I've done quite a bit of research, and I'm a decent amateur historian, but I've found little primary source evidence that any particular beer is traditional in this dish. I'm sure that even in Flanders, It has been made with many different beers by many different chefs. I've probably looked at a few hundred recipes, and I've never really even noticed a trend towards a particular style, although I've probably seen Chimay, both the red and blue label beers, recommended by name most often. My English translation of Escoffier calls for old Lambic; I think that could be very good, especially if the Lambic is a kriek.
I speculate that a wild fermented, sour beer is essential to this dish historically for two reasons. First, the dish is so much more distinctive and memorable when made with sour ale that has been aged in wood barrels; other beef and beer stews may certainly be tasty, but none, to my taste, can really compare to carbonnade flamande made with a good Flemish red (although I have plans to experiment with some Lambics, which I believe may be equally delicious.) I just don't think that beef stewed with, say, Duvel or even one of the Chimay or other Trappist beers would have become such an acclaimed dish.
Secondly, most recipes call for the addition of sweet ingredients, like brown sugar or cassis jam, and sour elements like vinegar or prepared mustard. It seems likely to me that these are intended to replicate the flavors that the sour ale would impart.
I admit, my arguments are pretty speculative and depend in part on my own taste preferences, but I think that most who try the dish made with a Flemish red, or perhaps certain other sour ales, will come around to my way of thinking. I recommend keeping it simple; the dish should be about beef, onion, and beer, with other ingredients kept to a minimum. If you try it, I hope you'll enjoy it as much as I do; it's one of my very favorite dishes.
It seems reasonable to speculate that at least initially, the dish was made with sour beer because most beer was probably sour centuries ago. Also, I suppose that long cooking would tenderize meat, but the acidic nature of sour beer would also help in that regard.
Since I know next to nothing about cooking, I will now return to the gallery to watch the rest of you discuss this.
re: Jim Dorsch
Allow me to chime in, as a born and bred Belgian.
There is not a single beer for Carbonnades à la flamande. It all depends on the regional differences (yes, such a tiny country but a lot of regional culinary differences). Sour ales do come from different regions in Belgium but its culinary use (or even availability in bars) is not widespread throughout the country. So the coastal regions and around the capital would typically use sour ale (gueuze, rodenbach), others will reach for a dark abbey style ale. My mom always used dark Piedboef, what we call "kids beer" (1.5% ABV). Very low in alcohol, sweet and way more healthy than HFCS soda. Except old folks, no one drinks this anymore. My dad on the other hand would not use beer at all and would only use beef/veal stock.
If you were a Chimay Trappist Monk, and you were making a beer stew, why use any other beer than the one you have on hand? Blond beers however will never be used for this. There is always a darker beer available, not matter what region.
Now my personal preference is a dark style abbey beer. Though I do find you need to dilute it to get rid of some the hoppy bitterness and higher alcohol content (so less beer, more water/beef stock). I also add some vinegar (something that would be unnecessary with a sour ale) because it tenderizes the meat (breaks down the collagen) more quickly and makes for a more balanced dish . The mustard and bread is a key component. Instead of bread, I use a Belgian spiced dark honey cake (just like my mom did). This already has nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon so no need to add these spices and extra sugar later on. I also go heavy on the fresh thyme and don't forget the garlic!
Also some regions will actually use pork instead of beef.
Another Belgian classic in the same vein is braised rabbit with dried prunes. Pretty much the same method except the sweetness here comes from the prunes.
I think almost any sour-ish Belgian brew is appropriate for this stew (try Ommegang). To put it really simply, Belgian beer tends to taste wine-y. Carbonnades made with a beer-ier beer will taste wrong. I would rather use a mixture of red and white wine than, let's say, a nice, crisp lager.
Although many beers will yield a delicious beef stew, the unique character of carbonnade flamande comes only from a Flemish sour beer. The only widely distributed example in the US is Rodenbach, but fortunately it is a very good one. A few others are imported from Belgium, and a few US brewers make good versions, but in both cases they are difficult to find.
I'd be curious to know the source of this information. I make this dish a lot, and have tried to find a definitive answer regarding what kind of beer might be used. I've seen only one recipe suggesting the use of a Flemish sour brown ale, most simply suggest a dark beer of some kind. I've used dubbels for making this dish, and have tried Westmalle, Ommegang, and Chimay. The difference between them was negligible. I even made a kosher-for-passover version using Green's gluten-free Dubbel, and it came out great.
This comment, left on a thread discussing the recipe on Simply Recipes, is pretty interesting. I have not tried this recipe, but I wouldn't be surprised if this were the closest version out there to the dish's origins:
Carbonades Flamandes. (no need for that 2nd 'n').
Carbonades Flamandes is french for "Vlaamse Stoverij", i.e. stew from Flanders. I am 61, flemish and I know what I am talking about. No idea why the amerikanese (!) keep thinking that the whole of Belgium speaks french and keep naming towns and dishes in french. We are flemish and we speak flemish ! (a variant of dutch). So much for the historical and political part of this recipe.
I read your recipe with great interest. Of course, in cooking everything is allowed as long as it is good and healthy.
BUT, Gentse Stoverij (stew from Gent), the original beef-in-beer-stew recipe is somewhat different. No need for an oven at all. (This is originally a poor man's dish for not letting beef offal, white bread and stale beer go to waste).
