Walk into a good multi-tap bar these days or, especially, a good beer retail store, and Belgium rules. A beer lover shopping for new flavors is confronted with bewildering choices: bottles that are corked and wired in the manner of champagne, beers that claim religious connections and others with fruit incongruously depicted. The labels, written in Flemish or French, may display examples of the cartoons for which the Belgians are famous, but the high prices of some of these brews are no joking matter. Faced with expanding choices, how to choose?
Belgium may be a small country within Europe, but it is huge in the world of beer, with every village seemingly hanging onto its own individual brewing tradition. The result is a diversity of beer styles unmatched in any other traditional brewing nation. With so much variety, it’s not possible to define Belgian beer, per se. However, many Belgian styles can be clustered together in a relatively small number of categories according to their dominant flavor character. With some guidance, whether the beer is brewed in Belgium, brewed elsewhere but inspired by Belgian brewing, or brewed in Belgium with foreign inspiration, it’s possible to make an educated choice and select a new beer you’ll enjoy.
Spices and Citrus: The White Beers
Let’s say you’re in a local watering hole, and you see patrons enjoying a cloudy, blonde-colored beer. The bartender says it’s a Belgian brew, and that it’s kind of spicy and citrusy, but not too strong.
You have just discovered “white” beer. It’s also called witbier in its native region of Flanders, and bière blanche in French-speaking Wallonia, the southern part of Belgium.
Belgian white beers originated in the town of Hoegaarden over five-hundred years ago. The last white beer brewery in Hoegaarden closed in the late 1950s. Pierre Celis resurrected the style in 1966.
Wit beers are fine warm weather thirst quenchers. They typically contain about 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and are noticeably spiced, often with coriander and curaçao—a remnant of Belgium’s role in the spice trade. The wheat gives the beer its spritzy, almost lemony character. A good Belgian witbier should be easy drinking, yet still satisfying.
Some of the best Belgian examples are Troublette, from Brasserie Caracole, Blanche de Honnelles from Brasserie de Rocs, St. Bernardus Witbier, Watou’s Witbier from Brouwerij Van Eecke and Saisis from Brasserie Ellezelloise. Here in the United States, some especially fine white beers include Allagash White from Maine, Great Lakes Holy Moses White from Cleveland, Lakefront White from Milwaukee and Ommegang Witte from Cooperstown, NY. Have you been drinking Blue Moon? That Coors product is also an example of a wit beer.
Herbal and Earthy: Ale Brewed in a…Farmhouse?
Truthfully, most Belgian “farmhouse” ales aren’t literally brewed in a farmhouse. This style family, referred to as saison in Belgium and bière de garde in Northern France, is thought to have originated primarily in Hainaut province, a rural area of Wallonia where both farming and brewing have been important economic activities for centuries. Session beer-strength saisons (3 to 5 percent alcohol) were brewed in the winter and spring, to be consumed by farm workers in the summer heat. Stronger versions of farmhouse ales were brewed for winter enjoyment.
“Farmhouse ale” is a sort of a convenient catchall term to describe saison beers that are aromatic, dry, earthy and fruity. Saisons can also be spicy, but these notes suggesting anise, pepper or green herbs most often come from the yeast, not from the actual addition of spices, and the beers display a light to medium tartness. Some saisons are, however, spiced with various ingredients. Bitterness ranges from pleasantly hopped to highly hopped, by Belgian standards. Translation: don’t expect any farmhouse ale to knock you over the head like a double IPA.
This style is very wide-ranging, and encompasses beers such as Saison Dupont and Avec les bons Voeux de la Brasserie Dupont, which are both world classics and benchmarks of the style. The often very idiosyncratic ales of Brasserie Fantome in Soy, such as Black Ghost and Noel, are also farmhouse ales—though these beers may seem to have little in common with the Dupont brews. Taste ‘em and decide for yourself.
Other standout Belgian Farmhouse ales include the superb Saison d’Epeautre and La Moneuse from Brasserie de Blaugies, Saison de Erpe-Mere from Brouwerij de Glazen Toren and Saison de Pipaix from Brasserie a Vapeur, the last solely steam-powered brewery in Belgium.
