The Duvel's in the Details
Brewery: Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat
Style: Belgian Strong Pale Ale
ABV: 8.5 percent
The year is 1830, and the southern provinces of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands are sick of it. Sick of the tulips; sick of that sauce made with egg yolk and butter; sick of the clog-dancing -- dear God, the clog dancing -- that keeps them up all night. In a rage, they take to the streets, rioting en masse to let their northern neighbors know that they want to go Dutch, and in October, the Kingdom of Belgium was formed.
Today, Belgian Independence Day is celebrated on July 21 -- commemorating the day the first Belgian king, Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg, swore allegiance to the country's new constitution -- and is best observed with a big bottle of Belgium's most beloved export: beer.
There are, of course, many you could choose from. Belgian brewers, unhindered by food purity laws like the tyrannical German Reinheitsgebot, approach their craft as artists and are able to draw from a wide flavor palette. Belgian beers can be fruity, spicy, sweet, sour. If you want a brew that displays their uniqueness while remaining pretty approachable, however, you should party with the devil.
Duvel (pronounced doo-vull, as in "pull" -- get it right) is the flagship of Belgium's Brouwerij Moortgat, a brewery that's been family-owned since its founding in 1871. Created to commemorate the end of World War I, the beer originally was called Victory Ale, but the name was changed in the 1920s after a drinker, upon finishing a glass of the stuff, supposedly exclaimed, "That beer is the devil!" Maybe he was referring to the brew's sneaky nature -- the beer's large-bubbled effervescence and soft, light body make it so refreshing as to be dangerous when matched with its formidable alcohol content. Maybe he was just drunk. For whatever reason, the name stuck, and many brewers have given their own Belgian strong pale ales devilish names in tribute -- Russian River Damnation, Great Divide Hades, Het Anker Lucifer, and the French-made Belzebuth are just a few examples.
Today, Duvel -- pale, translucent gold topped with a mountainous merengue-like head of pure white -- is considered the archetype of the Belgian strong pale category. This is ironic, because it wasn't even a pale beer when it was first brewed. The original Duvel was a dark, caramel-y, roast-y thing that, although tasty, couldn't compete with the popularity of the clear golden pilsners that began sweeping across Belgium after World War II. Most brewers around this time began producing pilsners of their own to keep up with changing tastes, but Moortgat had a better idea: It changed the color of Duvel while keeping it bottle-conditioned and high in alcohol. By 1970, the dark Duvel was dead and the Belgian strong pale ale was born.
The distinctive characteristics of any Belgian beer are imparted by the yeast -- the fruity esters and spicy phenols created during fermentation are the major draw for drinkers. Anyone looking for these traits in Duvel will not be disappointed. The nose is an equal, subtle blend of white pepper, coriander, tangerine peel, and pear juice; the flavor mixes spice rack stuff (coriander, clove, and white pepper) with sweet blasts of pears and apples before a slightly drying, bread-y finish. Surprising, since Duvel isn't fermented with Belgian yeast, but rather two strains of yeast that Moortgat cultivated from McEwans Scotch Ale after WWI. To make Duvel, brewers take the wort they've hopped with Saaz and Styrian Goldings and ferment it in two separate batches -- one for each of these yeast strains. A series of changes in temperature and fermentation vessel follows -- complicated but necessary to produce the distinctive, delicate yet wonderfully complex flavor Duvel's known for. It's the style standard for a reason.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.