How can you not love a country known for its love of waffles, chocolate, French fries, and beer? Belgium is my version of Guns 'n' Roses' Paradise City, where the grass is green and the beers are plenty.
And not only are the beers of Belgium vast in quantity, they're vast in quality, diversity, and cultural importance. Every beer that we credit to the country's name seems to have a history and character that's independent of its neighbors on the shelf. If you're put off by intensely bitter IPAs or bland canned lagers, the Belgian beer section at your local bottle shop may be a good place to start your love affair with beer.
Here's a guide to get you started:
When I think of Belgian beer, the image that comes to mind is that of an enrobed monk, tipsy off his own supply, hoisting a clunky chalice full of beer. Actually, it's pretty much just the St. Bernardus logo. The image may not be rooted in reality, but the abbey ales of Belgium are a great place to get started when you're exploring Belgian beer. I'm talking about dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels: the beers made famous by monastic brewers and their secular imitators. Let's dig into 'em a bit:
Dubbel, Quadrupel, and Belgian Strong Dark Ale
So, the dubbel. The name means (wait for it) "double," in Dutch. But where does that name come from? What's being dubbeled? is there some type of "single" floating around there with a funny Dutch spelling?
Here's the thing: historians can't seem to agree on where the dubbel/tripel/quadrupel naming comes from. There isn't an exact mathematical relationship between the styles as the names imply, and the "singel" remains an elusive beast that rarely leaves the walls of the few monasteries where it's made. What is clear is that the styles maintain a loose increase in strength between them. Dubbels are, as a whole, stronger than singels. Tripels are, as a whole, weaker than quadrupels.
Back to the singel. It's pretty tough to find unless you're hanging out in a monastery. It's also less clearly defined than its big brothers. The name singel is applied primarily to the generally pale, generally low-alcohol beers that are made by the monks in monastic breweries to keep for themselves. They don't want (at least in theory) to be too tipsy for their monky obligations, so a lower-alcohol beer is a must. Calling it "singel" just seems natural given its relative weakness to the more established dubbels and tripels, but as a style, it is less stringently quantified than either of those. I should note that a few secular breweries make these beers commercially, too, but they aren't common.
The dubbel is more clearly defined. Brown ales of different sizes, flavors, and production methodologies have been made in monasteries for a long time, but in 1926, the style took its modern form when the Westmalle monastery released a beer called Dubbel Bruin. The beer was a success and a wave of imitators solidified dubbel as a recognized style.
These are reddish brown-colored ales of moderate strength (think 6-8% ABV) that, nowadays, are made not just in monasteries, but by secular breweries around the world. Classically, they are made with an ingredient that you might not expect: heavily caramelized beet sugar. The sugar imparts much of the deep color characteristic to this style and lightens the beer in body, fermenting completely and creating a bunch of alcohol along with it. It also leaves behind a pleasant raisin-like flavor. The type of yeast used for fermentation is important as well, yielding a wide range of fruity, peppery, and spicy flavors that give the style a deep complexity and low level of residual sugar.
Quadrupels are basically just amped up versions of the dubbel—stronger in every way with identical ingredients producing more of the same flavors. We're talking big time plum, raisin, caramel, and pepper flavors alongside a noticeable alcoholic bite (these beers can veer upwards of 12% ABV). The quadrupel name isn't accepted by everyone and some prefer to stick with a less-specific catch-all: Belgian strong dark ale.
The origin of the tripel is a matter of much debate, too. One thing is certain: like the dubbel, the modern tripel was popularized by the Westmalle monastery. Also like the dubbel, the tripel is brewed with a good portion of beet sugar included in the recipe, but this time, the sugar isn't caramelized. It still raises the alcohol level and lightens body, but it doesn't impart significant color—the beer's beautiful golden hue comes primarily from the use of lightly kilned malt. Expect a beer filled with apple, pear, citrus, or banana-like fruitiness, clove-like or peppery spice, and a drying but (ideally) subtle hit of alcohol on the finish. Slightly stronger than dubbel, tripel boasts a lofty ABV of around 7-10%, but remains dangerously drinkable.
Leaving the monastery, let's shift our gaze to the farmland of what is now Northern France and Northern Belgium. This area is the birthplace of the farmhouse ales, saison and bière de garde. As the name implies, these are beers rooted in pastoral living—brewed and consumed with the ebb and flow of the seasons.
