I Tried It: Strong Belgian Ales Blind Tasting

Here's a head's up for everyone: the next few weeks (six, to be exact) are super duper Cicerone crunch time for me, so most of my blog updates are going to center around that. If you're not a fan of reading about blind tastings and other ways I study, check back around the beginning of March. If you are a fan of such things, then read away.

Blind tastings have gone from being a once a week, more for fun education sessions to being multiple times a week, don't-distract-me-by-daring-to-speak-whilst-I-decide-whether-a-beer-is-3-or-4-SRM study sessions complete with flashcards, BJCP guidelines, and my Cicerone syllabus scattered around.

After a few stress-inducing days of having a head cold and thus unable to taste very much, I was thinking I was ready for what I thought would be a moderately difficult blind tasting between Belgian Blond Ales, Belgian Golden Strong Ales, and Belgian Tripels. Many times, it can be difficult to discern what substyle you are drinking when it is the only beer you are drinking. However, when you line up several similar styles, it is easier to pick up on how the substyles are different, which is an extremely valuable way to learn about styles of beer that seem like they are the same or very similar.

To put tastings such as these into perspective, on the Cicerone exams you are given a beer sample along with a list of potential styles and asked to decide which style of beer you are tasting. For the Certified Cicerone, you are given two beer styles from which to choose. For the Advanced Cicerone, you are given four beer styles from which to choose. I plan to have blind tastings that are more similar to the tasting portion of the Cicerone exam in the coming weeks, but for now I am isolating particular styles and substyles for my tastings to help me build my palate as well as to build my knowledge and memory banks of how different beers taste to me.

If I may digress from my digression (and I may, because it is my blog after all), when doing beer tastings and taking notes, I've found it best to not only employ the basic beer tasting terms but also to write honest notes on what a particular beer or beer component tastes like to you. If you're taking the BJCP or Cicerone exam, you do want to focus on proper descriptions, such as "roasty" or "biscuity" malt and "resiny" or "floral" hops, but if the hops in a beer smell like a Barbie's armpit to you (overheard at an actual judging), then make note of it. For example, I think that trans-2-nonenol sometimes smells like old library books. That's a scent memory I made that's personal to me, so when I smell old library books in a beer, I know I'm probably smelling trans-2-nonenol, which means the beer is most likely oxidized. 

Now that we're back from Digression Depot, for this tasting, I had two Belgian Blond Ales, Leffe Blond Ale and Affligem Blond; two Belgian Golden Strong Ales, Duvel (the style maker) and North Coast's Pranqster; and three Belgian Tripels, Chimay Cinq Cents, St. Bernadus Tripel, and New Belgium Trippel. Each beer I chose is listed as a BJCP commercial example for its style, which means the beer is a classic example of the beer style. If you're ever wondering what a certain type of beer is supposed to "taste like," I recommend checking out the BJCP Style Guidelines (also available as an app for both iPhone and Android), which list several commercial examples for each style of beer. Most of the commercial examples are also pretty easy to find.

Before: They all seem pretty easy to identify

Before: They all seem pretty easy to identify

As I mentioned, I was expecting this tasting to be moderately difficult in that I haven't had a lot of Belgian beers so I don't have as good of a memory bank for those styles of beers. However, I was expecting that once I prepared my flashcards and had the beers in front of me, I would be able to separate out the styles fairly easily. I was also coming off a two tasting winning streak with strong beers (American and English Barleywines, Doppelbock, Scotch Ale, and Old Ale) and red beers (Red Ales, Irish Red Ale, Red IPA, and Rye IPA), so I was feeling pretty confident. 

After: Not quite as easy

After: Not quite as easy

I'm not exaggerating when I say this was an incredibly difficult tasting, probably the hardest I've done yet. I started to get an inkling while I was making my flashcards that maybe the styles wouldn't be as easy to discern as I first thought. For one thing, the statistics on each style were basically the same:

  • Belgian Blond: 15-30 IBUs, 4-7 SRM, 6.0-7.5% ABV
  • Belgian Golden Strong Ale: 22-35 IBUs, 3-6 SRM, 7.5-10.5% ABV
  • Belgian Tripel: 20-40 IBUs, 4.5-7 SRM, 7.5-9.5% ABV

Even if you aren't familiar with all the beer abbreviations (bitterness level, color, and alcohol by volume, respectively), you can still look at the above list and see that all three styles are extremely similar. It's like asking someone whether he or she prefers white, pearl, or alabaster paint:

What? I don't know. Why does it matter?

What? I don't know. Why does it matter?

While the flavor profile for Belgian Blond Ale is somewhat different (it's sweeter and not as bitter as the other two styles), the flavor profile for the Belgian Golden Strong Ale and the Belgian Tripel is nearly identical, with the main "differences" being that the Golden Strong may be (but doesn't have to be) even crisper and drier than the Belgian Tripel, and the Belgian Tripel may have more emphasis on phenols rather than esters. 

Pretty much like the difference between Queen's "Under Pressure" and Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice, Baby," as described by Vanilla Ice:

To spare you all the gory details (I've included a picture of my notes below), I was only able to correctly identify two of the seven beers, a blond and a Tripel. For three of the samples, I at least eliminated Belgian Blond Ale as a possibility based on the bitterness, finish, and carbonation. One of the Tripel samples I mislabeled as a Belgian Blond because it was hazier than the other beers. While all three styles should be clear, Tripels and Golden Strongs should be "brilliantly clear," while a Belgian Blond can be "very clear."

If this all seems very granular and nerdish to you, it is. You're not wrong. However, it's a tasting I will definitely revisit at a later date to see if I've improved my palate enough to be able to easily identify the differences and gawk at the thought that there was once a time I found it difficult to tell the difference.

As the tasting of high gravity beers moves along, my notes become less technical and more descriptive, as my "Tripel? Blond ::shrugs::" margin notes demonstrate

As the tasting of high gravity beers moves along, my notes become less technical and more descriptive, as my "Tripel? Blond ::shrugs::" margin notes demonstrate