Nestled in a western corner of Europe is a tiny country called Belgium. It’s about the size of Maryland with a population of 11 million people. It’s quaint. It’s pastoral. It’s agrarian. And it’s an absolute wonderland of brew. One of the best beer destinations on earth — without question.
Belgium’s beer styles run deep. There are the sour Lambics that settle in farmhouse attics, absorbing all the wild yeasts floating in the Pajottenland air. Then there are the ales — the strong ales, the Trappist ales, the darks ales, the IPAs, the gueuze… There are more. In fact, it can be a little intimidating wondering where the hell to even start.
It’s no wonder that Belgian beer is a necessary stop on any beer drinker’s road to beer geekdom. These are some the best beers made on earth. Decanting is important. Tasting them is important. And, yes, getting absolutely sloshed while doing obsessing over them is important too. It’s only beer, after all.
So we’ve compiled a small selection of Belgian beer styles to offer you an introduction to Belgium’s greatest export (sorry JCVD). Some are easier to find that others, but every single one is worth the journey.
BELGIAN PALE ALE — TARAS BOULBA
The Belgian pale ale is a more subtle version of the average pale ale you’ll find from America or England. The use of aged hops lowers the bitterness and gives the beer that subtle hoppiness that should have a sweet, toasty edge with yeasty dregs.
Brasserie de la Senne’s Taras Boulba is a crisp, amber-looking ale. Expect some florals and citrus with a slight hoppiness, balanced well with a sweet maltiness and yeast. This a very drinkable beer where one glass can lead to four or five while sitting in an old wooden-paneled Brussels cafe.
BELGIAN STRONG PALE ALE — LA CHOUFFE
This one warns you right in the name. It’s strong. A Belgian strong pale ale hits similar marks as its lighter pale ale siblings when it comes to well-balanced hoppiness, yeast, and maltiness — with more precision and deeper flavors. The amber hues start to turn more of a pale blonde as the alcohol content inches towards double digits.
Brasserie d’Achouffe’s La Chouffe’s little gnome is a cheeky bugger. This beer is delicious and extremely quaffable. And it’ll knock you on your ass with its eight percent ABV. Surprisingly complex, this one hits citrus and floral notes with the ever-so-slight hint of tropical fruits; paired with an easy hoppiness and balanced malt. The finish shows fleeting moments of peppery spiciness and coriander.
BELGIAN IPA — DE RANKE XX BITTER
Belgian IPAs are largely made for the American market and with American hops. That being said, it’s the Belgian techniques that separate this style from the rest of the world’s IPAs. The beers are bottle-condition with Belgian yeasts giving these IPAs a dry and crisp edge along with a strikingly well-balanced bitterness.
Brouwerij De Ranke’s De Ranke XX Bitter has “bitter” right in the name. You’re going to get bitter on the taste and finish here, but it’s so much more than that. That bitterness has balanced maltiness complementing earthy and spicy flavors with an almost sweet, bready taste, plus a little bump of fruitiness.
TRIPEL — WESTMALLE
This style is rooted in the Trappist traditions. There is the ‘simple,’ ‘dubbel,’ ‘tripel,’ ‘quardupel,’ and so forth. What this means is double, triple, etc. the amount of malts that are used in this beer compared to the ‘simple.’ The Tripel is a wonderful midway point in this extra-malting process. This golden beer is a big hitter that should be creamy, spicy, fruity, and sweet.
Brouwerij Westmalle’s Tripel is a Trappist masterwork. Even at a 9.5 percent ABV this beer still feels light and effervescent with a lemony and forest pine edge. It’s creamy and still — somehow — a little dry and crisp. It tastes a bit like sitting in a beer garden shaded with evergreens on a sunny summer day.
SAISON — SAISON DUPONT
The Saison is a farmhouse ale that used to be brewed in the cold winter months on, well, farms to be enjoyed the rest of the summer after long days working the fields. Amazingly this gorgeous style almost went extinct until American interest brought it roaring back. The beer itself is a complex amalgam of fruit, tartness, earthy funk, spice, and hoppy/bitter.
Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont is a classic beer. Expect to get garden, field, and orchard of flavors from fennel and pepper to lemongrass and nutmeg to cilantro and maybe even hints of sage and thyme (sorry parsley and rosemary). It’s a soft beer that revels in its dryness.
OUD BRUIN — MONK’S CAFÉ FLEMISH SOUR ALE
This brown ale style is prominently from Flanders (not the stupid, sexy one). Oud Bruins have a slight lactic sourness to them that works with a roasted quality making them very sweet and smooth. These beers are generally blended with other young and old brown ales and you’ll often find a woody mellowness.
Brouwerij Van Steenberge brews Monk’s Cafe for the Philadelphia cafe of the same name, making it easier to find in the states. You should get a nice hit of funk with this one. Then expect oak, apple cider vinegar, cherry, vanilla, dried fruits, and sweet brown bread all bundled into this smooth and slightly sour beer.
BELGIAN STRONG DARK ALE — NOIR DE DOTTIGNIES
This dark beast is dangerous. There’s a lot of ABVs usually assigned to the word ‘strong’ in Belgium. These beers are big with a balance of hops and malt, fruit and spice, alcohol and bliss.
Brouwerij De Ranke’s Noir De Dottignies is a black beer that packs a walloping nine percent ABV. The richness comes from six different malts conspiring to create the nearly pitch black hue. Then hops are added to bring out a hint of bitterness amongst the dried fruit sweetness. This beer can stand up to any Imperial Stout and kick its ass on a good day, taste-wise.
FLANDERS RED ALE — CUVEE DES JACOBINS ROUGE
Red beers from Flanders are another exercise in complexity that uses time to create something special. The ales get a fruity sourness from specialized yeasts and spontaneous fermentation then they’re cask aged in oak. You’re left with a tart and sour fruit-forward beer that goes down easy.
Brouwerij Bockor’s Cuvée Des Jacobins Rouge should make you pucker a little from the sour and tart flavors. There’s plenty of cherry fruit, hints of oak, and a sweet balsamic edge spritzed with lime. It’s dry, tart, and delicious.
LAMBIC — CANTILLON FOU’ FOUNE
Now we’re getting into legendary beer territory. The Lambic – Fruit varietal adds different fruits to the brewing process post spontaneous fermentation. These fruits are generally cherries (Kriek), raspberries (Framboise), peach (Pêche), and so forth. This layers a strong fruitiness and often sweetness overwrite the deep sourness of the wheaty beer. These beers have a lower malt and hop ratio that allows the fruit and sourness to shine.
Brasserie Cantillon’s Cantillon Fou’ Foune is a special beer. Bergeron apricots are soaked in lambic for about five weeks. This allows the mild sweetness to come through into the sour. Everything about this beer is about subtleness. There’s a slight funk on the nose. Lurking below the mild tartness there are hints of the apricots and the orchard where they grew. There’s an acidic edge that ends up with a dry finish. It’s a delight that makes you take a moment to think about what you’re experiencing with every sip.
GUEUZE — OUDE GEUZE GOLDEN BLEND
Gueuze is the blending of young and old Lambics. The malty and wheat forward old lambics are blended with the young ones before they have a chance to fully ferment. This causes as secondary fermentation to take place after the blending, allowing carbon dioxide to naturally form and all those yeasts and malts and fruit to settle and mellow into a powerhouse beer.
3 Fonteinen’s Oude Geuze Golden Blend is made up of a four-year-old lambic blended with a “secret” combination of one, two, and three year old lambics. That blend is then put into oak barrels for four years. A fair amount of that beer goes to the angels — as whiskey lovers might say. So what you’re left with is a golden elixir with grapefruit, funk, lemon, oak, and farm fields spun into every bottle.
EXTRA: BELGIAN PALE ALE — ORVAL TRAPPIST ALE
Brasserie d’Orval’s Orval Trappist Ale needs a special mention. This beer is shockingly well balanced. It’s herbal, fruity, slightly sea salty, with hints of clove and berries. That’s all wrapped up with nice floral notes and an ever-so-slight funk. More importantly, it’s easy to drink.