Unfettered from the restrictive requirements of Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, Belgium became the most creative beer producer in the world. No country has more beer variety than Belgium. From simple Witbiers to complex Lambics, and rustic Farmhouse ales, Belgian ales are the best in the world. We present this guide to help you understand the full breadth of Belgian ales, many of which you may sample tonight.
Trappist & Abbey ales
A Trappist brewery is one located at a monastery and runs under the supervision of Trappist monks. There are currently eleven Trappist breweries in the world, with six in Belgium. These include Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. Incidentally, there is one Trappist brewery in the United States, the St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, MA. Beer in the Trappist style from commercial breweries is called Abbey Ale. These breweries have no current monastic connection but may market in the monastic style. A good example of Abbey Ales are beers from St.Bernardus.
Singels are rarely seen outside of the monastery walls and are usually not sold to the public. These beers are less than 5% ABV and are brewed to refresh and sustain the monks. The style is sometimes called Table Beer or Patersbier, or “Father’s Beer” in Dutch. Singels are golden, showcase Belgian yeast fruit esters, finish dry and display more hop bitterness than their bigger siblings.
Dubbels are one of the oldest beer styles in Belgium, a beer whose history is found in the monasteries of the Middle Ages. The “modern” adaptation of the style came together in the early 1800s. One of the first things drinkers notice about a Dubbel is the deep brown color. Belgian Candi Sugar gives the beer its dark color, along with flavors for caramel, raisin, and dried figs. Dubbels provide drinkers with a complex flavor mix of rich malts, fruit, spice and gentle bitterness while weighing in at a respectable 6-7.5% ABV. The light spiciness is contributed by the yeast during fermentation; additional spices were traditionally not added.
The Tripel traces its roots to an ale first brewed in 1934 at the Westmalle Abbey. Tripels are strong, golden and surprisingly drinkable considering most are 8-9% ABV. It takes a lot of malted barley to make a big beer, but Tripels are well fermented and have a dry finish that highlights the fruity and spicy flavors created by the yeast. Drinkers will notice a slight alcohol and malty character, but a good Tripel is never hot or sweet. The best tripels are carbonated naturally using bottle conditioning and pour lively effervescent. Quadrupel/Belgian Dark Strong
Quadrupel and Belgian Dark Strong are different names for the same beer. And regardless of what you call the style, it is a dark, strong, complex ale with rich malts, dark fruits and a touch of spice. The style shares many characteristics with the Dubbel, but is more intense in almost every way. With ABV ratings from 8-12%, the alcohol is apparent, but should add a smooth warmth without being hot.
The Farmhouse tradition of Southern Belgium and Northern France gave birth to beers that were created from the farm to serve the farm. The farmers used the barley, wheat, herbs from the harvest in these beers brewed in the winter. When fermented and ready, the beer would then give sustainment and refreshment to the farm workers on the warm summer days. Every beer was unique because every farm, and brewing farmer, were different. These rustic styles will refresh you the way it did the Belgian farmhands.
Saison, French for season, usually pours pale with sparkling effervescence from high carbonation from bottle conditioning. Less common are dark saisons, but they exist and display caramel or toffee malt flavors. The yeast character of the beer is its highlight, featuring fruity notes of apple, pear, lemon and orange, with spicy black pepper notes, that finishes quite dry. Additional herbs and spice may be added, and there is always room to experiment in the Saison tradition. Saisons can range from a low ABV of 3.5% (Petite) to 9.5% (Super), but typical versions weigh in between 5-7% ABV.
Biére de Garde
Biére de Garde literally means “beer which has been kept.” This historic beer was brewed at spring time and kept in cool cellars and enjoyed on hot summer days. This rustic style is from Northern France, just across the Belgian border and is similar to Saison as it was produced on the farms of the region. However, this beer brings more complexity and intensity to the table with its rich malt focus. Drinkers will notice that while finishing dry, Biére de Garde is malt-forward with hints of rich biscuit, toffee and caramel sweetness in the middle. Also, the yeast add their own fruity and spicy signature to the complexity of the beer. The 6-8.5% ABV gives a hint of alcohol, but without the alcohol heat.
The sour ales of Belgium are different than other beers you’ll find in America, Britain, and Germany. Where those traditions use hop bitterness to balance malt sweetness, Belgian sours ales create balance with delicious tartness. Brewed with mostly wheat rather that barley, and fermented with wild yeast and souring bacteria, these ales are unlike anything you’ve tasted in the world of beer.
Lambic & Gueuze
Lambic is a spontaneously fermented ale, meaning the brewers pitch no yeast. Instead, nature does all the work. After brewing, the wort is pumped to a coolship, a shallow open-air fermenting vessel (from the Dutch, “koelschip”). The cool night air chills the hot wort while the native wild yeast and bacteria in the air inoculate the beer to start fermentation. Don’t let the “bacteria” scare you. One of the most active ones in Lambic is Lactobacillus and is also used in yogurt production. The wild yeast, Brettanomyces, and bacteria give Lambic a tart and funky farmhouse character, not unlike the funkiness you experience in good cheeses. Straight Lambics are rarely found outside of Belgium. Rather, most Lambics are used to make Gueuze and Fruited Lambics.