Saison and Bière de Garde
Saison (which means "season" in French, you'll get it in a minute) was born of necessity. The winter months are hard on farmers—you can't grow much and there just isn't a lot of money coming in. So what can you do? Well, if you've got leftover grain from the previous fall's harvest, you can make beer for the seasonal workers that will tend to your fields in the warmer months. Surplus grain gets used, your workers get some safe hydration, and after brewing, you can feed the spent grain to your livestock. It's the ol' win-win-win.
Bière de garde served a similar purpose. The name translates to "beer for keeping." These were beers designed to be stored—kept for the warmer months when brewing good beer was tough and farm life was hectic with obligations outside the brewhouse, but everyone was still thirsty.
Saison and bière de garde have similar histories, but stylistically, they are somewhat different. Saison is pale, highly-carbonated, and super-dry, defined by citrusy aromatics, an assertive peppery yeast character, and a level of floral, earthy hoppiness rarely seen in Belgium. But saisons aren't restricted to the Belgian borders&mash;American brewers and others around the world have embraced the style as well. In the past few years it's a style that's been tweaked, pushed around, and celebrated more than most in the US, with black, imperial (stronger), and heavily spiced variations finding their way to shelves. Even the Belgians have been known to make variations on the style that can be dark, spiced, or brewed with unusual grains.
Despite the stylistic breadth in what brewers call "saison," the beer world generally accepts one beer as the grand-daddy benchmark of the style as we know it today. Brasserie Dupont's Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, known simply as "Saison Dupont" by most, is a true classic in the beer world and serves as the model for many imitators. It's a dry, pale beer with a lively hop presence, some citrus and apple-like fruit flavor and a peppery, yeast-derived finishing bite.
Bière de garde is a bit more refined. It lacks the lithe energy of its pretty sister, trading it for maltiness and strength. Like saison, there's more diversity within the style than you might expect—you'll find bière de garde to be available in pale (labeled "blonde"), amber ("ambrée"), and brown ("brune") varieties, each with a different expression of malt flavor. Blonde versions tend to be doughy, honey-like, and lightly caramelly, ambrée examples emphasize that caramelization, and brune versions supplement the caramel with a toasty, more dense malt complexity. In all versions, the yeast is less prominent in flavor than in saison—bière de garde is fermented at cooler temperatures than most ales, which limits the fruitiness and spiciness that can come from warmer fermentations.
Other Belgian Ales
Belgian Strong Pale Ale and Belgian Blonde
Belgian strong pale ale (also known as Belgian strong golden ale) is a more recent invention, credited to Belgian brewers Duvel Moortgat. The beer that started it all is known simply as Duvel (that's "devil" in Flemish) and it took its current bright golden form in the 1970s. Crisp, strong, and extremely highly carbonated, Duvel and its imitators are not totally dissimilar to the tripel style, but tend to be drier, lighter in color, and a bit more bitter. As a reference to the demonically-named pace-setter, many beers within this style are named with reference to hell and the underworld, like Russian River's Damnation, The Lost Abbey's Inferno, Het Anker's Lucifer, and others.
Belgian blonde (sometimes spelled blond) beers are slightly less strong than either Belgian strong pale ales or tripels at around 6 to 8% ABV. Often sweeter than Belgian strong pale ales, these tend to taste less bitter with more fruity flavors derived from fermentation. Both Belgian strong pale ales and blondes are usually made with the same sugar used for making tripels, so these are a bit lighter-bodied than you might expect given their strength.
Belgian Pale Ale
Given the name, it feels strange that Belgian pale ales don't have a lot in common Belgian strong pale ales. These actually more closely resemble English pale ales—amber to copper in color with a toasty malt quality and a moderate strength (around 4.5 to 6% ABV). Expect a fruity and peppery yeast aroma that's more subdued than most Belgian ales, with a mild earthy hoppiness that may poke through on the finish.
Witbier (also known as bière blanche or simply by its translated name, "white beer") has roots that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, but interest in the style waned around the turn of the 20th century amidst the rising popularity of pilsner and pale lagers. By the 1950s, nobody was making witbier commercially and it was considered to be extinct. Then a man named Pierre Celis stepped in, singlehandedly reviving the style at his brewery in Hoegaarden, Belgium.
That name Hoegaarden probably sounds familiar. Celis found wild success with his beer, and later sold the brewery to the company that would become Anheuser-Busch InBev. The beer has been sold worldwide ever since, spawning a resurgence in the style's popularity.
Brewed with unmalted wheat, coriander and orange peel, witbier is ultra-refreshing—tart, light in body, moderate in alcohol (think 4.5-5.5% ABV), and with a pleasant balance of citrusy and spicy flavors from the yeast used to ferment it.
