Belgian Beer Guide

It's not possible to objectively say which country makes the best beer, but Belgium is certainly the most impressive beer producer in the world. It's not just the sheer number of breweries and beers there are but also the astounding strength of most of their ales stands out as well. In a bar you will find an array of different ornate glassware produced for the different types of beers and will often find a beer list that is longer than the wine list in a high class restaurant. Belgium also produces some of the most experimental beers around and it seems there is very little that brewers haven't tried to see if it would work.

The vast majority of Belgium's beer output is ales that are 6% abv or higher. Part of the reason for this is the "Vandervelde Act" in 1919 that prohibited the sale of spirits in pubs. This lead to brewers brewing increasingly strong beers at a time when many other European countries were either weakening the strength of their beer or prohibiting it completely. The act remained in place until 1983 and will have had a major impact in developing a beer drinking culture where people regularly drink very strong beers at a bar. This can come as a shock to English tourists who are used to beers no stronger than 5% abv and you are advised to start slowly!

Brewing in Belgium goes back to the middle ages when monks were brewing table beer as a way of sustaining themselves and as it was healthier than the dirty water available. There are 6 Trappist monasteries in Belgium where the monks brew beer that sold to members of the public. These are Achel, Orval, Westmalle, Chimay, Westvleteren and Rochefort. Of these Chimay and Westmalle are the most widely available whilst the Westvleteren beers are only available at the monastery itself (see the Notable Breweries page for more information on Westvleteren). The trappist beers are enduringly popular so it is unsurprising that many commercial breweries have attempted to get in on the act. This has lead to a wide range of "Abbey Beers" which are broadly similar in style to the authentic trappist ales but which are not brewed by monks. Some of these beers are produced in association with the monastery whose name they take, often using an old recipe, whilst others have not link to any monastery past or present. Whilst the trappist beers are the geniuine article the St Bernardus, Affigem, Maredsous, Kappitel and Tripel Karmaleit abbey beers are equally good. The abbey beer styles in increasing order of strength are Blonde or Pater ales (around 6% abv), dark Dubble ales (around 6-8% abv), light coloured Tripel ales (8-10% abv) and very dark Quadruple ales (10%+ abv). More information on abbey beers can be found in the beer styles pages.

Belgian wheat beers (witbier) are distinct from the German and English styles. They usually include corriander and orange peel to give them a fruity, spicy taste and will usually be served unfiltered giving them a cloudy colour. Belgian wheat beers had been dropping in popularity and their resurgence can be credited to one man - Pierre Celis. He had worked at the Tomsin brewery in Hoegaarden before it closed down in 1955 and ten years later he started brewing a witbier in his own farmhouse. What started out as a plan to make something for people in his own village steadily grew in popularity. By the 1980s the beer, now named after the village of Hoegaarden, was bought by the multinational that would evolve into InBev. Pierre Celis has since used the money he made to set up breweries elsewhere (which he then also sold off for a tidy sum). As such as well as Hoegaarden you will find a number of similar beers called Celis White that bear Pierre's finger prints. As well as the usual Hoegaarden you will find stronger and spicier versions called Speciale and Grand Cru. Most breweries now have a witbier in their range - St Bernardus, Veddet and Ellezelloise Saisis are good examples.

There are a number of types of beer that are pretty much unique to Belgium. The most traditional is Lambic. These are beers made by spontaneous fermentation where instead of the brewer adding a specific strain of yeast they have cultivated to cause fermentation they instead leave the beer in shallow trays to allow natural yeast to settle. These beers are sour and musty but if you can acquire a taste for them they have superb depth of flavours. The traditional lambic brewers are Cantillon, Girardin, Oud Beersel, Drie Fountain, Boon and Hanssens and their beers are all of a high quality. You will find more commercial approaches adopted by Timmermans, Mort Subite and Lindemans though some of their beers are still well worth seeking out. Many lambic beers are mixed with fruit. The best of these are the sour cherry beers by the traditional brewers known as Kriek that use real fruit. There are a lot of fruit lambics made with syrups, most notably the Most Subite and Belle Vue krieks whilst Timmermans make a lambic for pretty much every type of fruit - including the fictional Ninkleberry. These are generally aimed at a market that likes it's beers sweet.

