Over a beer recently, Lauren and Joe Grimm, founders of Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisan Ales, did something surprising, given their knack for category-bending fusion beers: they downplayed the existence of a style. The Belgian IPA, they said, was a mixed bag, the liquid equivalent of a shrug. There just weren’t that many good, true examples in the American market.
But, at the same time, the Grimms extolled a new breed of very hoppy Belgian beers, like De la Senne’s Taras Boulba and De Ranke’s XX Bitter — some of their favorite beers on the planet.
This was all a little difficult to unpack. XX Bitter is listed on BeerAdvocate as a Belgian IPA. Taras Boulba is an “extra hoppy” Belgian Pale Ale with 54 IBUs, well above the threshold for the Belgian Pale Ale style; when its brewer, Yvan De Baets, called it a “session” style, my brain went ahead and plugged in the missing “IPA.”
Technically, at least, the Grimms were wrong. The Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP, the gold standard for structured evaluation of beer, lists a Belgian IPA into existence. But beer lovers would point out that, as a “Specialty IPA,” the Belgian IPA is in the same category as a black and rye IPAs: less true, expansive styles, more fringe trends. It’s also worth noting that the BJCP is loath to consider itself the defining force of craft beer; their categorizations exist to serve beer competitions, rather than the righteous voice of the craft beer community.
It seemed I had stumbled on an international craft beer debacle. Just what the hell was a Belgian IPA, and was it even worthwhile?
There are a few clear-cut defining qualities of the maybe-style. It’s made using Belgian yeast (with its fruity esters and clove-y phenols); it has a high alcohol content (between 6–11% ABV); it’s bottle conditioned for an extra punch of funkiness; and it has somewhere in the realm of 40–60 IBUs of hop bitterness (much higher than other traditional Belgian styles — like the Pale Ale, which, according to the BJCP, at least top out around 30 IBUs).
There are a few clear-cut defining qualities of the maybe-style. But the more experts I spoke to, the more disdain I heard for the Belgian IPA as strictly defined.
But the more experts I spoke to, the more disdain I heard for the Belgian IPA as strictly defined. According to Zach Mack, owner of the New York City bar Alphabet City Beer Co., the style was at least in part a marketing ploy; at its worst, it was young Belgian brewers “copy-pasting” the American hop bomb, De Baets said. Belgian drinkers weren’t happy because their traditional styles were being bastardized using flavors that, like the Germans, they find overwrought; American drinkers weren’t convinced by most U.S. brewers’ attempts at the style, and worried about taxonomy. The darling New England IPA style depended on using British Ale yeast, the Grimms pointed out. We weren’t going to call that style a British IPA, were we?
Truth is, the Belgian IPA isn’t even a single style — it’s two. On one hand, American brewers have forsaken neutral “Chico” yeast from traditional American IPAs, substituting in the more flavorful Belgian yeast while still using pungent New-World hops. On the other, Belgian brewers, spurred by the American hop-forward boom to add IBUs, have tended to stick to Old-World hops for bittering rather than New World varietals, creating subtle floral, citrus and pine bittering notes in their beers. However, some have broken with that tradition to capture the juicier flavors of the American-style IPA, with its stone fruit, grapefruit, and mango.
No wonder the confusion.
Look closely enough, though, and you’ll see the good to come out of this intercontinental mess. Several American versions, like Green Flash Le Freak, Allagash Hugh Malone and Stone Cali-Belgique, are notable standouts among an otherwise tepid crowd. The real gains, though, are coming from some of the best new Belgian brewers (and several older ones), who are using the hop-forward trend to bring new life to traditional styles. Getting their foot in the hoppy door has allowed some of the more artful, new-wave versions — like De La Senne’s Taras Boulba — the breathing room they need to bend the rules. “Taras Boulba is very hoppy because we use a lot of hops in it,” De Baets said. “But it’s a different type of hops [than American IPAs]: Noble hops. Hoppy can be subtle, and that’s what we want to showcase.”
So, American drinkers: follow the Grimms’ lead. You don’t need to know whether the Belgian IPA is really a style. All you need to know is that after years of being influenced by the Belgians, we’re making waves on their shores. And that the resulting Belgian beers – some technically IPAs, some just hop-forward versions of Blonde Ales, Pale Ales, Tripels, or something in between – offer a new, worldly translation of that happy place where yeast and hops meet.
Five to Try
Belgian Beers You Can Find in the States
De Ranke XX Bitter
Tasting Notes: Grassy and herbal on the nose. Malty with a crisp, sharp and bitter finish, with fruity esters in between.
Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel
Another first-wave hoppy Belgian introduced in 2006. It strays from the more traditional bittering hops by including New-World Amarillo and Tomahawk — but it also includes the classic Czech Saaz varietal.
Tasting Notes: Its combination of American hops with a strong Belgian yeast strain make it a heavy-handed version of the style: citric hops up front, some funk and clove phenols from the yeast, finished off with a touch of biscuity malt.
Duvel Tripel Hop Citra
The legendary Belgian brewery takes the hop craze a step further — some would say into gimmick-level — with a new Tripel Hop every year using a different New-World hop strain. Even if it confirms Belgian brewers’ worst fears about the IPA craze, it also offers unique insight into how different hop strains interact with Belgian yeast.
Tasting Notes: The 2017 version was made using Citra hops as well as Old-World Saaz and Styrian Golding. It has a powerful shot of citrus and lemon zest on the nose. The hop character blends well on the tongue with the yeasty sourness of Duvel, which verges on that of a Belgian saison.
De Dolle Arabier
Tasting Notes: Sweet flavors of apple and herbal tea on the nose. A unique light mouthfeel and sour crispness pair with spicy hop flavors, biscuity grains and light clove phenols.
De la Senne Taras Boulba
Technically, this is a “session ale,” and at 4.5%, it cuts the average Belgian IPA ABV in half. But that’s the perfect angle for drinkability, which is the idea, according to De Baets. “The purpose of this beer is to hydrate humans,” he says.
Tasting Notes: A balanced, extra hoppy pale ale, heavy on clove-like and herbal phenols. Its bittering noble hops add a subtle hint of citrus and floral character.