Excellent Belgian-inspired U.S.-brewed farmhouse ales include Pecore from The Brewer’s Art in Baltimore, Bullfrog Brewing Beesting Saison from Pennsylvania, Iron Hill Saison, Jolly Pumpkin Bam Bière, Red Barn from Lost Abbey in San Diego and Ommegang Hennepin.
Everyday Beer with a Belgian Accent: Pale and Amber
Belgian pale and amber ales are another category with a wide range of variation. At one end of the spectrum, these are session beers that resemble English pale ales, but with a decidedly Belgian touch—that lightly spicy note bestowed by the yeast. Palm Speciale and De Koninck, malty, amber-colored brews with some caramel character and around 5 percent alcohol, are perhaps the best known of the style.
At the other end of the range are beers meant for sipping, not quaffing. The hop bitterness, spiciness and alcohol grow more evident, but this whole category of beers can serve as a great introduction to Belgian flavor.
Hoppier versions use Belgian yeast and a wide variety of hops. These include Brouwerij De Ryck Speciaal (sometimes served from wooden kegs) and Malheur 6. Stronger and hoppier Belgian examples are Alvinne Gaspar, Struise Mikeller, De Ranke XX Bitter, Orval Trappist ale, Poperings Hommelbier and Tonneke from Brouwerij Contreras. Fat Tire from New Belgium in Colorado, Lost Abbey Devotion, Rare Vos from Ommegang, and Sixpoint Belgian IPA are fine American examples.
Strong, Sweet and Sacred: Trappist, Abbey and other Strong Ales
Yet another collection of Belgian beers have in common not the characteristics of the beer, but those of the brewers—they are beers brewed by holy fathers, or by the brewers who adopted the monastic approach to brewing.
The monk-brewed beers are termed “Trappist,” which refers to any of the beers brewed within the walls of, and under the control of, a Trappist abbey. Six of these abbeys are in Belgium, and one is in the Netherlands. Beers called “abbey beers” are generally similar to the ales brewed by the Trappist monastic breweries, but come from brewers that may have a historic connection to monastery brewing, or simply brew in that tradition.
Even though “Trappist” or “abbey” is not a style of beer, many of these beers are tagged single, dubbel or tripel, and have certain similarities.
In centuries past, singles were session beers meant for everyday consumption. Dubbels and triples were respectively stronger and more costly to produce, and hence were often only affordable by those in the upper social classes.
Dubbel/double is one of Belgium’s best-known and most popular beer styles. Dubbels are usually very malty brews that can be a touch sweet and caramelly, with little hop presence. Most are light to dark brown in color, and contain 6 to 9 percent ABV. The mouthfeel or body of a dubbel can range from medium to full, and many have a yeasty character.
Strong Belgian ales are often very similar to dubbels. Many are simply darker, stronger and with more malt complexity. Some of the strongest ones could even be referred to as barley wines, minus the very high hopping rate seen in many such beers brewed stateside.
Tripel/triple (Dutch and French spellings) is a style similar to golden ale, though many tripels rely much more heavily on their yeast profile as a distinguishing characteristic. The golden-colored Westmalle Tripel, first created in the 1930s, is the classic. It is brewed with pale malts, candy sugar and whole hop flowers.
Tripels are fairly light-bodied and easy drinking beers, despite their average strength of 7 to 10 percent alcohol. These brews often have ingredients such as candy sugar added, which impart sweetness to the beer. Hoppiness varies from very mild to assertive.
Single is a fairly rare beer style in Belgium today; these brews are usually blonde to golden orange in color, with 5 to 6 percent ABV. Witkap Singel from Brouwerij Slaghmuylder is a good example.
Some of the best Belgian dubbels are Achel Trappist Brune 8, Affligem Dubbel, Maredsous 8 from Duvel/Moortgat, ‘t Smisje Dubbel from Brouwerij Regenboog, St. Bernardus Pater 6 and Prior 8, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel, Westvleteren Trappist 8 and Witkap Dubbele from Slaghmuylder. Delicious U.S.A.-brewed dubbels include Captain Lawrence St. Vincent’s Dubbel, New Belgium Abbey, North Coast Brother Thelonius and Ommegang Abbey.