For best flavor one needs (serves 4):
2 lbs of cheap beef with some fat (from the neck, NOT veal)
1 lb of beef liver, NOT veal
1 and a half lbs of old WHITE bread (real bread, not Wonderbread)
1 bay leaf
1 branch of thyme
5 or more loaded tablespoons of real mustard
1 oz of salted butter (NOT oil)
Beer as needed, provide for a gallon of it.
1 black cast iron skillet
1 black cast iron pot
Cut the meat in cubes NOT larger than 1x1x1 inch. Smaller is even better.
Sauté the meat and the onion in the butter, stirring the meat for abt 2-3 minutes, then dump everything in the large pot, seeing to it that all scrapings from the skillet are added.
Slice the bread and smear both sides of each slice LIBERALLY with good, strong mustard. Put all the bread with mustard on top of the meat.
Put in the bay leaf and thyme.
Cover the contents of the pot in 2 inches of beer. ANY beer will do, cheapest lager is well enough and stale beer is better.
Put the pot on, preferably, a gas burner so you can control the heat better.
Bring to a boil on a hot fire, stirring while scraping the bottom since this has a pronounced tendency to stick. Keep stirring for, say, 10 minutes BOILING BEER, then lower fire to a gentle simmer, but go stir and scrape regularly.
Add beer from time to time to keep the liquid level up. Depending on the meat, count with 2 - 4 hours of simmering, till meat is tender. During the last half hour or so of cooking stop adding beer so the sauce will reduce. Cook longer or less long if you want thinner or thicker sauce (some call it gravy).
DO NOT FORGET TO STIR AND SCRAPE THE BOTTOM REGULARLY !!!
NOW is the moment to decide !!!
Add salt and pepper to taste. AND, if you wish, add potatoes to boil in the gravy for that last half hour (dish is difficult to over-cook). With the potatoes in, you need much more salt, of course.
Without potatoes, it is a good idea to serve the meat and its gravy ON TOP of salted french fries. Or with anything else you like.
NOTE: the bread is what thickens the sauce or gravy. The bread will completely dissolve in the cooking.
I am very well aware of all the variants of this recipe, but that is as close as it gets as it was had by the (poor) textile workers in and around the town of Gent, in Flanders, Belgium, around 1900.
This is how my grandmother (ex spinning mill worker) prepared it and passed her recipe on to me. Irma was born 1872 and lived for 99 years. I am 61.'
I would be interested in knowing about any historical sources regarding the origins of this dish.
I'm not sure what the point about national borders is related to either: the dish is Belgian, and people are suggesting a very specific Belgian beer. Since the vast majority of Belgian beer is not sour, I find it hard to imagine that a peasant dish would require a sour beer.
If what's desired is fruitiness, then that's a trait displayed by almost all Belgian beers because of the yeast employed.
I doubt if you'll find historical sources, Josh. Right across northern Europe, we make stews. We use our local ingredients which, of course, are generally common across the countries. And, generally, speaking you'll find the cooking done in similar styles. So, for instance, there''ll be the Irish cooking beef with Guiness, Britons cooking it with Newcastle Brown and the Flemish cooking stoverij also using their local beers.
Do you really need historical sources?
It was a peasant dish as you said. It used flat (and probably sour, remember many beers where/are done with wild yeast strains spontaneously and storage temps,handling etc.. were not optimal.) beer, stale bread, onions and tough meat.
The point about the boarders is that the same stew is made in the surrounding areas, Holland, Germany, France, Great Britain and I am sure local beer was used.
The reason you see so many people suggesting beers with a acidic profile is because they think it makes a better tasting stew, me included. The Caramelized onions need the counter point of the acid IMO.
Many Oud Bruins are sour but the style does vary greatly.
I think that many recipes assume that you will not be using a beer that has a sour profile(since they were not very available until recently in many places and are expensive)thus the need for the vinegar. As far as the sugar I can not imagine that adjustment would be necessary with all the sweetness from the onion.
Gueuze would be a fine beer for this sour, fruity and no hops. And that recipe does not call for any sour adjustment at all only sweet.Gueuze are way too expensive round here for me to braise in though.
For example, this graf from Wikipedia makes little sense:
"The type of beer used is important, and traditionally an Oud bruin, Brune Abbey beer or Flanders red is the beer of choice with a somewhat bitter-sour flavour. In addition to this and to enhance the sweet-sour flavour, just before serving, it has a small amount of cider or wine vinegar and either brown sugar or red currant jelly stirred in."
Oud bruin, dubbel (I'm assuming this is what they mean by "brune abbey"), and Flanders red all have quite different flavor profiles, and only one of the three is reliably sour. Oud bruins can sometimes have a hint of tartness, but not as a matter of course. Most I've had aren't sour at all. Every recipe I have seen, though, does feature the addition of vinegar and brown sugar at the end of cooking to give the sweet/sour flavor.
Traditionally either a Flanders Brown also known as Oud Bruin or Flanders Red is used.
They are long aged in barrels and have a sour flavor that is distinctively fruity like a cider.
You could use any brown ale as long as it is not sweet and get a great stew but one of the ales mentioned above yields a Carbonade IMO.