Winner, Winner: Big Surprise Belgian Pale Ale

The Southern California Homebrewers Festival was held recently, and per tradition they had a style-focused competition. Each participating club could submit an entry for a bragging rights “best of show” beer…this year’s style of choice was Belgian Pale Ale. My beer was selected as the entry for our brew club (Horse Thief Brewer’s Association)…and I was blown away to learn that it was the top beer of the competition, among approximately 30 other entries! Due to a work conflict, I wasn’t able to be there in person, but enjoyed hearing about the results via text message (I was in the field when I received the news). The ?downside is that I received an empty keg back, so wasn’t able to enjoy the beer after my first few samples! I guess that means I’ll be brewing it again sometime soon.

Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich on Pexels.com

These high ratings surprised me because I had never brewed the style before, was using an untested recipe, and didn’t actually expect to win. But hey, I won’t complain. Even though I didn’t think the beer was anything particularly special, other people obviously did, and I’m kinda proud of that.

The recipe I brewed here was a modification of Ben’s Belgian Pale Ale, which received a silver medal at the 2019 National Homebrew Competition. The recipe is posted on the AHA website; I figured that it would be a good starting point for my own version. This is not a style I’ve sampled a ton of, so I was working a bit in the dark. The original recipe called for flaked oats and red wheat malt, but I elected to pull those out to ensure a clearer result. After a bit of research, I settled on Omega Labs’ Belgian Ale A yeast, because it is supposed to be on the cleaner side for Belgian yeasts–a desirable quality in a Belgian pale ale. I suppose there are enough changes that the original recipe was an inspirational starting point, rather than anything I explicitly followed. I did choose to make Saaz the centerpiece of the hopping, in a nod to tradition.

Andy’s Belgian Pale Ale, in a “farewell tasting” before it headed off to the brewing festival

Big Surprise Belgian Pale Ale

  • 7 lb. Barke pilsner malt (Weyermann)
  • 2 lb. Munich I malt (Weyermann)
  • 12 oz. Cara 20 malt (Dingemans)
  • 8 oz. aromatic Munich malt 20L (Briess)
  • 8 oz. caramel Munich 60L malt (Briess)
  • 4 oz. dextrin malt (Viking)
  • 0.75 oz. Saaz hop pellets (4.0% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 0.35 oz. Magnum hop pellets (10.1% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 0.5 oz. Saaz hop pellets (4.0% alpha), 20 minute boil
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet, 5 minute boil
  • 1 oz. Saaz hop pellets, 5 minute boil
  • 1 pkg. Belgian Ale A yeast (Omega OYL-024)

Target Parameters

  • 1.051 s.g., 1.010 f.g., 5.4% abv, 29 IBU, 10 SRM
  • Claremont tap water, adjusted to hit 45 Ca, 6 Mg, 91 Na, 50 SO4, 115 Cl, 144 HCO3
  • Full volume mash, 60 minutes at 152° and 10 minute mash-out at 168°.

Procedure

  • I mashed in with 7 gallons of water at 158°, to hit a mash temperature of 152°. I added 1 g CaCl to adjust water chemistry, as well as 2.5 mL 88% lactic acid to adjust pH. I held at 152° for 60 minutes, before raising the mash to 168° for a 10 minute mash-out.
  • I removed the grains and heated the runnings to a boil. In total, I collected 6.1 gallons of runnings with a gravity of 1.047, for 71% mash efficiency.
  • I brought the kettle to a boil, adding hops and finings per the recipe. After 60 minutes, I turned off the heat and chilled to ~66°.
  • On the morning of brew day, I made a 1L vitality starter to wake up the yeast.
  • I brewed this beer on 13 March 2022. Starting gravity was 1.052. I fermented the beer at ambient temperature in my garage, around 60°.
  • After vigorous fermentation slowed down, I moved the fermenter inside on 18 March 2022, where the temperature was slightly warmer (~66°). Very vigorous fermentation took off again (filling the airlock with yeast), so I cleaned the airlock, sanitized it, and let it go from there.
  • I kegged the beer on 8 April 2022, using 3.5 oz. of corn sugar dissolved in 1 cup of water. Final gravity was 1.011, for 5.4% abv.
  • I let the keg sit at ambient for ~2 weeks, and topped up the carbonation with forced CO2. The flavor was pretty good, but it was not terribly clear. So, I added 1 tsp. of gelatin dissolved in water on 24 April 2022. Within two days, the clarity was gorgeous!

