(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Preternaturally From the Mind Of De Clerck: The Great Beer Theory. This post introduces the beer Duvel.)
Duvel is a photo-negative of a Scotch ale, striped to a brilliant transparent yellow, the result of zymurgistic espionage, and named after the Devil. Those are just the facts.
Following the ban on spirits in Belgium that we have talked about in this series, the brewery Moortgat decided it needed a high gravity beer. They hired Jean De Clerck to essentially analyze McEwan’s Wee Heavy and steal it. (The Belgians are actually much bigger fans of Scotch ales than the Scottish. It is the Belgians, in fact, who created the thistle variation on the tulip glass in which it is customary to drink a Wee Heavy.) De Clerck isolated one particularly delicious strain of yeast from the twenty or so he found in a bottle conditioned McEwan’s and went about applying it to a dark malty beer that a brewery worker supposedly called, “The devil of a beer,” and its name is Flemish for “devil” in honor of this affectionate derogation.
In 1970, Moortgat called De Clerck back in to modify the beer to compete with the popularity of Pilsners. In this, the story of Duvel is quite similar to the story of the Tripel. However, De Clerck essentially developed an imperial version of a pilsners grain bill rather than resorting to beet syrups, as Westmalle did with their Tripel. Duvel is mostly composed of an especially lightly kilned pilsener malt. The rest of the grist is made up of dextrose sugars to give a high gravity dryness very similarly to that produced by the beet syrups used in Tripels, thought the beet syrups influence the taste much more emphatically. The hops used are also similar to that of a Pilsener, Styrian Goldings and Saaz, as is their schedule of application. There is even a period of especially cold lagering after the primary fermentation, another apparent cribbing from Pilsener practice. You could say that a Duvel is a Pilsener Scotch ale done in the Belgian style, meaning especially high gravity and especially expressive yeast, and the beer that results is actually individual enough to deliver on that crazy description.
As to De Clerck’s role and our recurring question, he seems to have had the most direct influence here, as the essential author of these recipes who derived his methods from science in a way that folk practitioners of brewing in Belgium could never have done on their own, but even here he was essentially bought as a hired gun by a corporation to respond to two very particular market trends at different points in time. The fact that beer is a commodity that cannot exist without an audience makes it quite different as an art form from, say, Emily Dickinson writing poems to no one in the isolation of her house. As the examples at Orval and Chimay show, the art of beer is also quite different because it is collaborative. A beer does not generally come from one mind but from a whole series of minds and the physical and creative practices of all involved. It also ceases to exist if we cease to drink it. Every time you drink a beer, you are an integral part of an infinitesimally complex tectonic and creative development of the taste of beer in your culture, so drink like you mean it, and reward those beers you would like the future to be.
Similar Beers in Store: Try the barrel aged version of Duvel. While I would never suggest a barrel aged version of a tripel, there is something somehow dark or at least different about the phenolics of Duvel. I would not especially describe it as zesty in the way that a Tripel is. I don’t get much white fleshed fruit or bright acidity; Duvel is not analogous to an Albarino or Gewurtztraminer. It is an altogether darker beast and more obvious company for a barrel.