Great strong Belgian ales include Achel Extra, Bush/Scaldis Prestige, Caracole Nostradamus, De Struise Pannepot, Gouden Carolus Cuvee Van de Keizer, Malheur Dark Brut, Trappistes Rochefort 8 and 10, St. Bernardus Abt and Trappist Westvleteren 12.
Worthy North American examples include AleSmith Grand Cru, Boulevard Brewing Quadrupel, Founder’s Bad Habit Quadrupel, Lost Abbey Judgement Day, Unibroue Trois Pistoles and Victory V-12.
Belgian tripels worth seeking out include Het Anker Gouden Carolus Tripel, Kameleon Tripel from Den Hopperd, Kerkom’s Bink Tripel, La Rulles Triple, St. Bernardus Tripel and St. Feuillien Triple.
Tripel is quite possibly the Belgian beer style most imitated stateside. Hence, there are many delicious Belgian-inspired triples brewed here, including Allagash Tripel, Brewer’s Art Green Peppercorn Tripel, Dragonmead Final Absolution, New Belgium Trippel and Victory Golden Monkey.
Light-Bodied with Deceptive Strength: Golden Ales
Golden ales are a popular beer style in Belgium. The benchmark strong golden ale is Duvel, a deceptively easy drinking brew of 8.5 percent. Duvel has the color of a pilsner and a light, clean body, partly due to the use of pilsner malts. Duvel is a classic example of a beer that leaves a “Belgian lace” or rings of foamy carbonation on the sides of a glass as it is drunk…er, savored.
Higher levels of hopping are becoming more common in beers of this style. The brand-new Hopus from Brasserie Lefebvre in Quenast uses five different hops and achieves 40 bitterness units to balance its 8.5 percent alcohol content. Some Belgian golden ales are also dry-hopped, a process that adds significant hop aroma to the character of a beer. Affligem Patersvat, which uses locally grown hops in its recipe, and Gandavum, a beer brewed by De Proefbrouwerij for the excellent beer cafe, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant in Ghent, are dry-hopped brews worth seeking out.
Duvel, which means, “Devil” in Flemish, has spawned a number of other devilish golden ales, such as Lucifer from Riva and Satan from De Block. Other superb Belgian strong golden ales are Malheur 10 from De Landtsheer, Moinette from Dupont, Quintine from Ellezelloise and La Rulles Blonde. Belgian golden ales to seek out with a more session beer-like strength are the hoppy Bink Blond from Kerkom and Witkap Stimulo from Slaghmuylder.
Fine strong golden ales from this side of the Atlantic include AleSmith Horny Devi, Ozzy from The Brewer’s Art in Baltimor,; Brooklyn Brewery Local ,; Jolly Pumpkin Oro de Calabaz,; Pranqster from North Coast in C,; Russian River Damnation from CA and Unibroue Don de Dieu from Canada.
Deliberately Sour: Lambic, Gueuze, and Oud Bruin
With few exceptions, modern brewers shun the micro-organisms that can turn a beer sour. However, this was the character of the world’s earliest beers, and that heritage is preserved in two distinct styles of Belgian brewing: spontaneously fermented lambic beers and deliberately soured Flemish ales.
Belgium’s lambic beers are produced by spontaneous fermentation, which occurs when wild yeasts in the air (not conventional brewing yeasts) ferment the sugars in cereal grains such as barley and wheat into alcohol. It is a rare style of brewing in the present day, practiced mainly by a handful of breweries in a region of Belgium to the south and west of Brussels, known as the Payottenland.
At the famous Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels, much like at most of the other lambic breweries, hot wort (basically, unfermented beer) is pumped to a rectangular shaped vessel located at the top floor of the brewery. As the wort cools overnight, wild yeasts settle in the wort and ferment it. The fermenting wort is then transferred to wooden (oak) barrels, where it may be aged for a period of six months to three years.