Gueuze is a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year-old Lambics aged in oak barrels and foeders (say “food-ers”). Belgians pronounce it like “gur-zah” but most Americans simple say “goo-zeh” or “gooze.” Gueuze is light-bodied, highly carbonated, with a crisp, tart finish. The young Lambic still has sugar to ferment, while the mature Lambic shows the wild character of the Brettanomyces yeast from the Senne River valley. When carefully blended by hand, the character of the finished Gueuze is complex, sour and delicious. Some are sweetened with sugar or saccharin, be sure to look for “Oud GueUze” or “Ville Gueuze” to ensure you get a traditional unsweetened version. Gueuze has a wide range of alcohol content with ABV from 5-8%.
While called Fruited Lambics, the base beer can be either Lambic or Gueuze. Fruit is added to the barrel to enhance the beer with additional flavors and contribute additional fermentable sugar. Most common are Kriek (cherry), Framboise (raspberry), Cassis (Black Currant), Peche (peach) or Apricot.
Flanders Red is indigenous to the Dutch-speaking region of West Flanders on the Belgium-Netherlands border, and its best known example is Rodenbach. The “Burgundy of Belgium” is more like wine than beer and pours a deep red color. This red wine-like beer is sour and fruity and with a tannic, dry finish. Drinkers may perceive flavors of cherries, plums and red currants, balanced with toasty malts and an acidic bite. The tart acetic acid reminds one of vinegar but should be restrained and not overly vinegar-like, and the fruit should be prominent. Flanders Red is aged for up to two years in large oak foeders, the same vessels wine is aged in. Master blenders then blend beer of various ages to create the perfect Flanders Red. Flanders Red is about 5-6% ABV.
Oud Bruin, Flemish for “Old Brown,” is from East Flanders and shares characteristics with Flanders Red, but exhibits just as many differences. This old ale pours a chestnut brown, with hints of red, but browner than the Flanders Red.It also has a tart flavor, but is not as sour and has less acetic acid than Flanders Red and finishes slightly sweeter. Oud Bruin shows more malt character of caramel, toffee, molasses and chocolate with delicious fruit flavors of raisins, plums, and cherries. Depending on the brewery, Oud Bruin can have a wide range of ABV, anywhere from 4 to 8%.
Belgian Golden Strong
Like the Belgian Dark Strong, this is a big ale, often measuring up at 9% ABV and higher. However it has a secular ancestry after World War I, not a monastic one. Ales in this style are often named after the devil (Duvel), or some other foul character, such as Lucifer, Judas, Brigand or Piraat. Belgian Golden Strong is a complex dance of floral hop bitterness, fruity and spicy fermentation character, high alcohol and light pilsner-style malts. It is highly carbonated and has a light body, which temptingly hides the large nature of this style. At nearly 10% ABV, brewers can’t hide the alcohol, but it should always finish smooth and never hot.
Belgian Pale Ale
The Belgian Pale Ale isn’t that pale at all and pours a delightful copper color and is similar to a British Pale Ale with a Belgian flair. This malt-forward beer displays flavors of nuts, biscuit, toast, honey, and caramel. The yeast contribute more fruity fermentation flavors than one would experience in Britain. There is a noticeable hop bitterness, but that takes a back seat to the malt and yeast derived flavors and is not nearly as hoppy as its British cousin. With an ABV of around 5%, it’s easy to enjoy a couple with dinner.
Belgian Blond Ale
The Belgian Blond is not like the American Blonde, whose light character and low ABV make it the “training wheels” beer of the American Craft Beer scene. No, Belgians like their Blonds much bolder, with an alcohol content from 6.5 to 7% ABV. This golden ale shows subtle fruity and spicy Belgian yeast notes while finishing clean and dry, almost like a Lager.
With a name like IPA, you expect Belgian IPAs to be bitter. And they are when compared to other Belgian ales. However, they are not extremely bitter like some American or British IPAs. The bitterness, while noticeable, is balance and the Belgian yeast character of the beer is prominent. You’ll notice fruity and spicy notes in the flavor and the aroma that are common among Belgian Pale Ales and Golden Strong Ales.
Witbier, sometimes Belgian White or simply Wit, gets a bad rap as the wimpy kid on the Belgian block. It’s unfortunate, because it’s a delicious and unique beer, albeit with a smaller personality than other Belgian ales. This Belgian wheat ale is refreshing and elegant in its simplicity. Drinkers will enjoy a grainy bread-like malt flavor, orange and lemony citrus fruits and a touch of coriander, or other spices. The key to all the flavors in Witbier is balance; none should outshine the others. This style is about 400 years old and had died out before Pierre Celis revived it in the 1950s. There is no other Belgian beer that is refreshing and easy drinking, and you can have several as most are 5% ABV of less.