Belgium is home to the most diverse variety of beers worldwide. Belgian beer culture is strong and proud, from delicate lagers to boozy, complexly flavored abbey beers and the immaculately fermented lambic styles. Nearly every town has its own museum devoted to beer or brewing ingredients, not to mention several fantastic beer-focused pubs specializing in the region’s beer styles.
What to expect when drinking beer in Belgium
Belgian beer culture is a remarkable and unique experience that any beer lover should experience. Beer is everywhere in Belgium, and each town is immensely proud and protective of its local offerings. In the north, it is easier to order in English, and, personally, the Dutch that is primarily spoken is easier to decipher than the French and Flemish in the south. In the north, expect a variety of Belgian Pale ale and Abbey beers. These beers are generally strong and malty with hints of dark fruit. South of Brussels, you’ll find areas like Wallonia specializing in saison, gueuze, and lambic. Of course, there are a variety of secular and Trappist breweries that offer unique beers produced with the same techniques that have been perfected over decades – even centuries.
Glassware is essential to Belgian brewers. Each beer may have its own glass that is believed to enhance its best qualities. These glasses also help market each beer and set them apart from the thousands of other beers available.
When I visited Belgium, I truly enjoyed the pub experience. However, it is strikingly different from what you might expect in the US or even in Germany, which borders Belgium to the east. You’ll sit at a pub and be presented with a menu that may rival that of a small novel. After making your selection and being served your beer, you may not see your server again. Now, if you were in Cologne, you would not have to wonder where your server was; they always ensure you have a full beer glass. I’m not saying one experience is better or worse; it’s different. And I’d advise you to sit back, relax, and enjoy the atmosphere while sipping your beer.
One way to enhance your beer experience in Belgium is to order it with food. Beer and Belgian food complement each other perfectly, and beer-paired meals are common in Belgium. A bowl of moules and frites (Mussels and French Fries) is delicious with a peppery saison dupont. I preferred ordering the standard meal at the Trappist monasteries, which usually consisted of a hunk of cheese, country pate, a few slices of bread, and mustard. No matter what beer I was drinking, the combination always slapped.
What types of beer styles do Belgian brewers make?
In general, Belgian beers share the traits of most abbey beers. These beers are strong and fruity. In America, we have a narrow understanding of the styles and think that a Belgian-style beer needs to be overly spicy from a particular type of ale yeast, but I found that to be misunderstood. There are all kinds of Belgian beer styles – even new craft beer options – but they tend to be robust, complex, and fruity with a dry finish.
1. Chimay Blue Grand Reserve
Type: Trappist | ABV: 9% | Calories: 270
Chimay beers are brewed in the southern town that shares its name. The Chimay beers are some of the most widely recognized Trappist beers and are responsible for much of the success of Belgian beer in the US in the early 2000s. Chimay Blue was first brewed in 1954 as a Christmas beer. The beer is big and rich with complex flavors that work well with the strong, washed-rind cheeses produced at the monastery.
2. Rochefort 8 | Trappistes Rochefort
Type: Trappist | ABV: 9.2% | Calories: 280
Since 1595, Trappistes Rochefort has been producing beers of exceptional quality. Rochefort beers don’t have names; instead, they are numbered 6, 8, 10. These numbers roughly refer to their gravity and subsequent strength. The brewery also produces a Belgian tripel. Rochefort 8 is a dark, malty beer with subtle bitterness and notes of caramel. The strength offers a warming character between friends who share a bottle.
3. St. Bernardus ABT 12
Type: Abbey Quadruple | ABV: 10% | Calories: 300
Beer brewed by secular beer companies is forbidden from using the Belgian Trappist beers’ mark, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t on par with the quality or flavor. St. Bernardus abt 12 is an example of a Belgian beer that can be called one of the best Belgian beers. This dark strong Belgian ale blends malted barley, Belgian yeast, and hops to craft a beer with dark fruit flavors, candi sugar, and a slightly sweet finish. Beer enthusiasts can attest to its reputation as being one of the world’s best beers.
