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16 - Belgian and French Ale
16 - Belgian and French Ale

Belgian and French Ale beer styles

Why are Witbiers cloudy? What do Saisons and Bière de Gardes have in common? What are Belgian Specialty Ales? Read on to find out…

16 - Belgian and French Ale
16 – Belgian and French Ale

Previously we examined German Wheat and Rye Beers, in this article we will cover BJCP Category 16, Belgian and French Ale, which includes the following Beer Styles:

First we will cover the history of the category, then take a look at the specifications of each style highlighting the similarities and differences. We then sample commercial examples of each style.


16 - Belgian and French Ale (additional examples)
16 – Belgian and French Ale
(additional examples)

Witbiers get their name from the color due to the suspended yeast. They have been brewed for over 400 years and have undergone a revival led by Hoegaarden after nearly dying out in the 1950’s.

Belgian Pale Ales are brewed by well established Belgian breweries with some influence from the UK such as which hops and yeast strains to use.

Saisons, meaning “season” in French, were originally brewed in Wallonia, Belgium, at the end of the cool season to last through the summer months. These beers were brewed by farm workers using what ingredients were available and the beer would be consumed during the summer months.

Bière de Garde literally means “beer which has been kept or lagered’ and is a traditional farmhouse ale from Northern France which is brewed in early spring and cellared for consumption over the summer. The main difference between a Bière de Garde and a Saison is that the former is rounder, richer, sweeter, malt-focused, and lacks the spicing and tartness of a Saison.

Belgian Specialty Ales are unique beers from small, independent Belgian breweries that have become popular locally but may be less well-known nationally or internationally.


According to Jamil Zainasheff in his book, Brewing Classic Styles, the best way to describe this category is to say that most of them are very tasty beer styles that originated in Belgium or France in small, artisanal breweries.

These beers should be as follows:

  • Witbier – a refreshing, elegant, moderate-strength wheat-based ale.
  • Belgian Pale Ale – a moderately malty, fruity, somewhat spicy, easy-drinking, copper-colored ale.
  • Saison – a medium to strong ale, usually pale orange in color, highly carbonated, well hopped, fruity and dry, with a quenching acidity.
  • Bière de Garde – a fairly strong, malty, lagered, artisanal ale. Sweet and malty up front but dry in the finish.
  • Belgian Specialty Ale – encompasses a wide range of Belgian ales produced by truly artisanal brewers concerned with creating unique products than in increasing sales.

The following tables* show how the 5 styles of Belgian and French Ales vary:

Characteristic Witbier Belgian Pale Ale Saison
Original Gravity: 1.044 – 1.052 1.048 – 1.054 1.048 – 1.065
Final Gravity: 1.008 – 1.012 1.010 – 1.014 1.002 – 1.012
ABV (alcohol %): 4.5 – 5.5 4.8 – 5.5 5.0 – 7.0
IBU’s (bitterness): 10 – 20 20 – 30 20 – 35
SRM (color): 2 – 4 8 – 14 5 – 14


Characteristic Bière de Garde Belgian Specialty Ale
Original Gravity: 1.060 – 1.080 Varies
Final Gravity: 1.008 – 1.016 Varies
ABV (alcohol %): 6.0 – 8.5 Varies
IBU’s (bitterness): 18 – 28 Varies
SRM (color): 6 – 19 Varies

The above tables show that Witbiers and Belgian Pale Ales have similar starting and finishing gravities plus alcohol contents. Saisons can start out with a higher gravity but usually finish much lower giving a drier beer, also the alcohol content tends to be higher than Witbiers and Belgian Pale Ales. Bière de Gardes have a higher starting gravity though do finish at a similar gravity to Witbiers and Belgian Pale Ales. The alcohol content is usually higher than a Saison.

For bitterness Belgian Pale Ales, Saisons and Bière de Gardes are all very similar with Witbiers being the least bitter. The same goes for color with Belgian Pale Ales, Saisons and Bière de Gardes all having a similar darkness and Witbiers being extremely light.

Belgian Specialty Ales vary on all characteristics because it depends on the beer style that is the closest for the individual beer.

In the following sections we will look in more detail at each of the above Beer Styles.


Commercial examples of this style include Hoegaarden Wit, St. Bernardus Blanche, Celis White, Vuuve 5, Brugs Tarwebier (Blanche de Bruges), Wittekerke, Allagash White, Blanche de Bruxelles, Ommegang Witte, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Sterkens White Ale, Bell’s Winter White Ale, Victory Whirlwind Witbier, and Hitachino Nest White Ale. We decided to sample 5 Lizard Latin-Style Witbier.

5 Lizard Latin-Style Witbier
5 Lizard Latin-Style Witbier

5 Lizard Latin-Style Witbier has the following characteristics which is a bit low for alcohol content and at the top of the range for bitterness:

  • ABV = 4.3% (min 4.5% for style)
  • IBU’s = 20

This beer is lemon yellow and cloudy in color with a head that goes. Aroma is lime and passion fruit. Passion fruit dominates the flavor. Moderate carbonation with a thin mouth-feel.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • About 50% unmalted Wheat (traditionally soft white winter wheat) and 50% Pale barley malt (usually Pils malt) constitute the grist.
  • In some versions, up to 5-10% raw oats may be used.
  • Spices of freshly-ground coriander and Curaçao or sometimes sweet orange peel complement the sweet aroma and are quite characteristic.
  • Other spices (e.g., chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, Grains of Paradise) may be used for complexity but are much less prominent.
  • Ale yeast prone to the production of mild, spicy flavors is very characteristic.
  • In some instances a very limited lactic fermentation, or the actual addition of lactic acid, is done.

