Belgium, a country known for its rich cultural heritage, exquisite chocolates, and magnificent architecture, also holds a prominent place in the world of beer. Renowned for its brewing traditions, Belgium has been producing exceptional beer for centuries.
Belgium has a long and varied history of brewing, dating back to medieval times with monasteries playing a significant role in Belgian beer production. Over time, commercial breweries emerged, each with its own distinct brewing style and regional specialties. Belgian beer culture became deeply ingrained in the country’s identity, and today, it stands as a testament to the craftsmanship and dedication of Belgian brewers.
If you can’t make your way to a Belgian Trappist monastery to try a pint for yourself, there’s good news; Belgian breweries now export their beer worldwide. Many of the US craft breweries even produce their own Belgian beer styles using Belgian yeasts and traditional brewing methods.
One of the things that genuinely sets Belgian beer brands apart from the rest is their wide variety of different beer styles. This small European country has a type of beer to suit everyone, from crisp and fresh Saisons to deep sour Lambic beers.
A Brief History of Belgian Beer
The tradition of brewing in Belgium is intrinsically linked to tithe monasteries and abbeys of the Middle Ages. Since the 6th Century abbeys had a legal duty to offer food and lodging to any travelling guests.
With very little wine-growing land available in Belgium, it was only logical that the monks would turn to beer production. Another factor that helped propel the popularity of beer was the poor quality of the water in Belgium. The drinking water was full of bacteria, and the beer-making process required heating the water, thereby also purifying it. It was common to see pregnant women and children drinking beer (in moderation, of course!) at this time as beer was considered to be healthier than water (an idea I still completely agree with!).
It was in the 9th Century that Charlemagne forced the abbeys to produce beer, which in turn made the breweries more professional, leading to the transcription of recipes. The popularity of beer grew and, as Belgium entered a period of economic prosperity, from the 14th Century commercial breweries, brasseries, and taverns would brew their own beer specific to the region of Belgium and dependant on the demand.
The Brewing Renaissance
Belgium’s brewing scene began to flourish during the Renaissance period when new brewing techniques and ingredients were introduced. One of the most significant innovations was the introduction of hops as a natural preservative and flavoring agent. The use of hops in beer production, which had already gained popularity in neighboring regions, gradually replaced the traditional use of herbs and spices.
Belgium’s brewing landscape further evolved with the introduction of new brewing methods. One such method is spontaneous fermentation, employed in the production of Lambic beers. Lambic is a unique style of beer that relies on wild yeasts present in the environment for fermentation. The beer is left to cool overnight in large, shallow vessels called coolships, allowing wild yeast and bacteria to inoculate the brew, resulting in complex flavors and sourness.
The French Revolution and the ensuing war would put a damper on Belgian brewing, with many of the brewing guilds which existed deemed illegal and many of the monasteries destroyed in the war efforts. As the war concluded, however, many of the brewing facilities recovered and were rebuilt. Along with scientific discoveries such as carbonation and methods of preserving beer for bottling, the number of breweries in Belgium rose to over 3000 by the beginning of WWI.
Again war took a chunk out of the Belgian beer market, with the number of breweries dropping to under 2000 by the end of the First World War. By the end of WWII, that number had fallen even further to under 1000. The wars meant there were not enough employees available to work at the breweries, and many of the VATs and other brewing equipment materials were needed for the production of weapons.
When the wars were over, drinking beer came back into popularity and many breweries reopened to meet demand. A major change came in 1950 when Affligem Abbey (now owned by Heineken International) first contracted a non-clergy layman to produce beer. This led to a split between those traditionally brewed Trappist or monastic beers and Abbey beers.
What’s The Difference Between a Trappist Ale and an Abbey Beer?
Two of the most historic and popular beer styles which originate from Belgium are the Trappist Ales and Abbey Ales.
Trappist beers use the original standards of production employed by the monks centuries ago and must adhere to certain standards to be certified a Trappist beer:
- The brewery must be a monastery and monks must play a role in the beer’s production.
- Profits from the sale of beer must be used to maintain and support the monastery or other social programs outside of the monastery.
Currently, there are 12 breweries that meet these qualifications, although only 10 of them are officially recognized as approved by the International Trappist Association (ITA). Six of those are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one in Austria, and one in the USA. The Spencer Brewery near Boston is currently the only brewery outside of Europe certified to use the Trappist designation on their beers.
Although they use similar brewing traditions and methods, since the official designation of the Trappist breweries by the ITA in 1997 the title ‘Abbey beers’ has been used to describe any beer similar to a monastic beer but not produced in one of the official Trappist breweries.
Abbey beers can be produced by a commercial brewery under a commercial agreement with an existing current monastery or can even just be branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by the commercial brewer. An Abbey beer can even be given a vaguely monastic branding by a brewer without even mentioning a specific monastery.