4. Saison Dupont | Brasserie Dupont
Type: Saison | ABV: 6.5% | Calories: 195
By and large, Belgian beer bucks the hoppy flavors trend, instead choosing to showcase characterful Belgian yeast and spicing. Saisons tend to be bone-dry beers brewed with pale malt. They have a spicy aroma and subtle floral notes. Saison Dupont is the saison all others look up to. This farmhouse ale will tantalize your taste buds with lemon-peppery notes accentuated with lively carbonation. Dupont is perfect on its own or with a bowl of moules.
5. 12 | Westvleteren (Saint Sixtus Abbey)
Type: Trappist | ABV: 10.2 | Calories: 260
Often referred to as – not just the best Belgian beer – but the single best beer in the world, Westy 12 is undoubtedly a bucket list beer. This dark, strong ale is brewed by monks at the Saint Sixtus Abbey. While bottles can be found in Belgium and on the gray market, the traditional way to taste these beers is by calling ahead and ordering the beer from the monastery or at the commissary at In De Vrede. While these extra steps certainly add to the mystique, I can tell you from experience the beer is well worth the effort, and I have no problem with Westy 12 claiming the top spot in the beer world.
6. Rodenbach Grand Cru
Type: Flanders Red Ale | ABV: 6% | Calories: 150
Rodenbach Grand Cru’s fruity, sweet, and sour character is another incredibly diverse and versatile Belgian beer. The blend is a perfect introduction to beer for the wine lover and is equally tasty with a braised beef stew. Beer drinkers will appreciate this dark brown beer with a frothy head.
7. Gueuze | Cantillon
Type: Spontaneously Fermented Beer | ABV: 5.5% | Calories: 130
The best Belgian beers are not only made by monks. Cantillon is world-renowned for its spontaneously fermented beers, which we know as sour beers. Gueuze is a blend of different years of lambic, providing layers of complexity that are truly an experience. The self-guided tour of Cantillon is fantastic, but you can find Cantillon beers in fine bottle shops worldwide.
8. Kriek Mariage Parfait | Boon Brouwerij
Type: Spontaneously Fermented Beer | ABV: 4% | Calories: 120
Cantillon isn’t the only name to know for lambic breweries. Frank Boon is an absolute legend in brewing, and his spontaneously blended beers are works of art. Boon Kriek is aged 18 months on fresh wild cherries in oak barrels. This is an excellent beer to pair with rich, creamy cheeses like Triple Cream.
9. Westmalle Tripel
Type: Belgian Tripel | ABV: 9.5% | Calories: 285
Westmalle Tripel has a golden color and a beautiful creamy mouthfeel. It is bottle conditioned for a depth of flavor, making it one of the most famous Belgian beers. Triple is a pale ale brewed with malted barley, hops, sugar, hops, and water.
Type: Pale Ale with Brettanomyces | ABV: 6.9% | Calories: 205
No list of the most popular and best Belgian beers is complete without the uniquely brewed Orval.
“Orval beer is a high fermentation beer. The ageing process adds a fruity note, which strikes a subtle balance between the beer’s full-bodied yet complex flavor and bitterness.”
Orval’s website says, “The beer was first brewed in 1931 and owes its unparalleled taste to the quality of the water, the hops, and the yeast used. The brewery has selected very aromatic and unique hop varieties, which hark back to the first brewmaster of Orval, who hailed from Bavaria. The beer’s aromas are very pronounced while maintaining the right level of bitterness thanks to the English method of dry hopping.”
What is Belgian Trappist Beer?
Trappist beers are beers brewed on-site at one of 13 Trappist monasteries throughout Belgium and surrounding countries. Trappist monks finance their work by producing products sold to the public. Beer is one of those products that has become widely recognized for its quality. Trappist products are highly protected, and any secular company that claims its product to be Trappist-style is often confronted with litigation. Trappist beer made by secular companies are, thus, referred to as abbey beers.
Belgian Trappist monastery beers are produced throughout the country at these monasteries:
- Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle
- Brouwerij Westvleteren (St Sixtus)
- Bières de Chimay
- Brasserie de Rochefort
- Brasserie d’Orval
Why is Belgian Beer So Highly Regarded?
Belgium is regarded as a top brewing country due to its variety and commitment to Belgian brewing traditions. The country has a long brewing history and has embraced brewing in its culture and universities. The country is home to countless breweries that have been in operation for decades if not centuries, and the popularity of craft beer has only cemented Belgium as a top destination for those who love and are intrigued by beer and brewing.
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