It is claimed that Belgian beer comprises the most diverse national collection of quality beer in the world, and varies from the popular pale lager to lambic beer and Flemish red. Belgian beer-brewing's origins go back to the Middle Ages.
Beer production in Belgium is now dominated by Inbev and Alken Maes, however there are approximately 125 breweries in the country; in Europe, only Germany, France and the United Kingdom are home to more breweries. Belgian breweries produce about 500 standard beers. When special one-off beers are included, the total number of Belgian beers is several thousand. Belgians drink 93 litres of beer a year on average.
High esteem of Belgian beer is supported by beer writers such as Michael Jackson.
Beer has been made in Belgium since the middle ages. It is believed today that beer was brewed at some monasteries during this period, however, no written proof exists. The Trappist monasteries that now brew beer in Belgium were occupied in the late 18th century primarily by monks fleeing the French Revolution. However, the first Trappist brewery in Belgium (Westmalle) did not start operation until 10 December 1836, almost 50 years after the Revolution. That beer was exclusively for the monks and is described as "dark and sweet." The first recorded sale of beer (a brown beer) was on 1 June 1861..
Distribution and availability
Outlets in Belgium
Belgium contains thousands of cafés that offer a wide selection of beers, ranging from perhaps 10 (including bottles) in a neighborhood café, to over 1000 in a specialist beer café. Among the most famous are "Beer Circus," "L'atelier," "Chez Moeder Lambic," and "Delirium Café" in Brussels
; "de Kulminator" and "Oud Arsenaal" in Antwerp
, "De Garre" and "'t Brugs Beertje" in Bruges
, "Het Botteltje" in Ostend
,"Het Hemelrijk" in Hasselt
and "Het waterhuis aan de bierkant", "De Dulle Griet" and "Trappistenhuis" in Ghent
. Although many major brands of beer are available at most supermarkets, beverage centers located throughout the country generally offer a far wider selection, albeit at somewhat higher prices.
Draught and bottled beer
The vast majority of Belgian beers are sold only in bottles. Draught beers
tend mostly to be pale lagers
, wheat beers, regional favorites such as Kriek in Brussels or De Koninck in Antwerp; and the occasional one-off. Customers who purchase a bottled beer (often called a "special" beer) can expect the beers to be served ceremoniously, often with a free snack.
These days, Belgian beers are sold in brown (or sometimes dark green) tinted glass bottles (to avoid negative effects of light on the beverage) and sealed with a cork, a metal crown cap, or sometimes both. Some beers are bottle conditioned, in which they are reseeded with yeast so that an additional fermentation may take place. Different bottle sizes exist: 25 cl, 33 cl, 37,5 cl, 75 cl and multiples of 75. The 37,5 cl size is usually for lambics. Other beers are generally bottled in 25 or 33 cl format (depending on brands). The bigger bottles (75 cl) are sold almost in every food shop but the choice is often not wide. Bottles larger than 75 cl are named following the terminology used for champagne and are limited in quantity. In Belgian cafés, when someone orders a demi (English: "half"), he receives a 50 cl (half litre) glass (with beer from the tap, or from 2 bottles of 25 cl) whereas in France, demi means a 25 cl glass.
Serving and glassware
Virtually every Belgian beer has a branded glass. Beyond the basic shape of the glass (wide-mouth goblet, curvaceous tulip glass, tall pilsener, etc), each glass is imprinted with a logo or name. The brewery usually selects a glass form to accentuate certain qualities of their beer. A goblet, for example, lets the drinker's nose inhale the beer's aroma at the same time the mouth is drinking in the liquid. A tulip glass, for example, is very good for foam retention.
Some draught beer brands produced by InBev
— Stella Artois
available in several European countries. Aside from these, it is mostly bottled beer that is exported. Cafés offering exclusively or primarily Belgian beers exist outside Belgium, in France
, the United Kingdom
and so on.
