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Serious Beer: Belgian Dark Strong Ales from American Breweries
There are few beers as substantial—and full of such deep, complex flavors and aromas—as Belgian Dark Strong Ales. These beers aren't to be approached lightly. The first sip demands your full attention, though subsequent sips may cause you to lose your train of thought completely.
Belgian Dark Strong Ales favor bready or caramel malt character over hops, often relying on their alcohol to pull the beer into balance. Other characteristic flavors often include plums, figs, cherries, and raisins. The addition of Belgian candi sugars or other sugars can add complexity and help lighten the body of the beer. Many examples gain notes of spice as a result of the yeast strain or fermentation rather than the addition of adjuncts, though there are notable exceptions. Despite their high ABVs, which usually start at about 8.0%, these beers should be smooth. Age is almost always a good thing for this style.
While many of the finest examples in the world are still (surprise!) brewed in Belgium, a number of American craft brewers are taking inspiration from their Belgian predecessors and contemporaries and concocting creating delicious, dark, compelling brews.
Serious Beer Ratings
***** Mindblowing; a new favorite
**** Awesome, stock up on this
*** Around average for the style
** There are probably better options
* No, thanks, I'll have water.
Midnight Sun Brewing Co. Monk's Mistress Alaska, 11.5% ABV
Intense and incredibly well-rounded, this dark beer is overflowing with aromas of dark fruit and dark Belgian candi sugar. It's got flavor to match, backed up by currents of chocolate and dark caramel along with hints of spice and tobacco. It's rather sweet and the rich flavors linger. This was the second-strongest beer we tried, but you'd never know by drinking it. Its alcohol is well-incorporated and not overwhelming.
Boulevard Brewing Bourbon Barrel Quad Missouri, 11.8% ABV
Before being fermented on top of tart Oregon cherries and aged in bourbon barrels, this abbey-style Quadruple began as a variation on Boulevard's Sixth Glass. This hazy reddish brown beer has huge aromas of oak, vanilla, toffee, and a subdued cherry character. The fruit is much more prominent in the taste and complements the tartness provided by the barrel. This beer is big and unabashedly boozy, like a Belgian Manhattan cocktail. It's certainly not traditional, but it sure is delicious.
Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project Baby Tree Massachusetts, 9.0% ABV
We were instantly taken by the depth and complexity of Baby Tree's aroma. Dark sugars, plums, and other dark fruit are big and up front. It also smells of bread crusts and traces of candied oranges. These elements carry on in the beer's flavor, accompanied by black licorice and pepper. The hop and licorice flavors can hit a little sharp, but otherwise Baby Tree is very well balanced. Over 400 pounds of dried California plums added to the boil kettle bolster the beer's character.
Boulevard Brewing Sixth Glass Missouri, 10.5% ABV
Of all of the beers we tried, Sixth Glass, the "smaller" of the two Quads in Boulevard's Smokestack Series, displayed the widest array of sugar and caramel characteristics. Figs, dates, vanilla, and booze harmonize with the range of sugars in the beer's aroma. Brown sugar is this beer's dominant flavor. Stone fruit is in there as well, which also lends the beer a subtle tartness. The alcohol warms, but remains well-rounded. The mouthfeel is creamy with good carbonation and a dry finish.
Allagash Odyssey Maine, 10.0% ABV
Odyssey has a huge wheat component that makes up a good deal of the aromas and flavors. It also smells of caramel, bread crust, and a touch of alcohol. The first sip brings on flambéed bananas, clove, and oak. The alcohol becomes more prominent as it warms, but Odyssey is dangerously drinkable for a beer of its size.
Brooklyn Brewery Blue Apron New York, 7.2% ABV
Originally concocted for Thomas Keller's restaurants, Blue Apron is unsurprisingly a great dinner companion. Aromas of orange peel, ginger, and spice complement a foundation of bread and caramel. The maltiness carries over in the flavor along with more dark caramel, marshmallow, and orange. Blue Apron is highly carbonated, making it perfect for preparing your palate for the next bite.
21st Amendment Brewery Monk's Blood California, 8.3%
Cherry, vanilla, cream-filled wafer cookies, and candi sugar? Cracking open a can of Monk's Blood is like getting a good waft from the dessert tray. The aromas are followed by dark sugars, oak, and spice, all of which blend and balance wonderfully, though it wasn't the most complex beer we tried. Monk's Blood will win the heart of the staunchest "I don't drink dark beer" beer drinker.
The Bruery Cuádruple California, 10.0% ABV
This Quad was given a south-of-the-border twist by subbing in dark agave syrup for the traditional Belgian candi sugar. The resulting beer has aromas of leather and pear, and it's slightly medicinal. It leaves a tartness on the tongue, perhaps from the agave. It's an interesting riff on the style that could possibly benefit from aging.
Great Divide Brewing Co. Grand Cru Colorado, 11.0% ABV
The aroma of this medium-bodied beer was chock full of burnt sugar, black pepper, sweet cherries, and bready maltiness. Its dark sugar flavors were accented by pepper and clove, which made it somewhat prickly in the mouth. This Grand Cru is big and a little brassy, but it will be awesome with time.
Brooklyn Brewery Local 2 New York, 9.0% ABV
Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver literally wrote the book on pairing beer with food, and it shows in Local 2. This dark strong ale is effervescent and bone dry. It could cut through the heartiest dish. Raw New York wildflower honey creates an inviting perfume that plays well against the Local 2's bready malts and Belgian yeast character. Aromas of cocoa and orange peel are also pleasant, but the beer lacks some of the depth and dark fruit flavors we found in other beers we tried.
Avery Brewing Co. The Reverend Colorado, 10.0% ABV
In the glass The Reverend's garnet hue is brilliantly clear. The caramel of the malts plays against the yeast's banana esters and the aroma of circus peanuts. The taste is sweet and somewhat thin, with more banana and clove. The Reverend's alcohol lingers long after the sip is done.
Pelican Pub & Brewery Grand Cru de Pelican 2009 Oregon, 9.9% ABV
With bracing carbonation and great attenuation, this was decidedly the driest of beer we tried. Grand Cru de Pelican had pleasant flavors of caramel and dark fruit, but ultimately left us wanting more in terms of depth and body.
We tried a dozen examples of American-brewed versions of the style, but that's just a start. What are some of your favorite Belgian Dark Strong Ales from American breweries?
Disclosure: All beers except the 21st Amendment were provided as samples for review.
About the Author: Jonathan Moxey is a Harlem-based homebrewer. He hosts private beer tastings for Tapped Craft Beer Events.