Belgian Pale Ale

Commercial examples of this style include De Koninck, Speciale Palm, Dobble Palm, Russian River Perdition, Ginder Ale, Op-Ale, St. Pieters Zinnebir, Brewer’s Art House Pale Ale, Avery Karma, Eisenbahn Pale Ale, and Ommegang Rare Vos. We decided to sample Goose Island Matilda.

Goose Island Matilda
Goose Island Matilda

Goose Island Matilda has the following characteristics which is too high for alcohol content and within style for bitterness:

  • ABV = 7.0% (max 5.5% for style)
  • IBU’s = 26

This beer is hazy orange in color with a white head that goes. The aroma is slightly sour and the flavor is both sour and fruity. Carbonation is moderately high with a sparkly mouth-feel. This is not a true Belgian Pale Ale due to the sourness.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Pilsner or Pale ale malted barley contributes the bulk of the grist with (cara) Vienna and Munich malts adding color, body and complexity.
  • Sugar is not commonly used as high gravity is not desired.
  • Noble hops, Styrian Goldings, East Kent Goldings or Fuggles are commonly used.
  • Yeasts prone to moderate production of phenols are often used but fermentation temperatures should be kept moderate to limit this character.


Commercial examples of this style include Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, Fantôme Saison D’Erezée – Printemps, Saison de Pipaix, Saison Regal, Saison Voisin, Lefebvre Saison 1900, Ellezelloise Saison 2000, Saison Silly, Southampton Saison, New Belgium Saison, Pizza Port SPF 45, Lost Abbey Red Barn Ale, and Ommegang Hennepin. We decided to sample Great Divide Colette.

Great Divide Colette
Great Divide Colette

Great Divide Colette has the following characteristic which is a bit too high for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 7.3% (max 7.0% for style)

This beer is cloudy yellow in color with a white head that hangs around. Aroma is of Belgian yeast and typical Saison esters. Flavor is of typical Saison with some bitterness. Moderate carbonation and average mouth-feel.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Pilsner malted barley dominates the grist though a portion of Vienna and/or Munich malt contributes color and complexity.
  • Sometimes contains other grains such as Wheat and Spelt.
  • Adjuncts such as sugar and honey can also serve to add complexity and thin the body.
  • Hop bitterness and flavor may be more noticeable than in many other Belgian styles.
  • Noble hops, Styrian or East Kent Goldings are commonly used.
  • A saison is sometimes dry-hopped.
  • A wide variety of herbs and spices are often used to add complexity and uniqueness in the stronger versions, but should always meld well with the yeast and hop character.
  • Varying degrees of acidity and/or sourness can be created by the use of gypsum, acidulated malt, a sour mash or Lactobacillus.
  • Hard water, common to most of Wallonia, in Belgium, can accentuate the bitterness and dry finish.

Bière de Garde

Commercial examples of this style include Jenlain (amber), Jenlain Bière de Printemps (blond), St. Amand (brown), Ch’Ti Brun (brown), Ch’Ti Blond (blond), La Choulette (all 3 versions), La Choulette Bière des Sans Culottes (blond), Saint Sylvestre 3 Monts (blond), Biere Nouvelle (brown), Jade (amber), Brasseurs Bière de Garde (amber), Southampton Bière de Garde (amber), and Lost Abbey Avante Garde (blond). We decided to sample Castelain Blond.

Castelain Blond
Castelain Blond

Castelain Blond has the following characteristic which is within style for alcohol content:

  • ABV = 6.4%

This beer is golden in color with a white head that goes. The aroma is yeasty and the flavor is strong lager-like with some sweetness. Moderate carbonation with a thick mouth-feel.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • Base malts vary by beer color, but usually include Pale, Vienna and Munich types.
  • Kettle caramelization tends to be used more than Crystal malts, when present.
  • Darker versions will have richer malt complexity and sweetness from Crystal-type malts.
  • Sugar may be used to add flavor and aid in the dry finish.
  • Floral, herbal or spicy continental hops.
  • Lager or ale yeast fermented at cool ale temperatures, followed by long cold conditioning (4-6 weeks for commercial operations).
  • Soft water.

Belgian Specialty Ale

Commercial examples of this style include 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; Russian River Temptation; Lost Abbey Cuvee de Tomme and Devotion, Lindemans Kriek and Framboise, and many more. We decided to sample Orval Trappist Ale.

Orval Trappist Ale
Orval Trappist Ale

Orval Trappist Ale has the following characteristic:

  • ABV = 6.9%

This beer is orange in color with a thick white head that lasts a very long time. The aroma is slightly sour and the flavor is of horse hair and straw. Carbonation is high with a good, full mouth-feel that finishes clean.

Typical ingredients used when brewing this style include the following according to the BJCP Style Guidelines:

  • 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 herbs and/or spices.
  • 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.

What next?

Our next article will look at BJCP Category 17, ‘Sour Ale‘, where we will examine the six styles making up this category.

If you have any questions or comments about this article, please do not hesitate to contribute to the discussion below.

* Beer Styles’ data is courtesy of BJCP.org.

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