One of my main reasons for going to Belgium was to sample as many of their delicious beers as I could. As I was only there for 3 days, I think I did a pretty damn good job in my sampling, though I must admit it was a lot more fun than it was work!
Beer is a huge part of Belgian life, and according to Wikipedia, there are around 180 breweries in Belgium, a country of less than 11 million people.
Belgians have a variety of traditional beer styles, many of which are not commonly found elsewhere, though luckily for those of us who can’t regularly visit Belgium, craft brewers are now trying their hand at formulating beers based on traditional Belgian recipes and techniques.
I am a self-proclaimed lover of all that is beer, but when I visited Belgian I was still relatively new to the craft beer and home brew scene and thus had a lot to learn about the different styles and flavours that can be found in Belgian beers. Before getting into my Belgian beer review, I will first explain a little about the various types of beer commonly found in Belgium, since the style is what primarily influences the expected smell, taste, and feel of the beer you order.
Trappist beers are one of the most famous types of Belgian beer as they are brewed in Trappist Monasteries. The name refers less to the style and more to the origin of the beer though, since for the beer to gain the Trappist certification, the brewery must be in a monastery, the monks must play a role in its production, and the profits from the sale of the beer must be used to support the monastery and/or social programs outside. There were 7 certified Trappist breweries in 2011, six of which are in Belgium plus one in the Netherlands. The beers are mostly top-fermented, but otherwise have very little in common stylistically.
Abbey beers are similar to Trappist beers, but do not meet all of the specifications required to receive the Trappist designation. Abbey beer may be:
Abbey beers also receive certification, which I view as pointless since it’s essentially just a marketing technique employed by brewers, but there were eighteen certified beers in 2011.
(Ambree and Speciale) are similar to English pale ales, but are less bitterly hopped.
Darker than amber ales, less sour than Flemish brown ale, and less strong than dubbel.
Generally ales that are finished à la méthode originale for champagne.
Classic Abbey/Trappist types with a brown colour. Typically, a dubbel is between 6 and 8% ABV and is usually bottle conditioned.
Lambic is a wheat beer brewed in the SW of Belgium via spontaneous fermentation from exposure to wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Senne valley (Brussels area). These beers have a distinct flavour that is dry, vinous, and cidery, with a bit of a sour aftertaste. Lambics can be broken into the subclasses of Gueuze, Fruit Lambic, and Faro. These beers taste very different from how you would an expect a beer to taste. While an acquired taste, they can be delicious and are definitely worth trying if you visit Belgium.
The bulk of beer production and consumption in Belgium. These beers are not really distinctive and are what you are used to from mass produced beers all over the world.
Belgian Strong ales can vary from pale to dark brown in colour. They are usually medium to full-bodied and are high ABV. Often, these are described as dubbels or tripels. You won’t want to drink a pint of these potent beers, but they can certainly warm your soul on an otherwise cold day.
Traditionally made with a mixture of wheat and barley, and often other additives, rather than just barley malt, hops, and yeast like ‘regular’ beer. Before hops became widely available in Europe, beers were flavoured with a mixture of herbs called gruit, and then later in the Middle Ages, hops were added to the gruit. That mixture is still used today in most Belgian/Dutch white beers, usually with adjuncts (additives) like orange peel and coriander. The production of this type of beer in Belgium had nearly ended by the late 1950s, and in the town of Hoegaarden, the last witbier brewery, Tomsin, closed its doors in 1955. Thankfully, in 1965, a milkman who used to help at the brewery revived the style and it can now be found all over the world. Their alcohol strength is about 5-6 percent ABV, and these beers can be quite refreshing, especially in hot weather. White beers also have a moderate light grain sweetness from the wheat used.
Many breweries produce special beers during December. Most contain more alcohol than the brewery’s other types of beer and may also contain spicing.
As I toured around the country I had my “Beer List” in my back pocket and with every beer that I sampled I made tasting notes which I have elaborated on below. Although my taste buds have greatly matured since my visit to Belgium, and the recent explosion of Craft Beer has helped me better identify subtle nuances in beer, the below list still serves as a decent general guide to what you’ll find in Belgian beers. If you are interested in beer, I would highly recommend making your own Beer List while in Belgium to track your favourites.
Light Blonde Honey Ale – 8% ABV – Strong notes of honey, and leafy hops. Coriander and orange rind also prominent. Lingering mild sweetness. Common Belgian beer taste.