Tasting

  • Appearance
    • Very clear, light amber color. The beer pours with a creamy and persistent white head.
  • Aroma
    • Bready and light caramel aroma, with a light pear-like fruitiness to the yeast aroma.
  • Flavor
    • Light fruity yeast character at the front, with a bready/grainy malt character. Bitterness is moderate, with a smooth extended finish.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Medium body, medium carbonation, slightly dry finish.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • Gelatin improved the clarity on this beer a TON! I really like the restrained yeast character here; it is interesting without being cloying or overpowering. I would highly recommend the Omega Labs’ Belgian Ale A for anyone else looking to make this style–the pear quality is particularly enjoyable. The few samples I had were good enough, although not mind-blowing to me. I guess that’s the slightly understated nature of this style. I’m going to have to give it another try, because I’m now intrigued, especially given the fact that other people liked it so much.
  • Overall
    • 7/10

The Simple Monk

We’re into the season of Lent on the liturgical calendar, often observed through simple food choices or abstinence from dietary pleasures like chocolate and alcohol. Although I won’t go quite so far as to give up beer for the season, I do think it’s worth trying something a bit different for my beer. Along these lines, it seemed appropriate to make a Lenten beer, focused on the principle of simplicity.

I was inspired by the concept of a patersbier, or a low alcohol table beer that might be served at an abbey or monastery. This of course brings associations with Belgian styles, leading me towards a Belgian ale yeast. I was determined to go for simplicity in recipe and process, and so decided to execute a SMaSH recipe. I had some pilsner malt to use up, and chose whole Cascade hops from South Dakota. I also wanted to go lower alcohol, perhaps around 4% or so, to be safely on the session side of things. A hotter mash temperature would keep the result from getting too thin, and I also wanted to keep the hop rate down to avoid being overly bitter. Finally, I aimed to keep the fermentation simple. I would do an open-style fermentation (no airlock), and let it ride at ambient temperature. Finally, instead of force carbonating, I would let the keg condition with corn sugar. It was a fun experiment! I wouldn’t claim this fits any style particularly well — the whole concept is pure fantasy, but that made the brewing even more fun as a creative process.

The Simple Monk

  • 9 lb. Viking pilsner malt
  • 1 oz. Cascade whole hops (5.5% estimated alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 1 pkg. Abbaye Belgian ale yeast (Lallemand)

Target Parameters

  • 1.044 o.g., 1.013 f.g., 4.1% abv, 3 SRM, 19 IBU
  • Full volume mash at 154° for 60 minutes
  • Claremont tap water, no adjustment

Procedure

  • I mashed in with 7 gallons of water at 159°, to hit a mash rest of 154°. I added 7 mL of 88% lactic acid, and recirculated for 60 minutes before raising the temperature to 168° for 10 minutes.
  • When I pulled the grain basket, I had 6.4 gallons of runnings with a gravity of 1.039, for 75% mash efficiency.
  • I brought the wort to a boil, adding the hops and boiling for 60 minutes.
  • Once the boil was done, I chilled to 68° and transferred to the fermenter, before pitching the yeast.
  • Starting gravity was 1.043. I brewed the beer on 5 February 2022.
  • In the interest of simplicity, I left the beer to ride at ambient indoors (the garage was going to be a bit too cool). I also tried an open fermentation of sorts–instead of an airlock or blowoff tube, I just put a bit of foil over the outlet of the fermenter.
  • I kegged the beer on 16 February 2022, adding 2.6 oz. of corn sugar boiled in a cup of water. The beer carbonated at room temperature for about two weeks, before I put it into the keezer.
  • Final gravity was 1.014, for 3.8% abv.

