A malt-forward, mid-ABV (~5%), amber-to-copper colored beer, the best BPAs will exhibit a biscuity, toasty malt flavor. Yes, like a lot of Belgian beers, there should be a fruity and spicy character in the background (from the yeast), but it's not an overly-citrusy, fruity, or highly phenolic style like you may see with Tripels, Saisons, etc. As the BJCP states, "balance is the key" with this style. Because of this, and because it's definitely not considered a hoppy style either, BPAs aren't necessarily simple to brew. Sure, the recipes are normally pretty straight-forward, but there's not a lot to hide behind. Healthy yeast and proper fermentation control are very important.
Belgian Pale Ale is one of the harder-to-find Belgian styles; at least, outside of Belgium. One brand that you'll often see is the one that is often credited with starting the style, De Koninck. The De Koninck brewery, located in Antwerp, has existed for almost 200 years; while they brew several beers now, De Koninck - their BPA - was their first beer and is their best seller. According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, the brewery was sold to Duvel Moortgat in 2010, after declining sales for several years.
When deciding on a recipe, I settled on something very similar to the one I used for my first attempt in 2010. That one was taken from Jamil's Brewing Classic Styles, and consists mostly of Pilsner malt (DME at the time, since I wasn't into all-grain brewing yet), with some CaraMunich and Victory to provide the biscuity malt character. I was initially pretty pleased with how the beer turned out... but things started to turn sour. Ok, not sour, but the phenolics in the beer got stronger and stronger as time went on. I never had any gushers, and the beer wasn't bad enough to pour down the drain, but there was definitely something going on. My best bet is an infection from some sort of wild yeast, but I guess I'll never know for sure. However, it's always bugged me a little, so I thought that using the same recipe (albeit all-grain) and yeast would be a good idea to see if I could do better.
So, I had my recipe (I subbed the hops in the beer from East Kent Goldings to WGV, based on what I had on hand), and I already knew which yeast strain I was using. However, I ALMOST took this beer in a different direction - I was initially going to base it on Trifecta, a beer brewed by Night Shift Brewing. A nanobrewery in Everett, MA, these guys are brewing some interesting beers (I strongly encourage you to check out their link and read about their beers and brewing background). I wish I could say I've had some of them, but I haven't. However, I've talked to several beer geeks who HAVE had their beers, and they're all saying great things!
One friend in particular had recently tried their Trifecta, and was raving about it. Listed by the brewery as a "Belgian-style Pale Ale", it's fermented with three different Trappist yeast strains ("one earthy, one fruity, one spicy"), and has vanilla beans added after fermentation. You have to admit this is pretty original; nice to see a brewery experimenting with a style that's been around for a while, but could probably use some tweaking! I decided to reach out to Night Shift, and they got back to me very quickly. I had let them know my plans for the grist and hopping schedule of the beer, and they made some suggestions on approaching a beer along the lines of Trifecta. While I didn't end up going this route - mainly due to procrastination over the holidays - below is the email response, in case any readers are interested in taking this step:
Your grist sounds cool, very unique and should add a really nice breadiness to the beer. Because of that we'd recommend moving towards calcium sulfate and away from calcium chloride. Unless you're looking for that maltiness, but in our opinion the breadiness is going to be there already.
We shoot for around 30 ibus, with roughly 1/3 FWH. From there you should be able to split up your additions accordingly. "Hoppier" would require more back additions, while a more malt forward version (which ours is) would require fewer toward flameout. We stay away from the crazier hops in regards to the hop flavor. Mostly your classic hops (Hallertau, Saaz, Kent Goldings, etc). Ours shoots for the balance between the hops, malt, yeast and vanilla, rather than one being overpowering.
We suggest experimenting with the amount of vanilla you use. Again, ours is seeking the balance between the four, so we probably use less than what one could imagine. As well, our beer ends up being very clean, resulting in the vanilla coming through more, allowing us to need less. Depending on your % of specialty malts and your palate, you may need more or less. As far as extraction, our vanilla sits for 24 hours after splitting the beans down the middle. We found at the amount we use this gives us the extraction we're looking for without any of the botanicals that could be extracted from the whole bean.
It was great of them to get back to me with some suggestions, and I felt bad about not following them more! I had even thought about brewing the beer, bottling half the batch, then adding vanilla bean to the second half... but I failed. However, in the end I decided to keg this beer, so I'm still strongly considering adding the vanilla bean directly into the keg for a few days, and tasting periodically until it reaches a level I'm happy with. We'll see!
Recipe Targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency) OG 1.051, FG ~1.012, IBU ~23, SRM 8, ABV ~5.1%
Grains & Sugars:
4 kg (87%) Pilsner malt
350 g (7.6%) Caramunich II
250 g (5.4%) Victory malt
WGV - 21 g (6.5% AA) @ 60 min
WGV - 14 g @ 10 min
Misc: 1/2 tab Irish Moss at 5 min
Yeast: Wyeast 3655 Belgian Schelde (with a 1 L starter)
Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered; 2 g Gypsum and 3 g calcium chloride added to mash
- Brewed on December 17th, 2014, by myself. 50-minute mash with 13.5 L of strike water, mashed in at 153 F, slightly above target of 152 F. Mashed-out for 10 minutes with 6.5 L of boiling water. Sparged with ~4.25 gallons of 168 F water for final volume of ~7 gallons, a bit low.
- SG high at 1.042 (target 1.039). 90-minute boil. Final volume 5.5 gallons; OG 1.051. Chilled to 65 F, then poured into Better Bottle. Aerated with 75 seconds of pure O2, pitched yeast slurry at 66 F.
- Several days of good activity in the fermentor, with the temp never going higher than 70 F, pretty much what I was hoping for. I took a gravity reading of 1.013 on Jan. 8th.
- 12/1/15 - Racked beer into CO2-purged keg, purged again and set in keezer to bring temp down. The next day, set PSI to 30 for 18 hours, then purged headspace and set PSI to 14.