If you’ve ever confronted a menu full of pages and pages of beers in a bar or restaurant in Antwerp, Brussels, Bruges, or beyond, you’ll know that Belgian beer can be a wildly complex and potentially intimidating prospect. With dozens, if not hundreds, of beers commonly on offer at any given bar—and often a specific glass to match—it’s hard to know where to start.
For anyone who wants to figure out their gueuze from their witbier, this guide to Belgian beer should serve as a primer.
What’s the difference between a Belgian beer and a Belgian-style beer?
Given the explosion in brewing in the last few years, and the experimentation that brewing affords, it’s no surprise that many beer makers find inspiration in Belgium’s heritage. Simply put, a Belgian beer is one crafted in the country, as you’d expect, while a Belgian-style brew could be made anywhere—but it will have some kind of nod to the country, whether in the ingredients used or the brewing process.
What are the main types of Belgian beers?
Belgian beer classification is a Byzantine affair, with numerous, somewhat amorphous categories applied to various brews. But these generally accepted terms cover a number of the essential Belgian beers you need to try next time you’re in Belgium.
Trappist beers are beers made by—or under the supervision of—monks, within monastery walls, with any financial proceeds going to charity rather than profit. There are 11 certified Trappist breweries worldwide and 6 of them are in Belgium. The style of the beers varies but they’re often fairly malty, and they’re all bottle conditioned and feature a hexagonal logo on the label.
What to drink and where to try it: The Westvletern brewery makes what many consider the best beer in the world. While you could bestow that title objectively on any number of drinks, its beer—created in small batches—has topped several lists from the likes of Rate Beer and Beer Advocate. You can’t visit the actual monastery in Vleteren, West Flanders, where a few dozen monks conduct the alchemy, but there is a visitor center next door for tasting and takeout. It’s about an hour’s drive from Bruges.
Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel (or Double, Triple, and Quadruple)
As the invaluable Oxford Companion to Beer notes, “‘dubbel,’ ‘tripel,’ and ‘quadrupel’ loosely refer to the amount of malt with fermentable sugars and the original gravity of the wort prior to fermentation.” As the names suggest, ABV generally climbs as you progress through double, triple, and quadruple. Dubbel generally clocks in around 6 percent to 8 percent and is a dark brown brew with nutty notes. Tripel beers are hoppier and stronger but also clearer than dubbels. You could easily choose one that exceeds 10 percent ABV, so approach with caution (and perhaps share with a friend). Quadrupels are dark red or brown Belgian-style ales that can be even stronger.
What to drink and where to try it:
- Dubbel: The first dubbel was concocted in the 1850s at the Abbey of Westmalle, outside Antwerp. Its version, the Westmalle Dubbel, is a reddish-colored, fruity and herby brew of 7 percent strength that should be served in a tulip glass, according to the exhaustive resource on Belgian beers, beertourism.com. Look out for it in 33cl or 75cl bottles or on tap in some 300 cafés around the country. Westmalle Abbey and brewery are also closed to visitors, but the nearby Cafe de Trappisten serves the drinks. An Ommegang Abbey Ale or a Chimay Red could serve you nicely, too, or make a trip to Flobecq west of Brussels to try the award-winning version at Black-owned brewery Flobecq Brasserie where Burundian-born John Christian Kavakure creates memorable brews.
- Tripel: If you visit the Westmalle site, you should try the café’s tripel; it was here, too, that the drink originated and Beertourism declares it the “mother of all tripels.” It also offers a serving of half dubbel, half tripel. Or go for a Chimay Cinq Cents.
- Quadrupel: It’s all about the De Koningshoeven Brewery in the Netherlands in this category, a delicious frothy concoction with notes of orange and banana bread.
Witbier (White Beer/Wheat Ale)
Perhaps the closest Belgium gets to a session beer (one you can drink over a period of time without falling into a ditch), Witbiers are wheat beers with barely any hops, clocking in around 4 percent or 5 percent ABV and often jazzed up with spice or orange peel.
