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Pleasures of consorting with the devil of a brew

Michael Jackson enjoys Belgium's Duvel -- big on bouquet, long on finish

When I am asked about my favourite beers, one of the brews that always comes to mind is Duvel, which comes from Belgium, the most colourful of all brewing nations. Duvel is a beer of astonishing sophisticated character: beguilingly pale, flowery and soft-tasting, yet packing a perilous 8.5 per cent alcohol by volume.

Its name is a corruption of the Flemish word for Devil. (I was surprised to see my local branch of Oddbins recently misquoting me as saying it meant "Evil," but pleased that it was stocking the beer at a very reasonable 1.25 pounds per 33cl bottle.)

As in Bruegel's day, the Belgians remain greatly engaged in dicing with the Devil. Lusty eating and drinking, with the much-depicted consequence of divine retribution, are central to their culture.


When the first experimental batch of Duvel was made, as yet unnamed, a brewery worker is said to have exclaimed, "This is the devil of a beer."


When the first experimental batch of Duvel was made, as yet unnamed, a brewery worker is said to have exclaimed, "This is the devil of a beer." I am not sure I believe the story, but I certainly go along with the sentiment.

Duvel defies categorisation. It is a beer in a style of its own creation. It has none of the heaviness of a barley wine, for example, or the crude flavours of a head-banging lager. If this Devil were a pugilist, it would be a boxer rather than a fighter. In the absence of an agreed category, its many imitators in Belgium are reduced to indicating their intentions by having brand-names that suggest devilment, roguishness or scallywaggery.

In Britain, it is often wrongly described as a lager because it has such a pale golden colour. In fact it is an ale, made with a yeast stolen from a bottle of McEwan's by one of the great brewing scientists, the Belgian Jean de Clerck, between the two world wars. In those days, McEwan's exported a yeast-sedimented Scotch Ale to Belgium, where it enjoyed great popularity. DeClerck wanted the distinctive fruitiness of the yeast for the beer that became Duvel.

There is a complexity of both geography and character to this product, and no doubt the two are related. Just north of Champagne, barley is grown for malting to an unusually pale specification in France and Belgium (notably at Gembloux in the Ardennes). It meets the water of Flanders at the Moortgat brewery, near Malines, and shortly afterwards receives a seasoning of aromatic hops from Bohemia and Styria, before being fermented with the yeast stolen from Scotland.

It is an unusually long (two to three months) and complicated regime of fermentation and maturation -- at both ale (warm) and lager (cold) temperatures, and concluding with a dosage of yeast and priming sugar in the bottle -- that locks into Duvel such a depth of bouquet and palate, and length of finish.


In Belgium, Duvel is usually regarded as an apertif, though I also enjoy it as a digestif especially after a fruity dessert.


The Belgians always serve Duvel in a Burgundy glass, though its most distinct characteristic of bouquet and palate reminds me of a brandy -- the Poire Williams of Alsace and Switzerland. Unusually for an ale, it is customarily served chilled (products such as Poire Williams enjoy the same distinction among brandies). Sometimes, even the glass is chilled. In Belgium, Duvel is usually regarded as an apertif, though I also enjoy it as a digestif especially after a fruity dessert. It must be that Williams pear taste.

The classic unfiltered version of Duvel is labelled as re-fermented in the bottle, and has its name in red. This is the one to choose, not Duvel green (which is filtered) or its sister Pilsener-type lager, both of which have been sighted in Britain. For an unfiltered beer the classic Duvel can look surprisingly clear: the yeast sediment tends to settle in the bottle, unlike that of the famous White Shield Worthington.

All of these yeast-sedimented bottled brews meet the definition of a real ale, and Duvel is consistently the best-selling import at the Great British Beer Festival, which has come around again this month. Between the British brews shown there, I reserved a moment to consort with the Devil. August, after all, is a wicked month.


Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: AUG 3, 1991
In: The Independent

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