Stout – 9% ABV – A black beer with a huge brown head. Tastes roasty, with some some coffee, caramel. I enjoy my stouts and I enjoyed this beer, especially on a cool night in February.
Belgian Ale – 6% ABV – Gold body with big head. Quite hoppy with citrus on the nose. Taste is also quite hoppy. I enjoyed this beer and would certainly drink it again, especially in warmer weather when I want something strong but refreshing.
Wheat Beer – 4.8% ABV – Pale blond with thin white lager-like head. Aroma gives plenty of wheat and herbs. Taste is surprisingly lemony and naturally wheaty. Better Belgian beers available in my opinion.
Pale Blonde Ale – 6% ABV – Crowned with a white head, blooms with a fruity pronounced aroma, hints of lemon, and hits the palate with a refreshing dryness, embellished by hints of spices and orange, balanced by an underlying faint malty sweetness. It is a good beer, but I much preferred the double.
Ale – 7.5 % ABV – Reddish brown in colour, creamy head, rich full taste with touches of malt, caramel and hops. My favourite beer from Belgium, though I suspect a large part of that is that I sampled it fresh of the taps at the brewery in Bruges.
Trappist Strong Ale – 9% ABV – Medium dark red amber color. Heavy light tan head. Citrus and floral nose. Light malt and caramel with a citrus and floral hop finish. An enjoyable beer that can be found in most international markets.
Abbey Tripel – 10% ABV – Pours a bright golden yellow color. Aromas of hops, fruit, and a little yeast. Has a light fruit taste, with some yeasty notes, a touch of orange, and a good hop flavor. A tasty beer that would be great in the summer months, if you’re only planning to have one (given its potency).
Flemish Sour Ale – 5.5% ABV – Deep red with a thin lasting off-white head. Aroma is sour, with cherries, vanilla, citrus, and wood. Taste is sweet, but also quite sour. Lots of cherry and very acidic. Dry finish with a little more vanilla. I really enjoyed this beer for a sour beer, which is a taste I’m still getting used to.
Strong Ale – 9% ABV -Ruby brown with thin white head. Black-licorice with dark fruit elements. The anise character presents a nice dryness and spark to the mouth feel. I really enjoyed the flavour of this beer, but it left me with a strange soapy feeling on the tongue.
Strong Ale – 8.5% ABV – Wheat with citrus fruit, bananas and layers of malty flavors. I didn’t find the beer exceptional, but did enjoy it. My favourite thing about this bar is the name – Clarissa, my drinking partner, is in med-school, and she told me that Delirium tremens is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that involves sudden and severe mental or nervous system changes. The perfect beer to have last when trying to sample all of the beers at the Delirium Cafe!
Champagne Beer – 11.5% ABV – I’ll admit I didn’t have this beer in Belgium, but rather at a bar in Calgary 2 weeks prior to my trip to Belgium. At $48 a bottle at the bar, this is not your every day drinking beer! I did see it available for 20€ in Brussels, but am not sure it’s worth that price if its beer you’re after. I could definitely see buying a bottle of DeuS, instead of champagne, for special occasions though. This beer is very high in carbonation, has crisp fruit and yeast flavors. Flavours include green apple, pear and apricot notes with a nice light malt beneath and each sip finishes sweetly with a little semi-dry bite on the end.
Strong Pale Ale – 8.5% ABV – Several Belgians we spoke to said that this was their favourite regular drinking beer. This is a bold beer with a zesty fruitiness to it with taste of plums, hops, and a hint of sweet maltyness. It is also tart with a bit of spicyness on the nose. Duvel is one of the best ‘mass marketed’ Belgian Strong Ales.
Fruit Lambic – 3% ABV – More lime flavoured than cactus, this is an interesting beer compared to other Belgian brews. It reminded me of an artificial lime sweetened American beer. Definitely not my favourite, though people who don’t like beer *gasp* may like it.
White Fruit Beer – 3.6% ABV – A wheaty beer with a lemon cake fruit flavour. Not bad, not impressive. Something I may drink on a patio in the summer if I want something light and different.
Strong Pale Ale – 7.5% ABV – Smells of sour apples, sweet malt, fermented fruit, spice, some funky yeast and wood. There’s a little bitter hop in the mix as well. The taste is a bit piney, with aged wood flavors. An interesting beer that made me feel like I was walking through a forest.