Tasting

  • Appearance
    • Straw colored beer, very hazy, with a thin white head that sticks around only as a thin ring around the margin of the glass.
  • Aroma
    • Spicy yeast character, and a bit of clove aroma. It’s very clearly Belgian, and pretty nice. As the beer warms up, I get a tiny bit of hot alcohol character.
  • Flavor
    • Slightly grainy malt flavor, with low bitterness. Yeast character has a very slight tartness, and a bit of pepper and clove.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Medium light body, with medium-low carbonation. There is a slight astringency on the finish; it’s not over the top, but a bit noticeable.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • This was a super fun experiment. I enjoyed the freedom that the simplicity brought, in not having to really fret over a recipe or over the details of mashing and fermentation. It isn’t the best beer I’ve ever made (the slight astringency is a bit of a ding), but the experience was really enjoyable, and it’s a highly drinkable brew.
  • Overall
    • 7/10

Winter Dream Ale

I often make a special, small-batch beer for Christmas, something that’s rich and high alcohol and perfect for cold (southern California) evenings next to the fire. For the 2021 edition, I threw together a Belgian-style winter warmer. I wanted a rich, sumptuous malt backbone, and to let the fermentation add any spice, rather than using actual species. I used up a few ingredients on-hand, which just happened to be perfect for my vision of the beer.

Winter Dream Ale

  • 8 lb. Vienna malt (Weyermann)
  • 1.25 lb. Munich light malt (Chateau)
  • 11 oz. Special B malt (Dingemans)
  • 4 oz. Crystal 120 malt (Great Western)
  • 0.75 oz. Magnum hop pellets (10.1% alpha), 60 minute boil
  • 1 Whirlfloc tablet, 5 minute boil
  • 1.5 g yeast nutrient (WLN1000, White Labs)
  • 8 oz. honey, add to flameout
  • 2 pkg. Abbay Belgian ale yeast (Lallemand)

Target Parameters

  • 1.086 o.g., 1.018 f.g., 9.2% abv, 22 IBU, 22 SRM
  • Mash held at 150° for 60 minutes, and 10 minute mash-out at 168°, with ~0.75 gallon sparge
  • Claremont tap water

Procedure

  • I heated 4.5 gallons of water to 159°, and added the grains to hit a mash temperature of 150°. I held here (with recirculation) for 60 minutes, before raising the temperature to 168° and holding there for 10 minutes. Then, I removed the grain basket and sparged with 0.75 gallons of hot water.
  • I collected 4.5 gallons of runnings with a gravity of 1.060, for 71% mash efficiency.This was a good efficiency but too high of a volume. So, I boiled for an extra 30 minutes before adding hops.
  • After 30 minutes of boiling, I added the hops, honey, and finings per the recipe, boiling for an addition 60 minutes.
  • Starting gravity was 1.076; this was a bit short of the recipe, but I didn’t worry about it too much.
  • I chilled to 80°, transferred to the fermenter, and let the wort chill overnight before pitching the yeast.
  • I brewed the beer on 12 October 2021, and pitched the yeast on 13 October 2021.
  • I fermented at 65°, and raised the beer to 70° (free rise) on 20 October 2021, to help the yeast ferment out.
  • I kegged the beer on 5 November 2021. Final gravity was 1.020, for 7.5% abv.

Tasting

  • Appearance
    • Deep reddish amber and very clear; there is a persistent and creamy ivory head.
  • Aroma
    • Spicy aroma, with a bit of caramel and dried dark fruit.
  • Flavor
    • Wonderfully rich! There is a caramel and toffee malt character with a bit of dried fruit and sweet candy. A bready malt quality sneaks up behind that. Bitterness is moderate, and the yeast character has a slightly spicy quality. Fermentation quality is really nice, and I dodged any hot alcohol character.
  • Mouthfeel
    • Medium body, with medium-high carbonation and a smooth finish. The body is maybe a little thinner than I had envisioned.
  • Would I brew this again?
    • I am really, really happy with the results in this recipe. It absolutely hit the rich, complex qualities I wanted, and is highly drinkable. The fermentation quality is perfect too! The only minor ding is that starting gravity was a touch low, which decreases the body a little, but I think that worked out okay in the end. I would rather the body be somewhat thin, than the beer be too sweet and cloying.
  • Overall
    • 8/10