The qualifications needed to be deemed a Trappist beer are much more demanding than an Abbey beer.
Beer In Belgium Today
Although the number of breweries in Belgium dropped to as low as 191 back in the 1990s, a resurgence in the craft beer market and a renewed interest in Belgian beer has seen that figure rise to over 400 breweries in 2022 producing over 1,300 different beers. Not bad for a country only as big as Wales in the UK!
Types of beer produced in Belgium aside from the Abbey and Trappist Ales include:
- Belgian Pilsners such as Stella Artois or Jupiler
- White or Belgian Wheat beer – although commonly produced in Germany as weizenbeer, witbier in Holland, or bière blanche in France, wheat beer originated in the Flanders region of Belgium in the Middle Ages. One of the best-known witbiers in the world, Hoegaarden, comes from the small village of Tomsin in Belgium.
- Blonde or Golden ales – such as Duvel or La Chouffe.
- Hop-accentuated beers and India Pale Ales – although hops were introduced to Belgian brewing back in the 16th century, most of their beers don’t tend to be overly hoppy. Some microbreweries such as De Ranke or Poperings are known to make assertively hopped beers.
- Lambic Beers – lambic breweries in the Pajottenland region of Belgium brew wheat beers using spontaneous fermentation with exposure to wild yeast said to be only native to the Zenne Valley. Lambic beers can be either a fruit beer, a sour beer (Lambic), or a blend of lambics, a Geuze.
- Amber Ales – Similar to the traditional pale ales of England but not as bitterly hopped.
- Tripel – A term used to describe a strong pale ale. Wetmalle’s triple was the first to use the name although it has since been widely copied by the other brewers of Belgium. Debate exists about whether it refers to three times the ingredients and three times the strength or to the X’s monks used to mark the barrels with to indicate the quality.
- Dubbel – A Dubbel (or Double) has a characteristic brown color and is one of the classic Trappist styles of ales developed in the 19th century, again by Westmalle. Today many commercial brewers using the Abbey names call their strong brown beers a Dubbel.
- Flemish Red – Otherwise known as Flanders Red Ale, this uses a specially roasted malt combined with a fermentation using several ordinary top-fermenting ale yeasts and bacteria found in yogurt before being aged in oak casks. The result is a mildly strong, dark, well-balanced beer with a deep reddish hue and a sour yet fruity taste.
- Old Bruin – Aged in Woden barrels, this is a close relation to the sour Flemish Red style but is deep brown in color. Popular examples include Goudenband and Petrus.
- Belgian Brown Ale – A regular bruin or brune beer is darker in color than the amber ales, less sour than a Flemish or Oud Bruin ale, and less strong than a Dubbel.
- Champagne-style Beers – These ales are generally finished with a secondary fermentation like Champagne and then stored for several months while the fermentation continues and the beer ages. This creates the smaller softer bubbles you find in Champagne but keeps the beer flavor and style.
- Quadrupel – More often called a Grand Cru, the Quadrupel is mostly a blend of brews which is often refermented as a blend.
- Saison – French for “season”, Saison is the name originally given to refreshing low-alcohol beers produced seasonally in the Wallonia French-speaking region of Belgium. First produced in the early 19th Century, Saisons quickly gained notoriety in the 20th century as a luxury beer. Although Saisons are now brewed in many other countries, Saison Dupont from the Dupont Brasserie in Belgium is still considered by many craft beer lovers to be one of the world’s best beers.
The Best Belgian Beers
With so many beers to choose from, it can be quite hard narrowing the best Belgian beers down to a top 10, although we may leave out the Pilsners – most Belgians would laugh at you if you ever ordered a Stella Artois in one of the local brasseries.
Westvleteren 12 10.2% ABV
Considered the holy grail among beer enthusiasts, Westvleteren 12 is a Trappist quadrupel that exemplifies excellence.
With its deep mahogany color and complex aroma of dark fruits, caramel, and spices, it captivates the senses.
The taste is a harmonious blend of rich maltiness, Belgian yeast, and hints of chocolate and toffee. This dark beer is a true masterpiece that showcases the Belgian beer mastery and dedication of the Trappist monks.
Orval 6.2% BV
Beers brewed by monks are notoriously delicious, and Orval certainly fits the bill with bitter, citrus, and hoppy notes Orval is made in the Ardennes at the Abbey d’Orval founded in the 12th century by Benedictine monks.
It’s also got a bit of a funky flavor, thanks to its long fermentation process. The funk balances out the citrusy notes and makes it an outstanding beer in both complexity and taste.
What makes Orval stand out is it always tastes different. The Brettanomyces yeast used ensures the beer continues to develop. A young Orval will still exhibit a bit of sweetness and have a hoppy character. As time goes by, they will become dryer, more sparkling, and develop complex flavors.
