35A – Belgian Specialty
Entering Specialty-Type Beers
Since additional information must be furnished with every entry in a Specialty-Type Beer category, it is critical that entrants closely examine the Entry Instructions section of each style description. This section describes the information that judges will expect. Don’t assume that judges will be able to recognize your beer without any additional information; some might, but most won’t. You will almost certainly receive a lower score if you omit this information than if you specify it properly. Put yourself in the position of the judge; write down the useful information needed to properly judge the beer. Judges won’t care if you picked the cherries in your grandmother’s yard, so don’t put down useless information – tell them the variety of cherry or how they taste.
When specifying a base beer style, read the Entry Instructions for the style carefully. Some may say that a Classic Style is required – this means that the beer should be listed as one of the styles in the guidelines (including historical beers, or beers with enumerated alternatives). Some may say that a base style must be described, but that it does not have to be a Classic Style – this is free license to describe the beer style in any way you want. If your base is loosely a porter, but wouldn’t score well as an English, American, or Baltic Porter, then don’t be overly specific – simply call it a porter. Some beers that are designed to showcase the specialty ingredient will often have a fairly neutral base.
When specifying the specialty ingredient, keep in mind that the more specific you are, the more judges will look for a signature characteristic. So be sure to taste your beer and decide how specific you need to be. If you are showcasing an unusual or expensive ingredient, that may be a good time to be specific. However, if the ingredient seems somewhat generic, then just use a generic name. If you use a combination of ingredients, such as spices, you can refer to the blend by a common name (e.g., pumpkin pie spice, curry powder, etc.). If you list every individual ingredient, judges will expect to detect each one. But if the nature of a mixture of ingredients is that the specific character of each ingredient contributes to a greater character, then just describe the resulting character. Understand how judges will use the information you provide.
Deciding where to enter a Specialty-Type Beer is often difficult for entrants. Be sure to reach each style carefully, as some styles will specify where to enter a beer with a certain combination of ingredients. We have arbitrarily defined some ingredients as taking precedence over others (in order of highest precedence: wild, smoke, wood, fruit/spice, grain/sugar), but that only applies if you can perceive that ingredient. When seeking a place to enter your Specialty-Type Beer, look for the best fit with the style description in a style where the combination is allowable. Entering a beer as a specific style will be a signal to judges that your beer will have certain identifiable components. If you added an ingredient, but it cannot be detected, then do not enter it in a style that requires the ingredient. If judges cannot perceive it, they will believe it is absent and deduct points accordingly.
Judging Specialty-Type Beers
Overall balance is the key to a successful Specialty-Type Beer. The entry should be a harmonious marriage of the beer and the special ingredients, with neither overpowering the other. The special ingredients should complement and enhance the underlying beer, and the resulting product should be pleasant to drink. The entry should be recognized as belonging in the entry category, or at least not clearly belonging elsewhere.
Some experienced judges will do take a quick hedonistic pass at a Specialty-Type Beer prior to digging deep at the particulars. The quick assessment is designed to judge whether the combination works or doesn’t (i.e., if flavor clashes exist). If the combination is a bad idea, it doesn’t matter how well the product is brewed; it simply won’t be enjoyable. Judges should keep an open mind, however; some unexpected flavor combinations can be surprisingly delicious.
Judges should not be overly pedantic about seeking the full character of a specified base beer style. After all, the base beer does not usually contain the special ingredient, so its character will not be the same. There can be interactions of flavor that produce additional sensory effects. Likewise, judges should understand that the fermentation process can transform some ingredients (particularly those with fermentable sugars), and that the ingredient character may not be the same as the unadulterated specialty ingredient. Therefore, judges should look for the overall pleasantness and balance of the resulting combination, as long as the beer suggests both the base beer and the specialty ingredient or process.
Creating and judging Specialty-Type Beers can be very rewarding. Judges should keep in mind that a creative element exists in these styles, and that something unusual and delicious should generally be rewarded. Keep an open mind when evaluating these styles, and do not look to judge them as rigidly as Classic Styles.
Effects of Added Ingredients on Balance in Beer
The ingredient character should be pleasant and supportive, not artificial and inappropriately overpowering (considering the character of the ingredient), and should not have brewing, fermentation, or handling defects. Aroma hops, yeast by-products and malt components of the underlying beer may not be as noticeable when additional ingredients are present. These components (especially hops) may also be intentionally subdued to allow the ingredient character to come through in the final presentation. If the base beer is an ale then a non-specific fruitiness and/or other fermentation by-products may be present as appropriate for warmer fermentations. If the base beer is a lager, then overall less fermentation by-products would be appropriate. Some malt aroma may be desirable, especially in dark styles. Hop aroma may be absent or balanced with the added ingredients, depending on the style. The added ingredients should add an extra complexity to the beer, but not be so prominent as to unbalance the resulting presentation.
