A Beginner's Guide to Belgian Beer



For such a small country, Belgium has an astonishingly wide range of breweries and beer styles. Add to this the fact that the number of different beers carried in many bars are often numbered in the hundreds (for example, Kulminator in Antwerpen lists over 400 beers on its menu) and someone new to Belgian beer can easily feel overwhelmed by the choice available. It's not for nothing that the Confederation of Belgian Brewers describes the country as "Beer Paradise."

One note of caution: Belgian beers are usually much stronger than British ones. You might be used to drinking beer that's say 3.5% to 5%, but in Belgium you'll find that 5% is one of the weaker beers. 7% or 8% are common and even 10% or 11% isn't exactly rare. Fortunately you'll usually be served smaller amounts of beer than your normal pint, but do please take care.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive guide to Belgian beer (but see further reading for suggestions) rather an introduction to get the first-time visitor to Belgium started on the world's most wonderful beer culture. The author doesn't claim any great expertise on the subject, merely an enthusiasm for Belgium and its beers and a desire to introduce others to the pleasures of this wonderful country.

Fortunately, these days it isn't always necessary to visit Belgium to taste the country's wonderful beers. Many British pubs and supermarkets now sell at least a small range of Belgian beers. However, the number of beers which make it out of the country on a regular basis represents only a small proportion of what can be found in Belgium. Once you've got a taste for Belgian beer, there's no substitute for a trip over to enjoy it on its home ground.

A note on languages:
Belgium has three officially recognised languages, Flemish (almost, but not quite, identical to Dutch) spoken by 70% of the population, French, spoken by 25% and German, spoken by 5%. Although they are a generally laid-back people, Belgians tend to be very chauvinistic where their language is concerned; using the wrong one will often be taken as being very offensive. Fortunately the linguistic divide is, with the exception of the capital, pretty clearly delimited; Flemish speakers in Flanders (in the north), French speakers in Walloina (in the south) and the German speakers near the German border. Brussels is officially a bi-lingual city but despite being surrounded by Flemish-speaking areas, the majority of its citizens (about 80%) speak French.This is probably the only mainland European city where using English can be justified. Indeed the two linguistic communities use English as a lingua franca rather than lower themselves to speaking the other language.

The majority of craft brewers are to be found in Flanders and it's probably no co-incidence that the Belgian equivalent of CAMRA (Zythos) is a Flemish-speaking organisation. Wallonia, though having fewer brewers, does still produce some fine beers.

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Help! There's sludge in my bottle!

Don't worry!
Most of the best Belgian beers are "bottle conditioned." This means that the beer hasn't been pasteurised and filtered before it's bottled, so it's still a living thing, not dead like, for example, Newcastle Brown. The reason for this is twofold; first pasteurising beer inevitably has a bad effect on its flavour; that's why Real Ale tastes better than keg. Secondly, because the beer is still alive, it continues to mature in the bottle like a fine wine and can continue to change and improve for many years. This also means that a bottle conditioned beer will still taste superb many years after the pasteurised equivalent has become un-drinkable. It's not just a couple of years, either. I bought a bottle of Oud Beersel Geuze in 1999 which had a "best before" date on the label of 2019. (Mind you, it only lasted until about an hour into 2000!)
The natural reaction of the average British drinker is to avoid drinking any beer that isn't perfectly clear. This isn't for any really good reason, but rather because of a number of myths which have become accepted as "common sense". So should I drink the sediment or not? Different people will find they prefer different beers with or without the sediment. Experiment a bit and see what suits your palate. There's no need to waste money buying one bottle to try without and one with, just pour about 3/4 of the bottle into your glass carefully (the waiter will probably do this for you) and when you've drunk most of that, swirl the bottle to loosen the sediment and pour it in. If it turns out that you don't like it, then you haven't wasted much. If you do like it, it will have really been worthwhile.
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Beer styles

Belgian drinkers are probably the most adventurous in the world when it comes to drinking different styles of beer. I have read that the average British drinker will drink only one type of beer in a year, whereas the average Belgian drinker will drink seven different types in the same period.

As in most European countries, bland lagers, often claiming to be Pilsners, dominate the Belgian market. These will not be described here, since the discerning drinker will consider a Jupiler tap to be more a warning than an enticement.
I have not attempted to give an exhaustive list of beers within the various styles, but rather to make a few suggestions to start you on your way with Belgian beer. I leave the in-depth coverage of the subject to authors with more space available to them. You will find such coverage in the further Reading and useful links sections.

The styles

The Lambic Family

Brewed using stale hops. Fermented using wild yeasts, bacteria and a cocktail of many other (often unidentified) micro-organisms. Matured for maybe 3 to 5 years in cobweb covered wooden casks. Frequently so sour and acidic that the first mouthful can come as a shock. Often infused with fruits.
Who but the Belgians would even think of brewing beer like this? What would a British Environmental Health Officer make of a lambic brewery?

Lambics should be totally disgusting and un-drinkable beers, but on the contrary, they make some of the most delicious, remarkable and refreshing beers you could ever drink.

