Last week's Q&A with Exit-13 vocalist Bill Yurkiewicz got us thinking about Belgian beers. Actually, we're frequently thinking about Belgian beers, but this is a good time of year for drinking the the big, high-ABV ones—and there are plenty of them out there. It also made us consider the "classics" of the beer world, iconic brews that every aspiring beer geek should be familiar with. Belgium has many of them—from the monk-made Trappist ales to the unique sours of the Flanders region. Gulden Draak is one of those must-try beers. It's a classic example of a Belgian brew that doesn't really belong in any style category and yet is unmistakably Belgian. And it's packaged in a really cool white bottle (actually just a snug fitting plastic wrap) that keeps the beer well protected from light. If you don't already know Gulden Draak, you owe it to yourself to give it a spin at least once. GULDEN DRAAK Dark Red Strong Belgian Ale/Dark Triple/Barley Wine Van Steenberge Ertvelde, Belgium 10.5% ABV
Gulden Draak doesn't have the storied history of, say, a Trappist ale like Orval, but it comes from a brewery that's been around under different names for hundreds of years. Gulden Draak was first brewed by Van Steenberge in the 1980s, a time when a small handful of craft breweries in the U.S. were only just starting up. Anyone looking for something different, better, more flavorful or stronger would typically seek out imported beers. Belgian brews were hard to find over here, but offerings like Gulden Draak introduced adventurous drinkers to something way beyond what was available stateside at the time.
On the Van Steenberge website, Gulden Draak (which means Golden Dragon, a nod to a gilded beast that tops a belfry in nearby Ghent) is alternately referred to as a "Dark Red Strong Belgian Ale," "Dark Triple," and "Barley Wine." It is all of these things and sort of none of them exactly. OK, sure you could call it a dark red strong Belgian ale, but what does that really tell a person? We can assure you that it is like a barley wine (or Belgian quad) in strength and color, and it's also fruity and strong like a triple/tripel. But it really doesn't taste like any other beers out there. Unibroue's Trois Pistoles is similar, but it's not quite as big and boozy as GD.
This brew gets a little boost on its ABV from bottle conditioning, a process where a second fermentation is started in the bottle by the addition of yeast and a bit of sugar. In this case, the yeast is a wine yeast (which tend to be more tolerant to higher alcohol levels). The bottle conditioning also adds a ton of carbonation, so this brew, though boozy, is really quite effervescent. This is a good thing to have in a beer with a lot of residual sugar, because it keeps it from laying flat and syrupy in your mouth. You definitely taste the sweetness, but the high carbonation seems to sweep it away off your palate.
Not sure if it's the wine yeast responsible for this, but there's a definite vinous quality to Gulden Draak. Though this is a dark reddish brown beer, it doesn't carry any big roasty malt flavors or aromas. You do get, however, notes of raisins, candied plums and grape candy, giving the whole "dark triple" description some credence. As for calling it a barley wine, well, that's probably just related to its strength. At 10.5% ABV, this is a monster-sized brew that is right up there in barley wine territory. That style, however, typically has more of a pronounced malt presence, which Gulden Draak lacks (along with any sort of hop presence).
You will not fail to miss the boozy character. This beer doesn't try to hide it's alcohol. It's not obtrusive, necessarily, but you'll definitely know it's there on the finish. This is the beer you end an evening with. One should be plenty.
We know that craft beer drinkers are always looking for new releases and the next interesting/cool/tasty brew, but there are plenty of classic Belgian brews that are worth familiarizing yourself with. Gulden Draak isn't an every-day beer, but it's a good one for the cooler, darker months of the year. Plus, it has a badass dragon on the label. Drinking a beer like this for the first time is like discovering an album or band from metal's early days that you've never heard before, and are amazed at how good it is. And, who knows, it might just become a regular part of your rotation.
Adem Tepedelen's new craft beer book, Decibel Presents the Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing's Outer Limits, is now available in the Decibel online store.