Generally, when wine lovers are beginning their foray into the world of great beer, they start with the brews of a country known for its rich beer heritage and reputation for outstanding quality, such as Belgium. The most popular introduction into Belgian-style beers is witbiers, also known as white or wheat beers. Given their lighter appearance, lively effervescence, moderate alcohol and mellow though complex aroma and flavor profiles, they are a great introduction to the masterfully crafted brews to be enjoyed from around the world.
From there people usually move on to other styles, from pale ales to saisons, bière bruts to tripels. But once you’ve experienced the bounty that each style has to offer, including expressions from other countries and domestic craft brewers, it’s time to consider moving over to the dark side: Belgian strong dark ales.
Big and bold, these are some of the brute bullies of the beer world. Traditionally bottle-conditioned, they are complex, rich and malty with significant esters, spicy phenols and low to moderate bitterness. Their typical sweet-spice profiles are also a natural fit for complementing holiday fare. Alcohol typically ranges from 8–11% abv, though they can go as high as 15%, making easy-drinking examples a bit dangerous. Given their density, weight and structure, they are usually good candidates for aging.
Excellent examples of these traditional styles can now be found outside of the motherland. Plenty of American breweries are taking their turn interpreting them, often with fantastically delicious results.
No matter where you turn, Old World or New, it’s the perfect time to give these dark beauties a try. Just make sure you buy two of everything—one to drink now and one to hold for next year.
Chimay Grand Réserve Ale Barrel Aged Dark Ale (Belgian Strong Dark Ale; Bières de Chimay, Belgium); $40/750 ml, 94 points. A new release from the classic Trappist brewery, this is the classic Grand Réserve, or Blue, Chimay, with 22% aged in former rum barrels. It’s loaded with dense, woody aromas and flavors, expressed in waves of fruit cake, vanilla bean and toasted oak that lay atop the rich core of fresh caramel, brown sugar, toasted bread, rum baba and booze-soaked raisins and berries. It’s round and creamy, with a mouthfilling palate and a pleasant warmth that unfolds on the long, spicy finish. Manneken-Brussel Imports. abv: 10.5%
The Bruery (Belgian Strong Dark Ale; The Bruery, CA); $11/750 ml, 92 points. This new release from California powerhouse The Bruery is a Belgian-style abbey ale brewed with dates, candi sugar and coriander. All those notes are fairly consistent descriptors found in the style, so the additions seem to mesh with the beer seamlessly. The date and burnt candi-sugar notes are upfront on the nose and mouth, with supporting tones of caramel malt, brown bread, black plum, raisin and subtle woodspice. Overall, it’s quite sweet and subtly smooth, with a pleasant warmth that unfolds on the finish, though it’s not sharp and doesn’t overstay its welcome. abv: 9.5%
Bruery Terreux 2016 Quadrupel Tonnellerie (Quadrupel; Bruery Terreux, CA); $21/750 ml, 91 points. Traditionalists might take issue with this out-of-the-box brew, but sometimes, it’s good to step outside your comfort zone. A barrel-fermented Belgian-style quadrupel ale that’s brewed with blackberries. The fruit addition lends a brighter streak to what is typically an opulent, rich and mouthfilling style, lending a fruity verve, while the wild organisms from the barrel-aging give a tart, acidic cut throughout. It still boasts the typical quad notes of roasted malt, dried fig, black plum, tree bark and woodspice, just in a more lifted, tightly wound package. abv: 10.2%
Hardywood Barrel Series Bourbon Barrel Cru (Quadrupel; Hardywood Park Craft Brewery, VA); $18/750 ml, 91 points. This Abbey-style quadrupel ale, aged in Bourbon barrels, is not for the faint of heart. A brilliant mahogany color in the glass, the initial boozy, Bourbony aroma is not easily overlooked, but with time subsides to reveal notes of dark cherry, plum, toffee, brown bread and caramel that all continue through to the decadent. It’s smooth and warming, with a spicy punch to the finish, but it’s in line with the beer’s overall intensity and intent. This is a perfect shareable selection for a post holiday-dinner hang. abv: 12%