Unfortunately, the lambic designation has been badly diluted by a Royal Proclamation in 1993 which stated that any beer containing even the tiniest amount of lambic can describe itself as a lambic. This has resulted in some of the larger brewers producing lager-based beers with a small proportion of lambic in them but selling them as lambics. The only real protection is the term Oude Geuze (or Oude Geuze) which must only be used to describe a beer containing 100% (or nearly so) pure lambic and re-fermented in the bottle.
Cherries going into Kriek
Cherries being added to a barrel
of lambic to make Kriek

Cantillon Geuze
Lambic beers fall into four categories:
Barrels at <span lang=nl>Cantillon</span>
Geuze maturing at Cantillon brewery

A few suggestions

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Wheat Beers

Can there be a town in Britain where you can't get a glass of Hoegaarden? Probably the most readily available Belgian beer after the awful Stella Artois (which in any case is actually contract-brewed in Whitbread's factories) this beer re-established the popularity of wheat beers in Belgium; they had all but died out by the mid-seventies.
Unfortunately, Hoegaarden has been dummed-down a fair bit by InBev, who are planning to close down the brewery and transfer production to their Jupille fizz-factory.
You can recognise wheat beers by the fact that they're often called "blanche" (if from Wallonia) or "wit" (from Flanders.)
Perhaps the greatest service Hoegaarden has rendered is to remind the British drinker that a beer that's cloudy isn't necessarily off. The protein haze that is typical of wheat beers only disappears when they've had all the flavour filtered and pasteurised out of them.
Spices are very commonly added to Belgian wheat beers, something that would make a German brewer blanche!

A few suggestions

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Brown Ales

Liefmans Bruin Brown ales are a particular speciality of East Flanders, but are of course brewed all over Belgium. Beers designated as Old Browns are (or at least should be) blends of young and old beers. They are frequently quite acidic, although not as much so as lambics.
Some brewers infuse their brown ales with fruit in a similar manner to the lambic brewers. Although the sweet/sour balance is less pronounced, some of these are very popular.

A few suggestions

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Red Beers

Red beers are a particular speciality of West Flanders. They get their colour from the dark malts used in their production. Like geuzes, red beers tend to be blends of old and young brews. To make the similarities greater, they are sour, although never so sour as the most extreme geuzes and often it is barely noticeable.

A few suggestions

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Saison Silly Very much a Walloon speciality, particularly from the west of the Hainault province, these beers are not at all common in Flanders. As the name suggests these are seasonal beers traditionally brewed during the cooler months of the year, to be drunk during the summer. Many Saison brewers can trace their history back to traditional farmhouse breweries. To my palate, Saisons have a rather cloying mouth-feel, rather reminiscent of Dutch Bok beers.

A few suggestions

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Trappist and Abbey Beers

Once upon a time, when drinking water wasn't to be trusted, every abbey brewed its own beer to sustain its monks and provide refreshment for visitors. Today, brewing is only carried out in a small number of monasteries, although many commercial brewers produce beers with monastic connections; some real, others imagined. Many of these beers are produced under license from the associated monastery, which receives a royalty on each bottle sold. Such is the commercial cachet of the abbey connection, a good many beers exist which, while trying to imply a monastic connection, actually have none.
Only beer brewed under the direct supervision of Trappist monks may be designated as "Trappist" beer. There are currently seven such breweries, six in Belgium plus a single Trappist brewery in the Netherlands
Rochefort 8 The Trappist brewers
Even the most determined atheist will find the best Trappist beers impossible to resist. Whilst not exactly justifying the existence of religion, they certainly represent one of its few benefits to mankind.

A few suggestions

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Belgian Ales

De Koninck Bolleke
The classic De Koninck Bolleke
glass. Looking rather forlorn
with no De Koninck in it...
The "ordinary" ales of Belgium are frequently anything other than ordinary. Generally bronze or copper in colour and relatively low in alcohol (relative to the average Belgian beer, that is) many of these ales were developed as a response to the encroachment of Pilsner-style lagers in the 1920s. Probably the most readily available is Palm, although this isn't a particularly exciting example.


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Golden Ales

This is not a designation commonly used within Belgium itself, but it is a useful way of describing a number of strong, light beers. Expect an alcohol content in the region of 8% or more and a light, almost Pilsner-like colour.

A few suggestions

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Speciality Ales

Belgian brewers produce so many distinctive beers that it's impossible to categorise them all. Some are in styles that are restricted to a particular province, some just to a single town or are even produced by just one brewer. Some are ancient traditional styles, others have been invented in recent decades. Try as many as you can; undoubtedly you will detest some, but you will most certainly find others which delight you and make you want to come back for more.

A few suggestions

With such a wide range of styles to choose, it would be impossible to suggest representatives of all styles; these are just a few which I have found enjoyable. Oerbier Back to top
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Further Reading

The most comprehensive guide to Belgian beers is probably Michael Jackson's Great Beers of Belgium. The only major weakness of this book is that Jackson seems reluctant to say anything negative about any beer, which suggests to me that his association with the Confederation of Belgian Brewers may be too close for him to be regarded as a truly independent writer. Despite this, the book is highly recommended.

For "on the spot" information on drinking in Belgium, the best guide is Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium (published by CAMRA) which contains details of bars in every major (and many minor) town in the country, together with extensive brewery and beer listings. Tim has also recently published Lambicland (with Chris Pollard & Joris Pattyn) which is a good guide to Lambics and the Payottenland bars they can be enjoyed in.

Tromp's Beer Traveller in West Flanders is a good guide to that particular province, written by well-known beer-tour organiser, Simon van Tromp (Available from the Beer Traveller site)

Classic Beer Styles: Lambic by Jean Xavier Guinard is a good read if like me you fall in love with this particular beer style.

Useful Links

Zythos is the Belgian Equivalent of CAMRA.
The Belgian Beer Pub Map will help you find some of the best beer bars in Belgium.
All About Geuze is a useful reference to the lambic family.
Beer Paradise Belgium is the home of the Confederation of Belgian Brewers.
HORAL is the umbrella organisation for Lambic brewers.
Beer Traveller is Simon van Tromp's travel company, organising beer tours to Belgium and beyond, mainly from East Anglia.
Michael Jackson has his own site as well, covering not just Belgium but many other countries too.