this style.  The body had more fullness than the other two Dubbels in this flight and while the finish was dry, there was a lingering aftertaste.  Overall, this beer was fairly pedestrian in my opinion.  Given a choice, I would definitely pick the LeTrappe over the other two.

Subcategory: 18C. Belgian Tripel

Much lighter in color than Dubbels and typically much higher in alcohol, Tripels tend to be very highly carbonated and much lighter in aroma and flavor with cloves, bananas, lemons, and other fruits prominent in both.  Floral, spicy, and peppery notes are common.  There are many similarities between Tripels and Golden Strong Ales in terms of flavor and aroma.  The differences are typically fuller body amongst Tripels.  This is a bit abstract, but Tripels tend to be Trappist or Trappist-esque in character while Strong Goldens are less holy.

4. Chimay Cinq Cents (White)
This beer is hazy with an orangey-yellowy color and a big frothy head.  The aroma is of spicy, floral hops with hints of lemongrass.  The spiceyness and lemon notes carry through to the flavor and are accompanied by alcohol and cloves.  The beer is highly carbonated (the cork shot out as soon as the cage was removed) and has a medium to light body.  This beer has a very nice flavor and aroma, but it seems a bit rough at the edges.

3. St Bernardus Tripel
Gold and with a foamy white head, the aroma presents bready malts and faint light-color fruits.  Diacetyl was also present (and again, not supposed to be there according to the BJCP).  The flavor was sweet and was predominately of bananas and pilsner malt.  The mouthfeel was smoother than the Cinq Cents and the carbonation was a bit lower.

1. Westmalle Tripel
As with the Dubbels, this Westmalle looks very similar to the St Bernardus.  The aroma initially presents clean malt with hints of lemon, but becomes quite phenolic after a little while.  The flavor is hot with alcohol and a bit soapy while ending off being faintly bitter.  I couldn’t help but equate the creamy mouthfeel of this beer with the soapy flavor.  Overall, this beer is more subdued than the other two Tripels and without much character.

Subcategory: 18D. Belgian Golden Strong Ale

Though only one of the three beers that we tasted have names referencing the devil, notable Golden Strong Ales have names such as Damnation, Lucifer, Judas, Hades, Horny Devil, etc.  So with all of the similarities between Golden Strongs and Tripels, maybe the primary difference is salvation?  Well, no…Avery has a beer named “Salvation” and it’s a Golden Strong Ale.  Damn.  No, it seems that more prominent hops and spices, paler color, lighter body, and crisper finish are what differentiates a Golden Strong from a Tripel.  But for me, you could put some of these side-by-side with a Tripel in a blind tasting and I probably couldn’t tell you which belongs to which style.

9. Piraat
Medium gold in color, the head of this beer had lots of BB-sized bubbles clumped together that looked sort of like spider eyes (also, guess how long it took me to remember what “Med. gold spider eyes” in my notebook meant).  The aroma is very fruity and complex with noticeable alcohol notes.  The flavor is sweet and fruity with a bit of diacetyl in the back of the throat.  While the beer has a pretty light body, the butteryness of the diacetyl rounds it out.  Overall, the fruity and buttery taste is quite interesting and I wonder if some of the flavors (perhaps the butteryness) came from the sugar used in the brewing.  Jaggery, a palm sugar, has a buttery charachter…maybe this was used?

7. Delirium Tremens
This is the beer that has a pink elephant on the bottle (google the meaning of delirium tremens to find out why).  The beer is hazy and light gold in color with a frothy head.  The flavor is tart and very clovey.  Alcohol warmth and a very sparkly carbonation lead to a tangy tartness in the finish.  Overall not as interesting as the Piraat, but enjoyable nonetheless.

1. Duvel
The preeminent Belgian Strong Ale (golden or otherwise).  Straw gold in color and a meringue head.  The aroma is fruity and lemony with hints of pear. There’s some presence of these aromas in the flavor, which also has a light malt character and a slightly hoppiness.  Lower in carbonation than the other two, this beer is also smoother.  Overall, it’s simple and straightforward. 

Subcategory: 18E. Belgian Dark Strong Ale

A bit like an amped-up Dubbel, Dark Strong Ales tend to be very complex with rich aromas and flavors.  Trappist versions (e.g., the Chimay discussed below) tend to be less sweet than the non-Trappist examples.  The BJCP describes this style as “dangerous,” which is quite true.  The complexity and richness of the aromas and flavors mask the sometimes extremely high alcohol content of these beers (generally up to 11%). 

10. Gulden Draak
Medium brown with an off-white head.  The aroma has a complex maltiness with notes of raisins and prunes.  The flavor also has a prominent dark-fruit character with prunes and black currants most discernible.  It is sweet and has caramel notes and a bit of alcohol flavor.  The finish is dryish and the body is substantial.  In total, this is a very sweet and complex beer with complex dark fruit character all over.

8. Chimay Grande Reserve (Blue)
Medium brown with a tan head.  The aroma is mild with faint hints of bready malts.  The flavor is not very sweet and is generally subdued.  There are hints of raisins, but otherwise there isn’t much happening here.  The medium-high carbonation lightens the body a bit.

2. Rochefort 10
Very dark brown in color.  The aroma is quite roasty and nutty.  Some people noticed fruits in the aroma but I didn’t.  There is a hint of diacetyl, which is out-of-place.  The flavor is buttery and complex with a deep maltiness, dark fruit notes, and caramel.  The mouthfeel is smooth and has a lower carbonation than the other two.  Other than the diacetyl fault, this beer is quite nice.  Actually, even with the diacetyl, it’s nice…that just constitutes a fault according to the BJCP guidelines.

Conclusion

In my mind, the stand-outs from this series of tastings were Baltika #4 (Dark American Lager), Ettaler Kloster Dunkel, Kulmbacher Monschoff Premium (Schwarzbier), Omer Traditional Blond, LeTrappe Dubbel, and Piraat (Golden Strong Ale).  Those are the ones that I’d seek out.  I was fairly surprised at how disappointing the Westmalle examples were, being the #1 examples in their subcategories.  Not bad at all, just not as interesting or enjoyable as some of the others.  Tasting 15 strong Belgian beers back-to-back was difficult.  I mean, I’m glad to have been able to compare them side-by-side, but these beers really require your full attention.  So, my advice is don’t try this at home…your palate, kidney, and head the next morning will thank you.

I’m thinking of eventually combing all of these tastings into a single, organized webpage (click a subcategory, see tasting notes for three commercial examples).  Does that sound worthwhile?

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