Beer connoisseurs have Belgium on their list of places to go before they die. That’s because the Belgians have perfected the craft of brewing beer just as the French have done so with wine. Intricate flavor mixtures, paired with centuries long process that hardly changed makes Belgian beers some of the best in the world. With over 180 breweries in the country, the selection is aplenty so it’s not surprising for a casual drinker to become overwhelmed with beer options.
So what makes Belgium beers special? It’s the complexity of flavors in every sip. The first lesson in Belgium Beers 101 is that their beers don’t necessarily fall into certain categories. If, however, you’ve drunk enough of them, you’ll be able easily identify it from another beer type. That is because the flavor lingers, particularly in darker beers, and it becomes more intense as it settles in your tongue. I traveled to Brussels plenty of times, so I was spoiled, and once you’ve gotten used to Belgian beers, you’ll never want to drink any other kind.
Belgium Beers 101
Types of Belgian Beers
For all intents and purposes, the beer judges in America have determined that there are 13 types of Belgian beer ranging from fruity lambics to the hard to find trappists beers, though if you ask any Belgian brewer, he or she will emphatically dismiss such classification. When you go to a bar or a craft beer and wine store, what you’ll likely find are bottles of white ales known as witbier or biere blanche, which were popularized by Hoegaarden.
You might also see larger bottles of fruity lambic beers like kriek, a beer made with Morello cherries and a small selection of strong dark ales with subcategories like dubbel, tripel, and even quadrupel. There’s also the seasonal or saison and Flanders red and brown, though they are not as commonly available outside of Belgium.
Pay a Belgian Trappist Brewery a Visit
You can take as many beer-tasting tours while visiting Belgium but nothing compares to paying an actual Belgian trappist brewery a visit and drinking fresh beer from their tasting room. These breweries are somewhere deep within the Belgian countryside so getting there will almost always require you to drive a car, cycle or even walk, but the effort will be worthwhile because not only will you be rewarded with some of the best beers in the world, but you’ll also be supporting a charitable cause (well, sort of).
Trappist beers are rare beers brewed in monasteries by monks who live there. They brew just enough barrels a year to maintain the upkeep of the monastery and the brewery. As of today, there are no more than 10 breweries that fit the criteria and six of them are in Belgium: Orval, Chimay, Westmalle, Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Achel.
Now that you’ve scratched the surfaced of Belgium Beers 101, you’re probably ready to do some tasting. So where do you start? The general rule about tasting Belgian beer is to start from the lighter types because the darker it is, the more alcohol it usually has. Keep in mind too that some Belgian beers are fairly strong and drinking a pint is akin to drink a glass of wine. Here are some Belgium Beer 101 suggestions:
Witbier: St. Bernadus Witbier, Jan de Lichte
Lambic: any fruity ones by Cantillon (cherry, blueberry, apricot, raspberry), Drie Fonteinen Framboos (raspberry)
Gueuze: anything from Drie Fonteinen, Cantillon or Girardin
Belgian Pale Ale: Trappist Westvleteren Blonde, Orval Trappist Ale, Cuvée de Ranke
Flanders Red: Rodenbach Caractère Rouge, Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge
Dubbel: Trappist Westvleteren 8, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel, St. Bernardus Prior 8, Trappistes Rochefort 6
Tripel: Westmalle Trappist Tripel, Tripel Karmeliet, St. Bernardus Tripel, Tripel Van de Garre
Strong Dark Ale: Trappistes Rochefort 8, Cuvée Van De Keizer Blauw, Chimay Grande Réserve (Blue), Achel Trappist Extra
Quadrupel: Trappist Westvleteren 12, Trappistes Rochefort 10, St. Bernardus Abt 12, Pannepot
Saison: Avec Les Bons Voeux, Saison Dupont, Fantôme Saison D’Erezée – Été (summer)
The Unique Glasses
Visitors to Brussels make it a point to go and visit Delirium Café, a bar made famous by its long list of beers from around the world. Once there, two of the first things you’ll notice are the enlarged beer caps that decorate the ceiling and the different glasses showcased with matching beer names. In Belgium, and some parts of Europe, the beer you’ll be ordering will almost always come with a matching glass because the brewers believe that the shape of it enhances the flavors of the beer somewhat. They can come in different shapes and sizes as well and are often for sale at the breweries themselves.