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Classic Beer of the Month May 2011: Duvel

Duvel Moortgat Duvel, 8.5%

‘Rocket fuel from Belgium’. That was how my local branch of Bottoms Up described a bottle of Duvel 20 years ago.

DuvelAppreciation and understanding of Belgian beer have thankfully improved in the last two decades but what is significant about this little memory is that it tells me that Duvel was there right at the start of the UK’s growing love affair with Belgian beer.

It’s a romance that has been gradually built on the recognition that Belgian brewmasters wield considerable skills when it comes to managing potency and creating wonderful drinkability at even the giddiest of alcoholic heights.

Duvel was created back in the early 20th century. The story has it that Belgians began acquiring a taste for British ales after bottles were brought to the country by soldiers during World War I. Brewer Albert Moortgat was a big fan.

The company history relates that he travelled to Scotland and returned to his brewery just south of Antwerp with a yeast that could re-create the sort of beer the Tommies had been drinking.

Other accounts state, more prosaically, that the yeast was simply re-cultured from a bottle of McEwan’s ale.

To mark the end of the war, the new beer was initially called Victory Ale. This first incarnation was dark. Toasted malts in the grist ensured a deep brown colour and that’s the way Duvel remained until 1970, when the recipe was changed to allow the beer to meet the growing challenge of pilsner-type beers.

Only very pale malt has been used in the mash tun since that time. To increase the strength without contributing to the body, heaviness or malt profile of the beer, the brewers fall back on a tried and trusted Belgian trick. They add sugar.

The bittering hops are Saaz, a strain normally used for pilsners, with a late aromatic flourish coming from Styrian Goldings.

To confuse the issue with lager even further, the beer is treated to three weeks of cold maturation at the brewery. It is then primed with more sugar and fresh yeast before being bottled, with a couple of weeks of warm conditioning following to kick start the secondary fermentation.

World Famous

Today, Duvel is world famous. The distinctive squat, stubby bottle with its stepped curve neck provides an easy identifier on the shop shelf and a shapely tulip glass marks out the brand in the bar or café.

The beer pours with a deliberately rocky, well-aerated foam, with lots of loose bubbles clinging to the top of the glass like candy floss. Underneath, the golden colour glows invitingly, perhaps deceptively.

As the brewers intend, it looks in many ways like a pilsner but there’s no mistaking Duvel’s ale qualities when the fruitiness rises in the aroma.

Some people have identified notes of pear that continue into the herbal-hoppy taste, a taste that is grounded in a hay-like note from the abundant pale malt. Most drinkers concur that the dryness and lightness of body make it all too easy to quaff.

It’s easy to assume that such a pale beer is not going to be very strong, but many an unaware Duvel drinker has fallen foul of that misconception, especially as the beer slips down so easily, ending velvety smooth.

The name Duvel means Devil in Dutch. It’s said that a local shoemaker coined the name because it was a ‘devil of a beer’. He clearly had a better way with words than our friend at Bottoms Up.

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