Trappist beers are beers brewed in a Trappist
monastery. For a beer to qualify for this category, the entire production process must be carried out by, or supervised by, Trappist monks on the site of the monastery. Only seven monasteries currently meet this qualification, six of which are in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. The current Trappist producers are Achel
(the Netherlands), Orval
, and Westvleteren
. The Trappist beers have very little in common with each other aside from the place of origin. The traditional "Holy Trinity" of beers (enkel, dubbel and tripel) are now brewed by only two monasteries.
Abbey beers (Bières d’Abbaye or Abdijbier) are brewed by commercial brewers, and license their name from abbeys, some defunct, some still operating. The most internationally well-known brand of Abbey beer is Inbev's Leffe. Others include Grimbergen, Tripel Karmeliet, Maredsous, Watou, Saint-Feuillien, Floreffe, and Val-Dieu.
Abbey beers mainly came into being following World War II when Trappist beers experienced a new popularity. The Abbey beers were developed to take advantage of the public's interest in the Trappist beers. This is why the single key component of an Abbey beer is its name: there is always the name of a monastery (either real or fictitious). Like the Trappist beers, Abbey beers do not connote a beer style, but rather a marketing term; however, since the purpose of Abbey beers is to imitate the Trappists, like the Trappists, most of their beers are either a dubbel or tripel.
Belgian beer types
Modifications of British-style ales that were developed in the first half of the twentieth century to accommodate the discerning Belgian taste. During the past 20 years, amber ales were gradually disappearing. When still produced in Mont-Saint-Guibert, Vieux-Temps
was the perfect example of Brabant Wallon amber ale style. Nowadays, one can find Belgian Pale-Ale crafted with respect of the brewing tradition in different places. The 5% abv De Koninck
brand with its distinctive spherical glasses ('bollekes') is popular in its native city Antwerp
British-type bitters and hoppy beers
A few Belgian beers are pale and assertively hopped, like an English bitter
or India Pale Ale
. De Ranke's "XX Bitter" wears its allegiance on its sleeve. Poperings Hommelbier
is another example, hailing from Belgium's hop-growing district.
Blonde or Golden Ale
Duvel is the archetypal Belgian blonde ale, and the most popular bottled beer in the country as well as being well-known internationally. Its name means "Devil" and some other blonde beers follow the theme -- Satan, Lucifer, Brigand, Piraat and so on. The style is popular with Wallonian brewers, the slightly hazy Moinette being the best-known example. Delirium Tremens can be considered a spiced version.
Dubbel has a characteristic brown color. It is one of the classic Abbey/Trappist types, having been developed in the 19th century at the Trappist monastery in Westmalle. Today, some commercial brewers using abbey names call their strong brown beers "Dubbel". Typically, a dubbel is between 6 and 8% abv. In addition to the dubbels made by most Trappist breweries, examples include Sint Bernardus Pater, Maredsous 8
and Witkap Dubbel.
Dubbels are characteristically bottle conditioned.
This beer is the basic recipe for what was traditionally a range of three beers of increasing alcohol content. Unlike the words "dubbel" and "tripel", it is currently not in use by either Trappists or abbey breweries as the name of a beer.
Typified by Rodenbach
, the eponymous brand that started this type over a century ago, this beer's distinguishing features from a technical viewpoint are a specially roasted malt, fermentation by a mixture of several 'ordinary' top-fermenting yeasts and a lactobacillus culture (the same type of bacteria yoghurt is made with) and maturation in oak. The result is a mildly strong 'drinking' beer with a deep reddish-brown color and a distinctly acidic, sour yet fruity and mouthy taste.
Lambic beers (including Gueuze and Fruit Lambics)
Lambic is a wheat beer brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium (southwest of Brussels) by spontaneous fermentation. Most modern beers are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer's yeasts, Lambic's fermentation, however, is produced by exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies. The beer then undergoes a long aging period ranging from three to six months (considered “young”) to two or three years for mature. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavor: dry, vinous, and cidery, with a slightly sour aftertaste.
Lambic can be broken into three subclasses: Gueuze, Kriek and Framboise, and Faro.