Spiced Beer – 7.5% ABV – The aroma was very piney with some spice and floral tones. There was also some honey, citrus notes, and lime. Another interesting beer that had me imagining I was floating through thousands of pine trees.
Tripel – 8% ABV – Strong on the bready malts. Nice hop taste with hints of banana,pineapple and more fruits. Worth having if you’re in Ghent but not my favourite.
Dubbel – 6.5% ABV – Deep amber colour. Cherry & raisin flavours, with a little brown sugar and spiced apples, with a little caramel malt. It’s not a bad dubbel, but not my favourite either.
IPA – 5.5% ABV – Taste is mainly bitter with some citrus, yeast, a bit of grain and a tiny bit sweet. Lots of good carbonation and good body but has a very long finish to it. A bit too bitter of a beer to drink repeatedly, but not worth trying.
Gueze – 6% ABV – This was the first Gueuze style beer I tried so my tasting notes may not properly reflect the tastes of the beer since it was already so different to anything I had previously tasted. My favourite explanation off Beer Advocate says this beer ” Starts off with a big sour kick slowly giving way to hints of dirty gym locker funk, green apples, fresh cut citric fruit and a touch of vanilla / oak sweetness. Finish is quite dry, lingering for some time.” I noted myself that there were flavours similar to those present in the Sideria ciders of Northern Spain, but once again, it was difficult to really nail down flavours as my first Gueueze style beer.
Strong Ale – 8.5% ABV – Taste is both sweet and sour at the same time. Mandarins, citrus and hops bundled together. A bit musty and slightly dry, it did have nice carbonation in the mouth.
Wheat Beer – 4.9% ABV – I love the Hoegaarden glasses, though it’s more marketing than beer. Big and easy to grip, the heavy over-sized glasses certainly show off the cloudy colour of unfiltered wheat beers. Flavourful. Orange and coriander taste with a slight maltyness and bready taste. Not really any bitterness. A pretty average beer, but better than most other mass distributed beers.
Stout – 9% ABV – Starts out slightly bitter, probably from then roasted grains than the strong hops. There are tastes of coffee, plum and prune flavors, and also some milky chocolate tastes. The roasty flavor that dominates is a bit acrid, but it’s a beer worth trying for stout lovers.
Golden Ale – 8.5% ABV – A superb golden ale from the Maes brewery. Clear gold, strong complex flavours with a dry aftertaste. Not too heavy in body and quite lively.
Pale Lager – 5.2% ABV – Tastes like a generic Pilsner. Mass produced beer for those big nights out. A drinking beer rather than a tasting beer.
Tripel – 8.4% ABV – A warm, sweet aroma and matching fruit flavour of fruit of bananas, citrus, grape, some wheat, some bread, and spice (coriander shows itself, maybe clove too).
Fruit Beer – 8% ABV – I saw lots of Belgians drinking this beer out of its cool rounded glass so I thought I must try one. After tasting it, I realized it was mostly women drinking this ‘beer’. It is a very sweet beer, not something I would normally drink! My notes reflect that it tasted like a flat Dr. Pepper with lots of cherry flavour. Not my idea of a man’s drinking beer.
Strong Pale Ale – 8.4% ABV – The taste is sweet to begin with having flavours of caramel, spices, honey and dark fruit. It also has the Belgian yeast and hearty malt character. The hops presence is mild but brings some balance to the beer. The after-taste is slightly sweet. Not bad, but not a favourite either.
Abbey Pale Ale – 6.6% ABV – I’ve had this beer many times overseas, after seeing a cute little Spanish stewardess drinking one with both hands out of the typical large fish bowl glasses in Dubai. Small girl with big beer – heavenly! I tried one while in Belgium as it is one of the widely distributed beers, and the taste was the same as I recalled from previously. The smell of the beer is fruity and rich with a sweet taste. I also note a bit of spiceyness mid-sip. The mouthfeel was very fulfilling with a sort of fizzy bitter aftertaste.
Abbey Beer – Dark Ale – 6.5% ABV – A smooth beer with rich caramel, toffee and buttered bread taste. After each sip a nice caramel corn flavour lingers. A good beer for those Belgian beers widely available, but not a favourite if other options are available.