Lambic and Gueuze
Though witbier has clawed its way out of obscurity, lambic has remained a product of rarity, hanging out on the fringes of the mainstream as an object of geeky desires. It is still produced by just a handful of companies—the lambic game isn't one you can just step into. The product's scarcity is necessitated by a time-consuming method of production that few fully understand and can require several years between kettle and shelf. Most lambic lovers also prescribe to the notion that it can only be produced in its region of origin: the area around Brussels.
Traditional lambic is funky stuff—fully dry and bracingly sour. To create this signature flavor, the brewer starts the lambic-making process more or less like he or she would any beer: by steeping grain in water and boiling the resulting liquid. From here, things get weird. Lambic is the result of something called 'spontaneous fermentation.' Instead of carefully regulating fermentation using lab-cultured yeasts and sanitized stainless steel vessels, the brewer ferments the beer using the wild yeast and bacteria that constantly float around us in the air.
After boiling, the still-hot liquid is left to cool in a shallow, kiddie pool-looking vessel called a coolship. Here, yeast and bacteria settle into the liquid (now called "wort") and begin to multiply. Then, the wort is transferred to oak barrels. Those floating organisms, along with those that live in the barrels, start to do their thing. Like any beer fermentation, sugars in the wort are consumed to produce alcohol, but the wild buggies in there also produce a bunch of sour and funky flavors not encountered in your everyday pint. That's what makes lambic so unusual.
But the name "lambic" covers a bit more than just a single type of beer. It's more commonly used to refer to all of the beer styles made from a spontaneously fermented lambic base. This includes not just that simple "lambic," also known as unblended lambic, but also gueuze, fruited lambic variants, and some other oddities.
Unblended lambic is rarely found outside of Belgium—it's uncarbonated and served almost exclusively on tap. Blended products are much more common.
Gueuze (this is a tough one to pronounce properly—most just say "gooze") is one of those. It's a blend of young and old lambics—pale, dry, and complex, with funky flavors that range from oaky, cheesy, and barnyard-like to lemony, honey-like, and briny. You might hate it (you'll probably love it).
Fruited lambics are just what they sound like: lambics with fruit added. You might have encountered some of these on the dusty shelves of your local corner store. Chances are, those dusty bottles have an unfermentable sweetener added. The beer inside is ultra-sweet and very low in alcohol (most are around 2.5% ABV). These can be decent beers for dessert pairings, but if you're looking for a beverage of depth and complexity, you'll want a more traditional example (hint: the word "oude" on the label is a tip-off that you're on the right track).
Traditional fruited lambics have the funky flavors of gueuze complemented by a heavy dose of bright, fresh flavor imparted by the fruit of choice. To make these beers, the fruit is usually jammed right into the barrel, kickstarting another fermentation that eats up all of the fruit's sugars leaving a dry finished beer. Much of the fruit's flavor is left behind, and the color of the beer can be dramatically affected by the fruit. Cherry lambics, known by the Dutch word for cherry, kriek, are the most common, but raspberry (framboise), grape, and stone fruit are commonly used as well.
Sadly, there are few producers of traditional lambic left in the world, but a surge in popularity in the American market for lambic has helped the ones that do exist to thrive. New producers are slowly learning the craft and bringing product to market, and not just as brewers. It's common practice for lambic producers (for example, Tilquin, Oud Beersel, and others) to buy wort from other breweries, fermenting, blending, and bottling the beer in their own name.
Flanders Red and Flanders Brown
Lambic isn't the only sour thing happening in Belgium. Flanders sour ales have a similarly tart thing going for them. These are beers indigenous to the northern half of Belgium and are available in two varieties: red and brown (AKA oud bruin).
Despite their Belgian origin, Flanders red ales likely drew their inspiration from the tart blended porters that once dominated the English beer market. Eugene Rodenbach, who is credited with the style's inception, brought knowledge of porter blending techniques back to Belgium after a stint studying brewing in England. At his family's Rodenbach Brewery, he created the torch-bearing examples of the style. Deep red in color, Rodenbach's sour ales are packed with berry, plum, and balsamic vinegar-like flavor, with acetic sourness coming from a bacterial fermentation in oak vessels.
Flanders brown ales are similar beers, but tend to be a bit maltier. Fruit flavors trend toward plums, figs, and dates more so than red berries and there tends to be a bit less vinegar-like sourness.
About the author: Mike Reis is a Certified Cicerone working as Minister of Education for California-based distributor Lime Ventures. Previously, he co-managed the beer program at San Francisco's Abbot's Cellar and The Monk's Kettle. Follow him on Twitter @beerspeaks or find him behind a pint near you.