The first of these, gueuze, blends both old and young mixtures to stimulate a second fermentation. Many are laid down like fine wines to age for several more years. In its most natural form, Lambic is a draught beer which is rarely bottled, and thus only available in its area of production and a few cafes in and around Brussels. Major brands include Mort Subite, Belle-Vue, Cantillon and Saint-Louis. Some more mainstream brewers like Mort Subite and Saint-Louis do not subscribe to the orthodox rules of lambic production, adding extra sugars to sweeten their beers. Gueuze, also known informally as Brussels Champagne, is a sparkling beer produced by combining a young Lambic with more mature vintages. Exponents of this style are Girardin, Oud Beersel, 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon and Boon. Fruit beers are made by adding fruit or fruit concentrate to Lambic beer. The most common type is Kriek (made with cherries). Other fruits used are raspberry (Framboos), peach and blackcurrant. Kriek and Framboos blend the fruit to trigger the second fermentation. The last of the Lambic brews, Faro, adds sugar or caramel to prompt the fermentation.
Oud bruin, or Flemish sour brown ale
This style, aged in wooden casks, is a fuller-bodied cousin to the sour red style. Examples include Goudenband and Petrus.
farmhouse pale ales
, brewed mainly in the French-speaking region of Wallonia
. The saison or seasonal beers are somewhat low in alcohol (by Belgian standards) and are characterized by a light to medium body. The lighter and often fruitier taste makes them ideal for the warmer season.
These sweet, heavy-bodied brown ales represent a style which originated in the British Isles. The Caledonian theme is usually heavily emphasised with tartan and thistles appearing on labels. Examples include Gordon's, Scotch de Silly and Achouffe McChouffe.
subdivide into sweet and dry versions, with considerable variation in strength. Examples include Callewaerts and Ellezelloise Hercules. The sweeter versions resemble the almost-defunct British style "Milk stout
", while the stronger ones are sometimes described as Imperial stouts
is a low-alcohol (typically not over 1.5%) brew sold in large bottles to be drunk with meals. The last decade it has gradually lost popularity due to the growing consumption of soft drinks
and bottled water
. It comes in blonde or brown versions. Table beer used to be served in school refectories until the 1970s; in the early 21st century, several organizations made proposals to reinstate this custom as the table beer is considered more healthy than soft drinks.
This is, traditionally, the strongest (in alcohol) of a range of Trappist beers. Although the version developed by Westmalle in 1934 was blond, the color can range to near-black (Westvleteren and Rochefort). The term "tripel" has since been adopted by non-Trappist breweries to signify a strong ale.
This type of beer, commonly called witbier
in Dutch, biėre blanche
in French and Wheat beer in English, originated in the Flemish part of Belgium in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, it is made with a mixture of wheat and barley. Before hops became widely available in Europe, beers were flavored with a mixture of herbs called gruit
. In the later years of the Middle Ages, hops were added to the gruit. That mixture continues today in most Belgian/Dutch white beers.
The production of this type of beer in Belgium had nearly ended by the late 1950s. In the town of Hoegaarden, the last witbier brewery, Tomsin, closed its doors in 1955. However, ten years later, a young farmer, by the name of Pierre Celis, in the same village decided to try reviving the beer. In 1966, Celis began brewing a wit beer in his farm house. Ultimately, his beer took the name of the village and became very successful and famous.
Some notable current examples are Celis White, Blanche de Namur and Watou's Wit. Their alcohol strength is about 5-6 percent ABV, and these beers can be quite refreshing, especially during the warm summer months. The herb mixture traditionally includes coriander and orange peel, among other herbs. White beers also have a moderate light grain sweetness from the wheat used.
Winter or Christmas beers
Many breweries produce special beers during December. Most contain more alcohol than the brewery's other types of beer and may also contain spicing. An annual beer festival in Essen, Belgium focusses on this type of beer.
- Good Beer Guide to Belgium, Tim Webb, CAMRA Books, ISBN 1852492104
- Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition, Phil Marowski, Brewers Publications (2004), ISBN 0937381845
- Great Beers of Belgium, Michael Jackson, ISBN 9053730125
- Lambicland: Lambikland, Webb Tim, Pollard Chris, Pattyn Joris, Cogan and Mater Ltd, ISBN 0954778901