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The Belgians are famous for their beer and rightly so - the country boasts close to 200 breweries and a history of producing probably the most varied range of beers in the world, estimated to be over 1,000. Sold in bottles and intended to be drunk from specific glasses to heighten their flavour, there’s definitely an art to pouring and serving Belgian beer. Just don’t gulp them back - with alcohol content tending to sit on the higher end of the scale you’ll soon feel the effects!
From pale lagers to sour lambics and a multitude of styles in between there’s something to appeal to every beer lover’s tastes and, luckily for us, Belgium exports 60% of its beer, meaning there’s plenty to go around. Santé!
Houses By The River In Bruges
A brief history of Belgian beer
Unsurprisingly for a country steeped in beer culture and traditions, beer brewing in Belgium has a long history, dating back to before it was a country in its own right. French and Flemish abbeys began brewing beer in the 1100s, during the age of the first crusades. The brewing and selling of beer was permitted by the Catholic church as a way to raise funds for the crusades and as a safer alternative to the often unsanitary drinking water available.
Over the centuries, during which time the majority of the major European powers had jurisdiction over the country at one point or other, a raft of different influences found their way into the many different styles of Belgian beer and brewing methods evolved. Monasteries continued to brew and sell beer to support themselves, to drink as a source of nourishment during Lent and to offer to guests, and right up until the end of the 19th century it was monks that led the way when it came to brewing.
At the turn of the 20th century Belgium boasted a peak of close to 3,400 commercial breweries, thanks largely to heavy import duties on French wine, large taxes on spirits prompted by the temperance movement, and low start-up costs for small breweries. It was in this period, brought about by the lack of availability of spirits, that many Belgian breweries increased the alcohol content of their beers. Over the course of the two World Wars the number of breweries declined but today there is still a healthy number in operation continuing to produce the incredibly wide range of beers we associate with Belgium.
Glass Of Fresh Belgian Beer
Belgian beer styles and brands
Unlike countries such as Germany, Belgium has never had a law dictating how a beer should be brewed, which is one of the main reasons the country boasts such a rich and varied range. Brewers have been experimenting with beer styles for centuries and the country now offers over 1,000 different styles, including wheat beers, Flemmish red beers, brown ales, golden ales, saison beers, and the uniquely Belgian lambics.
As well as a huge number of independent beer brands brewed in microbreweries, including six Trappist ales and several abbey beers, Belgium is also home to some of the biggest breweries in the world. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which produces one in five of every beer sold across the globe, and Stella Artois can both be found in Leuven, about 25 kilometres east of Brussels.
Oak Barrels Maturing Beer In Belgium
Trappist and abbey - Only ten breweries in the world are allowed to call their beers Trappist and six of them are in Belgium - Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. To qualify, the brewery must reside within a monastery, monks have be involved in the brewing process and the profits from the sale of the beers used to support the monastery. Styles vary but tend to be blonde, brown (often simply referred to as dubbel), or strong pale ale, depending on the preferences of each monastery. Abbey beers are simply those that are similar in style or marketing to those from a Trappist monastery; many have been branded with the name and image of a monastery no longer in operation or with an entirely made-up one.
Pale lagers - Belgian pilsners are popular in Belgium but aren’t considered to be archetypal Belgian beers. Stella Artois and Jupiler are the two most widely known, the former having a huge export market.
Wheat beers - Characterised by the herb mixture that was used before hops became widely available, Belgian wheat beers continue to be brewed with herbs and spices such as coriander and orange peel. Hoegaarden, also the name of the town in which the style was revived after near-extinction in the 1950s, is one of the most internationally well-known examples.
Blonde and golden ales - A lighter take on a pale ale, blonde and golden ales are frequently brewed using pilsner malt. The most internationally famous of Belgium’s golden ales is Duvel. Chouffe, spiced with coriander, is a popular version.
Brown ales - Also known as ‘dubbels’ (see below), Belgian brown ales are rich, dark and slightly sweet with hints of spice and figs or raisins.
Saison beers - Literally translated as ‘season’ beers, these were traditionally brewed in farmhouses in Wallonia in winter to serve to the workers in summer and were therefore low in alcohol. Today they are between 5-8% ABV and are often spiced with a little tartness and lots of fruit in both the aroma and flavour.
Lambic beers - First brewed before yeast was tamed, these naturally fermented beers using wild yeast are undoubtedly an acquired taste. They are technically a wheat beer but deserve their own category thanks to their spontaneous fermentation method and long ageing period (anything up to three years), both of which give the beer its distinctive dry, cider-like flavour and sour aftertaste. Three types are available but fruit lambics are the most widely available internationally - and probably the least scary. They have fruit added to them, with kriek, made with cherries, and framboise, made with raspberries, being two of the most popular.
Red beers - Originating in West Flanders and often known as ‘Flemmish red’, these beers have a deep red-brown colour and a distinctive sour, fruity flavour. They are in fact a type of lambic as they are spontaneously fermented and aged in oak barrels.
Cathedral Of Sainte Catherine In Brussels
Singels, dubbels, tripels, quadrupels
There isn’t necessarily a particular style that ties each category together, rather the names indicate the strength of the beer. Singels are the weakest and are generally not found outside monasteries. Dubbels are stronger than singels and have evolved into more of a style, tending to be reddish-brown ales made with caramelised beet sugar that lends the beer its deep colour, along with a raisiny flavour and a yeast that provides its distinctive spicy, fruity flavours. Westmalle is a pioneer of this type. Dubbels are usually around the 6-8% ABV mark and quadrupels are basically just stronger versions, coming in at around 12% ABV. Tripels weigh in between dubbels and quadrupels at around the 7-10% ABV mark and are also brewed with beet sugar but the sugar isn’t caramelised so the beer is golden and exhibits a lighter fruitiness.
Leie River In Ghent Town Belgium
A preference for bottles
Most Belgian beer is sold in brown ‘Vichy’ style bottles, tinted to protect the beer from sunlight. It is incredibly rare to find a can and only pale lagers, wheat beers and certain regional specialities are available on draught.
The right glass for the right beer
Beer drinking is Belgium is taken very seriously and almost every style - or even brand - of beer has its own glass which is designed to heighten the experience of drinking it. There are far too many to list them all here but common examples include goblets for Trappist and abbey ales, a tulip shaped glass for golden ales, and a Champagne flute type glass used to serve lambic beers. Some beers seemingly celebrate unusual vessels, Kwak’s strange test tube type glass and wooden stand being a classic example.