35A – Belgian Specialty
Aroma: Variable. Most exhibit varying amounts of fruity esters, spicy phenols and/or yeast-borne aromatics. Aromas from actual spice additions may be present. Hop aroma may be none to high, and may include a dry-hopped character. Malt aroma may be low to high, and may include character of non-barley grains such as wheat or rye. Some may include aromas of Belgian microbiota, most commonly Brettanomyces and/or Lactobacillus. However, be advised that these may fit better in new category 28A Brett Beer, or one of the Belgian sour categories. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Variable. Color varies considerably from pale gold to very dark. Clarity may be hazy to clear. Head retention is usually good. Generally moderate to high carbonation.
Flavor: Variable. A great variety of flavors are found in these beers. Maltiness may be light to quite rich. Hop flavor and bitterness may be low to high. Spicy flavors may be imparted by yeast (phenolics) and/or actual spice additions. May include characteristics of grains other than barley, such as wheat or rye. May include flavors produced by Belgian microbiota such as Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus. However, be advised that these may fit better in new category 28A Brett Beer, or one of the Belgian sour categories. May include flavors from adjuncts such as caramelized sugar syrup or honey. May include flavors from specialized techniques such as wood-aging.
Mouthfeel: Variable. Some are well-attenuated, thus fairly light-bodied for their original gravity, while others are thick and rich. Most are moderately to highly carbonated. A warming sensation from alcohol may be present in stronger examples. A “mouth puckering” sensation may be present from acidity.
Overall Impression: Variable. This category encompasses a wide range of Belgian ales produced by truly artisanal brewers more concerned with creating unique products than in increasing sales.
History: Unique beers of small, independent Belgian breweries that have come to enjoy local popularity but may be far less well-known outside of their own regions. Many have attained “cult status” in the U.S. (and other parts of the world) and now owe a significant portion of their sales to export.
Comments: This is a catch-all category for any Belgian-style beer not fitting any other Belgian style category. Please note that with the expanded categories, some of the beers traditionally lumped in here now have distinct categories. The category can be used for clones of specific beers (e.g., La Chouffe); to produce a beer fitting a broader style that doesn’t have its own category; or to create an artisanal or experimental beer of the brewer’s own choosing (e.g., strong Belgian golden ale with spices, something unique). Creativity is the only limit in brewing but the entrants must identify what is special about their entry. This category may be used as an “incubator” for recognized styles for which there is not yet a formal BJCP category. Some styles falling into this classification include:
- Artisanal Blonde
- Artisanal Amber
- Artisanal Brown
- Belgian-style Barleywines
- Trappist Quadrupels
- Belgian Spiced Christmas Beers
- Belgian Stout
- Fruit-based Flanders Red/Brown
The following styles should NOT be entered here and instead should be entered in their respective categories:
- Blond Trappist table beer – Use Cat 26A Trappist Single
- Belgian IPA – Use Cat 21B Specialty IPA
- White IPA – Use Cat 21B Specialty IPA
- Strong and/or Dark Saison – Use Cat 25B Saison which now includes dark and strong variants.
The judges must understand the brewer’s intent in order to properly judge an entry in this category. THE BREWER MUST SPECIFY EITHER THE BEER BEING CLONED, THE NEW STYLE BEING PRODUCED OR THE SPECIAL INGREDIENTS OR PROCESSES USED. Additional background information on the style and/or beer may be provided to judges to assist in the judging, including style parameters or detailed descriptions of the beer. Beers fitting other Belgian categories should not be entered in this category.
Ingredients: May include herbs and/or spices. May include unusual grains and malts, though the grain character should be apparent if it is a key ingredient. May include adjuncts such as caramelized sugar syrup and honey. May include Belgian microbiota such as Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus. Unusual techniques, such as blending, may be used through primarily to arrive at a particular result. The process alone does not make a beer unique to a blind judging panel if the final product does not taste different.
Commercial Examples: De Dolle’s Arabier, Oerbier, Boskeun and Stille Nacht; La Chouffe, McChouffe, Chouffe Bok and N’ice Chouffe; Ellezelloise Hercule Stout and Quintine Amber; Unibroue Ephemere, Maudite, Don de Dieu, etc.; Minty; Zatte Bie; Caracole Amber, Saxo and Nostradamus; Silenrieu Sara and Joseph; Fantôme Black Ghost and Speciale Noël; Dupont Moinette, Moinette Brune, and Avec Les Bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont; St. Fullien Noël; Gouden Carolus Noël; Affligem Nöel; Guldenburg and Pere Noël; De Ranke XX Bitter and Guldenberg; Poperings Hommelbier; Bush (Scaldis); Moinette Brune; Grottenbier; La Trappe Quadrupel; Weyerbacher QUAD; Bière de Miel; Verboden Vrucht; New Belgium 1554 Black Ale; Cantillon Iris; Lindemans Kriek and Framboise, and many more.