Tripel Karmeliet 8.4% ABV
Often called the public’s favorite, triple Carmelite is a three-grained triple brewed with barley, wheat, and oats. It regularly features in best Belgian beer awards and scores a massive 4 stars on the highly rated Untappd site with over 237,000 ratings. Are you going to argue with that many beer lovers?
A perfectly balanced blond beer, Karmeliet has a fruity nature of banana and vanilla mixed with citrus which balances the bitterness and sweetness perfectly. It’s one of those beers which pairs well with a cheeseboard, especially a creamy brie.
Duvel 8.5% ABV
Duvel, a classic Belgian strong blond beer, is synonymous with excellence. Its signature tulip-shaped glass reveals a pale golden liquid with a fluffy white head. Duvel delights the palate with a perfect balance of fruity esters, spicy phenols, and a crisp, dry finish. The high carbonation enhances the lively mouthfeel, making it a refreshing and invigorating beer.
Chimay Blue 9% ABV
Chimay Blue, or Grande Réserve, holds a prestigious place in the world of Belgian beer. This Trappist dark ale showcases a mahogany hue and a creamy tan head. Its aroma reveals dark fruits, caramel, and Belgian yeast. The taste is a sublime blend of sweet malts, figs, plums, and a gentle bitterness. The full-bodied richness and warming alcohol make Chimay Blue a captivating and indulgent choice.
Saison Dupont 6.5%
Saison Dupont is a classic example of the Saison style, known for its refreshing and flavorful characteristics. It pours a hazy golden color with a fluffy white head. The aroma offers a delightful interplay of fruity esters, peppery spice, and earthy notes. The taste is crisp and dry, with a pleasing blend of citrus, herbs, and a subtle farmhouse funk. Saison Dupont is a quintessential Belgian farmhouse ale that evokes a sense of tradition and craftsmanship.
Cantillon Gueuze 5% ABV
Cantillon Gueuze, a Lambic beer, represents the epitome of traditional Belgian beer complexities. This spontaneously fermented blend of young and aged Lambics pours a hazy golden color with lively carbonation.
The aroma is tart and funky, with notes of citrus and oak. The taste delivers a complex medley of sourness, earthiness, and fruity undertones.
Cantillon Gueuze is a true expression of Belgian Lambic craftsmanship.
Westmalle Tripel 9.5%
Just north of Antwerp, the Trappist monks of Westmalle claim their beers not only cure insomnia and a loss of appetite but can also reduce stress. Whatever the truth, their beers are certainly what the doctor ordered. The original Tripel beer, Westmalle Tripel, is deliciously creamy and aromatic, while their popular Westmalle Dubbel is darker and more malty.
Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw 8.5% ABV
Gouden Carolus Cuvee van de Keizer Blauw is a Belgian strong, dark ale that pays homage to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It pours a deep ruby color with a beige head. The aroma presents dark fruits, caramel, and a touch of oak. The taste reveals a rich tapestry of flavors, including plums, raisins, toffee, and subtle spiciness. The full-bodied nature and complex character of this beer make it a true treasure.
Heady Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Triple 9% ABV
Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel might just be the Holy Grail of IPAs. This nine percent IPA is a fantastic example of the style.
It’s aromatically intriguing, with distinct notes of lemongrass and banana, plus a deep earthy richness that prevents it from being a one-note beer.
Remarkably, all of these flavors amplify each other and combine to form what’s arguably one of the best IPAs on the planet.
Fair warning! After you taste Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Triple, you won’t be content with lesser IPAs.
Hoegaarden 4.9% ABV
The wheat beer that all other wheat beers tend to be judged by. Even the Blue Moon Belgian-style beer produced in the US by Molson Coors is said to be influenced by this outstanding wheat beer.
Named after a small town east of Leuven, Hoegaarden is an extremely refreshing and easy-to-drink beer, despite its cloudy appearance. Brewed with equal parts of wheat to malted barley, it’s the ideal drink for sipping in a beer garden on a hot summer’s day especially with a slice of fresh lemon for an extra citrus kick.
Last Call For Belgian Beers
Whenever I am going to Europe, I always try to make my point of arrival in Belgium. A few days wandering around the streets of Brussels or the nearby Leuven can often turn up a quiet little brasserie with a huge selection of Belgian ales.
It’s often worth checking out the local bus or train timetables and hitching a ride to one of the many nearby villages to discover which delicious local beers are waiting for you. And some of the monasteries even have taprooms or outlets close to them nowadays too.
Fortunately, here in the States, there are now many Belgian bars, and most good beer wholesalers carrying a whole range of Belgian beers, but as a beer lover, you’ve got to try and make that pilgrimage to the beer country that is Belgium. You may never want to come back.