Trappist Pale Ale – 6.9% ABV – A great Trappist beer, with a gentle bready start, floral perfume middle, and dry, bitter, hoppy close. One of the more unique ales I’ve tried. A little dry and sour, with a spicy, peppery taste that keeps it fun. My favourite Trappist beer!
Fruit Lambic – 2.5% ABV – Not sure why I bought this one – I guess the label had something to do with it. This beer has a sweet peachy flavour, with the slight lambic sourness mid-sip. A bit too sweet for me, and with the low ABV, I’d be just as happy drinking juice…unless of course, the girl on the label came with the beer!
Fruit Beer – 5% ABV – This beer is from a brewery called Brasserie de Silly, which is fitting since I think this is a pretty silly beer. The German girl I was with ordered it, and agreed that it was definitely a chick beer as it tastes like Grapefruit Soda. I guess something I may have on a patio on a really hot day, but otherwise, a beer to avoid.
Pale Ale – 10.5% ABV – Flavours are very sweet with hints of caramel or toffee, banana and clove, and candied orange peel, with a little bit of honey. The beer does a great job of hiding the alcohol taste as well. Not a session beer, but something I would drink again.
Trappist Quadruple – 11.3% ABV – A well balanced trappist beer, especially given the alcohol content. There is some sweet malt and fruity yeast flavour with a nice bitterness. I really enjoyed the dark fruit flavors mixed with the touch of alcohol that cleanses the palate for the next sip. A great beer for when it’s cold outside as the flavours just made me warm. I’m sure the 11.3% ABV helped too!
Strong Pale Ale – 7% ABV – The smell of this beer is great, with lots of exotic fruits, mango, pineapple and some melon. The malt is biscuity and a little doughy. The taste is like the smell, but maybe with some orange and lemon is as well. The beer is slightly dry, and not too sweet. There was no taste left on my tongue, making this a potential session beer. In fact, I did have a couple of ’em while in Brussels!
Abbey Tripel – 9% ABV – Very cloudy bottle-conditioned beer that smells of of yeast and orange, with spicy herbs and a malty note. Active carbonation gives an earthy, thick, tickling mouthfeel that I would almost describe as musty. Taste is a bit sour, mostly of grapefruit and yeast – with a lot of herbs – camouflaging the alcoholic sweetness in the background. Finish is dry and bitter, but not as dry as the Gueuze style. I’m not really into dry and bitter beers, but this is a unique example of one.
Pale Lager – 5% ABV – A widely available beer, I have had this beer numerous times all over the world. It’s a bit skunky, and a pretty typical lager with a bit more hoppyness. A session beer if there aren’t better options available on the menu.
Tripel – 9% ABV – A bit sweet, but also hot and peppery followed by some green apple, banana, orange peel and grass, with a honey flavour offering the sweetness. A nice flavour overall, but I preferred the Brugse Zot Double.
Quadrupel – 11% ABV – A very dark beer, that smells of dark fruit, yeast and a hint of alcohol. The flavours are relatively smooth considering the alcohol content, including hints of caramel and rich malts lend to a nice flavor of brown bread. There are also notes of alcohol and a hint of dark fruit which lingers nicely on the palette. At the time, I thought this was a delicious brew considering the alcohol content, but after trying a variety of high ABV Belgian beers, I’d say this fits in the middle of the pack.
Strong Ale – 8% ABV – Smells of roasted malt, coffee, chocolate, dark fruit, and pine tree. Taste is very smooth, with charred malt, coffee, and chocolate. I’ consider it a semi-sweet beer, with hints of brown sugar offering the sweetness. A good winter beer!
Wheat Beer – 5.9% ABV – A nice wheat beer with flavours of vanilla and pear on top of the usual Belgian sweetness. A nice example of a wheat beer and something I would drink again.
Trappist Dubbel – 7% ABV – Pours a murky dark brown and smells of bready malt, dark fruits (especially grapes), and sweet candy sugar. Taste is of slight candy sugar and dark fruits such as plum, prune, grape, and raisin with a bready malt aftertaste. There is a slight earthy bitterness on the palate after each sip. This beer has a higher level of carbonation with a crisp, bubbly mouthfeel. Not a bad trappist beer.
I was happy I tried all of the beers in this list, but if you have a chance to try Brugse Zot Double, Villee, Piraat, Orval, Duvel, and Forestinne Primoria or Mysteria you definitely should. Belgium is certainly one of my favourite beer brewing nations and worth a trip even if just for the beers!
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