When lambic is drawn directly from a wooden cask to be served, it is called straight draught lambic. These beers typically have low carbonation, a very soft body, and can range from mildly sour to very sour. Generally, the longer a lambic beer matures in an oak barrel, the more sour it will become.
Blending lambics creates real, traditional gueuze or oude gueuze. Generally, most gueuzes are blends of one and three year-old vintages. How does it work? Picture a master craftsman attempting to create the perfect brew by melding the flavors of different beers. This is very hands-on work.
The best gueuze beers vary from mildly tart to mouth-puckeringly sour. These brews should be very complex, fruity and refreshing. It may take a few tastes for the uninitiated to appreciate them, but the reward is well worth the research.
Another class of lambics is imbued (soaked) with fruits, such as cherries and raspberries. The fruits impart their own unique character to the beer. Kriekenlambic (lambic with cherries added) and oude kriek (basically, oude gueuze steeped with cherries) can be breathtakingly complex, tart and oh-so satisfying.
A separate group of beers, the red and brown ales of Flanders, also show off a tart character—basically, an alternative to hops for balancing the sweetness of beer.
Sour brown ales, or oud bruins in Dutch, originated as early as the 1300s in the provinces of East and West Flanders, where there is a strong tradition of aging brown ales in oak barrels, or foeders. Though there are just a few breweries left that use oak to age and mature brown ales, the style is going through a mild resurgence in Belgium, and is starting to be more than a fad with more experimental American breweries. Wine drinkers may find the transition to these sour beers easiest, as Flemish sour ales are perhaps the most wine-like of brews.
The level of sourness varies with the beer in question. Rodenbach is the brewery most closely associated with the Flemish sour brown style, and has nearly 300 huge oak barrels—each of which can hold tens of thousands of gallons of beer.
Excellent straight lambics include Boon Lambiek, Cantillon 100 Percent Lambic, De Cam Lambiek, Drie Fonteinen Lambiek and Girardin Oud Lambiek, among others.
World-class traditional gueuzes to seek out are Boon Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, Cantillon 100 percent Gueuze Lambic, De Cam Oude Gueuze, Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze, Girardin Oude Gueuze, Hanssens Oude Gueuze, Lindemans Cuvee Renee Oude Gueuze, Mort Subite Oude Gueuze and Oud Beersel Oude Gueuze.
Top examples of cherry-infused lambics include Boon Oude Kriek, De Cam Oude Kriek, Cantillon Kriek 100 percent Lambic and Lou Pepe Kriek, Drie Fonteinen Oude Kriek and Schaerbeekse Kriek, Hanssens Oude Kriek, Mort Subite Oude Kriek, and Oud Beersel Oude Kriek.
A fine introduction to the oud bruin style is Rodenbach Classic, a mildly tart, refreshing, burgundy colored ale. Its big brother is Grand Cru, which consists of a blend from several foeders, averaging 18 months in oak. Most of the sharp sourness and reddish color of Rodenbach Grand Cru is imparted to the beer during its maturation in foeders.
Other fine Belgian sour brown ales include Petrus Aged Pale and Old Dark from Bavik, Bellegems Bruin from Bockor, Liefmans Oud Bruin, Ichtegem’s Grand Cru from Strubbe and Vichtenaar from Verhaeghe.
The superb La Folie from New Belgium in Colorado has quickly become the American classic sour brown ale. Given La Folie’s authentically traditional quality, it may not be a surprise to learn that brewmaster Peter Bouckaert used to brew at… yes, Rodenbach.
La Roja from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales in Dexter, Michigan, is another worthy contender.
American Flavor: Belgian-inspired American Beer Trends
The influence of Belgian brews on the United States and Canadian craft beer scene is unmistakable. Some North American breweries are devoted exclusively to brewing Belgian-style ales. Many other breweries and brewpubs emulate Belgian brews with dubbels, triples, white ales and more.
Other breweries take Belgian-style a step (or three!) further with American ingenuity and inventiveness. These brewers stress that they do not set out to copy Belgian ales, but to take inspiration from them. Aging Belgian-inspired beers in wine or whiskey barrels and/or adding Brettanomyces (a wild yeast associated with sour beers) has become common with breweries known for experimentation.