What to drink and where to try it: Most people have had a Hoegaarden or two, but we recommend the Ommegang Witte Ale at the beer’s eponymous brewery in Cooperstown, New York. A light, citrusy sup brewed with coriander, it’s perfect for alfresco and socially distanced drinking. Or order a medium-bodied Fantôme Blanche online via Belgianshop.com—if only for its tasting notes (“dominant character of lemon and barnyard funk”).
Fans of sour beers and red wine drinkers will enjoy one of these beers, which are oak aged for up to two years, giving them that tannic complexity and lip-puckering tartness. Originally brewed in the Flanders region bordering France, the beers have spread to independent breweries worldwide.
What to drink and where to try it: The Rodenbach brewery produces the Rodenbach Classic, which justifies its name with its history (it dates back well over 100 years) and multiple awards, but its Grand Cru version is a real treat. You can usually visit the brewery in the West Flemish town of Roeselare in normal, noncoronavirus times.
Brut beers, as champagne drinkers might have guessed, are bubbly brews that are produced much like that favored French tipple.
What to drink and where to try it: Some years ago, AFAR ventured to Buggenhout, about 20 miles from Antwerp, to visit the Malheur brewery. Malheur means “happy accident” and the owner there, Manu De Landtsheer, revels in the alchemy that takes place within his brewery walls. His brut has been refermented up to three times in the bottle and impressed our writer, Nicholas Schmidle, with its notes of “green apples with a touch of lemon and a dash of pepper.”
Lambic beers traditionally hail from the western region of Belgium, southwest of Brussels, and use wild yeast harvested locally during ageing, which yields a sour taste and often cloudy appearance. Lambics are subdivided into several categories, the most popular being gueuze, kriek, and fruit beers.
What to drink and where to try it:
- Lambic: Schmidle declares Jean Van Roy of Cantillon “the unofficial high priest of the lambic world” and the Brussels brewery is the place to go for the real deal. There are tours, too.
- Gueuze: These are blended lambics that are carbonated in the bottle. To try a range—and indeed any number of the beers on this list—you could do worse than head to Kulminator in Antwerp. The café serves around 600 beers, including many beers that aren’t available elsewhere.
- Kriek: For a cherry lambic, you could start with the omnipresent Lindemans, but for a real traditional taste, with cherries added to geueze per a time-honored recipe, try something like the St. Louis Kriek Lambic.
- Framboise: Swap the cherry for raspberry and you have a framboise. Users of beer rating app Untappd love 3 Fonteinen Hommage from Brouwerij 3 Fonteinen in the aptly named Beersel near Brussels.
- Fruit beers: Other fruits, including apricots, peaches, apples, and blackberries, can be added to the mix. Try a range of these at Moeder Lambic Original in Brussels or go for a peach beer at A la Mort Subite, also in the city.
There’s a world of other beers out there, too, like the lesser known and almost extinct faro, a lambic with added brown sugar. As you work through some of the bars’ exhaustive menus, you’ll also find ambers, saisons, pales, dark ales, golden beers.
Where can I learn more about Belgian beer?
When should I visit Belgium for maximum beer tasting?
The Belgian bars and restaurants are full of dozens, if not hundreds of beers year-round, but there are several festivals around which you could plan a trip. In Flanders, there’s a triennial Beer & Hop Festival, which was supposed to take place in September 2020 but could be jeopardized by COVID-19. The Zythos Beer Festival, meanwhile, promises 600 beers when it takes place in Leuven in April 2021.
How can I get Belgian beer delivered in the U.S.?
Try Belgian Happiness, which says it delivers 500 Belgian beers, or Belgium in a Box, which also sells glassware and pub memorabilia. You can also find a range of Belgian beers via a delivery service like Saucey or ask at your friendly neighborhood liquor store.