Two fine examples of American improvisation on Belgian-inspired brews, among many others, are Russian River and Lost Abbey, both located in California.
Russian River Sanctification Ale is 100 percent fermented with Brettanomyces yeasts, which give the beer a distinct horse-blanket character, not unlike Orval Trappist Ale. Their Beatification ale is entirely spontaneously fermented in old oak barrels that are clear of any wine or oak: wild yeasts in the barrels ferment the wort. This might be called an American lambic by some, though authentic lambic can only originate in the area of the Payottenland.
Russian River Supplication is another special brew: a brown ale brewed with several yeast strains, with sour cherries added, and aged in French oak pinot noir barrels.
Lost Abbey Brewing, from the San Diego area, produces a number of excellent brews, including Cuvée de Tomme. This beer has a brown ale base, and is fermented with candi sugar, raisins, sour cherries and malted barley. The beer is then aged in bourbon barrels for one year, where it undergoes a further fermentation from the Brettanomyces yeast strains that are inoculated into the barrels. The result is an incredibly complex, rich brew of 11% abv. A new American world classic.
Lost Abbey also crafts several other wood-aged beers and a spontaneously fermented brew, as well as a saison, sour cherry ale, Belgian strong ale, and others.
Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales of Michigan has also been crafting a fine lineup of Belgian-inspired brews, aging in oak barrels and using spontaneous fermentation.
Brewery Ommegang in upstate New York has partnered with Brouwerij Bockor of Bellegem, West Flanders, to create Ommegang Rouge, a Flemish sour/oud bruin ale. Bockor has a number of large wooden foeders, as at Rodenbach. The beer is very good and quite refreshing, with a pleasant tartness. Other breweries across the country are experimenting with spontaneous fermentation and blending sour and other ales.
Belgian Beer…Emerging Styles in “The Beer Country”
All this cultural beer exchange is not unidirectional. America’s microbrews are having an effect on what beer lovers drink in Belgium—and what gets exported to the United States.
Hoppy, bitter beers, rare in Belgium 20 years ago, are becoming much more commonplace. Small artisanal breweries like Achouffe (with Houblon Chouffe), Alvinne (with Gaspar), De Ranke (with XX Bitter), Brasserie de la Senne (with Zinnebir) and De Struise (with Mikeller) are setting the standard for hoppy and bitter in Belgium. Many existing beers are getting a bump up in hops as well.
Strong stouts are also gaining ground in Belgian beer circles. Brews like Alvinne Podge Belgian Imperial Stout, De Dolle Export Stout, De Struise Black Albert and Ellezelloise Hercule Stout are signs of a growing trend. Buffalo from Van Den Bossche (6.5 percent ABV) a stout first brewed in 1907, has spawned a 9 percent ABV big brother, called Buffalo Belgian Stout. It is aimed primarily at the U.S. market.
While there are only two breweries producing “champagne-style beers” in Belgium, these brews are welcome additions to the beer scene in “The Beercountry.” Malheur Brut Reserve and Dark Brut, from Brouwerij De Landtsheer in Buggenhout, are remarkably complex, contemplative brews. The Dark Brut, 12 percent ABV, is aged in American oak barrels to impart a subtle wood flavor to the beer. DeuS, from Brouwerij Bosteels, is very light bodied for its 11 percent-and pairs well with many foods. All these brews are packaged in French Champagne bottles with real champagne corks. Splurge for a Belgian Brut beer on a special occasion.
Christmas and winter beers continue to gain in popularity as well, as do other seasonal brews. Many smaller artisanal breweries are experimenting with spices and other ingredients.
The beers of the great country of Belgium—and the Belgian-inspired brews being crafted on this side of the Atlantic—deserve attention and appreciation. If you have an idea which class of flavors you enjoy—whether earthy, spicy, sour, sweet or strong—you are on your way to new adventures in flavor.
Charles D. Cook
Charles D. (“Chuck”) Cook is a freelance writer living in Baltimore, MD. He has visited nearly 90 Belgian breweries during his 18 trips to Belgium.