Other sour beers made in Belgian include the Oud Bruin and Flemish Red Ales that are usually aged in oak casks and have a cherry edge to them. The king of these beers is Rodenbach Grand Cru which uses beer that has been aged in oak casks for two years to give a beer of astonishing depth and flavour. Another great example is Duchesse de Bourgogne from the Verhaeghe brewery. Aside from the various specialist beer types most Belgian beers get categorised as either blondes or bruins and can taste hoppy, malty, spicy, fruity or just kick you a solid alcoholic kick in the head. The standard of Belgian beers is generally pretty high so if you just dive in you should get something decent, however it's worth identifying a few key beers you'd like to try and to look out for these.

However despite all these positive there are some dull realities that existing in the Belgian beer market. There are still the same interchangable array of bland Lagers that you will find everywhere in the worlds with Jupiler, Bel and Vedett being the local variants. The Belgian versions of these lagers are no match for the German and Czech originals and it certainly doesn't seem to be an area that talented brewers have any particular interest in improving. The most famous lager is Stella Artois which is now made by multi-national brewer InBev who has tried to their best to squeeze other brewers out. However along the way InBev have acquired some classic Belgian beers such as the Belgian wheat beer Hoegaarden which they still produce to a good standard (though many will claim it's not as good as it was. InBev along make a range of abbey beers called Leffe which can be found on supermarket shelves the world over and make for a decent introduction to Belgian beer. It's certainly better than you should expect for a company with a close eye on the bottom line.

Other Belgian brewers have tried to go toe to toe with InBev, most notably the Moortgat brewery whose showpiece beer is Duvel, a strong blonde ale that weighs in at 8.5% abv. Duvel manages the impressive trick of being a superbly made and uncompromising beer that is also widely available in places that don't really care about their beer selection too much. The Maredsous range of abbey beers is better than some of the authentic trappist equivalents and they even make a solid wheat beer called Veddet White. The brewery has been going since 1871 and is still majority family owned but the equipment is all modern and geared to high output production, but without sacrificing quality - a lesson to all.

A good Belgian bar is a wonder to behold with an astonishing range of beers on offer and the glassware to match. Many Belgian bars have great character too with wood panelling, hops hanging from the ceiling or random stuff stuck the walls. You will find that some bars focus on food, which is usually good hearty stuff with some interesting flavours and cooking approaches, whilst others will offer you a selection of pate or cheese. The pate and cheese go very well with the beer and are worth shelling out a few euros for. Some of the trappist breweries also produce cheeses so you can pair your beer and cheese. The majority of Belgian beers are sold in bottles and most of these are bottle fermented, meaning the beer has been developing with time and that there will be a layer of sediment in the bottle. Most Belgian beers are improved by pouring the sediment into the glass after swilling the bottle, though this varies with taste and the beer in question. Some bartenders have turned the pouring of beers from bottles with this swilling action into an artform that adds to the theatre of enjoying beer in Belgium. You will find a small range of beers on draft in most bars, some of these taste distinctly better than their bottled counterparts, with Westmalle Dubbel being a prime example. As such it's usually worth checking out what's on draught first and picking up some bottles from a bottle shop to enjoy in your hotel room later. The bottle shops usually have an incredibly wide selection and can be open until quite late in the evening.

Visiting Belgium makes for a good holiday. As well as the quality of the food and beer the major tourist centres of Brussels, Bruges and Ghent have some fabulous architecture and some high quality museums that can be visited very cheaply using a museums pass (check the tourist information office when you arrive). Belgium is also easy to get to, either by flying or using the Eurostar which goes direct from London to Brussels in around 2 hours. A eurostar ticket includes free onward travel to any Belgian city if you travel the same day so if you are travelling to Antwerp, Bruges or Ghent you just hop on a connecting train from Brussells Midi station and flash your eurostar ticket at the conductor (make sure you get on a faster IC train rather than a slower IR train and check the times of your connections in advance on the internet to know which train you need to catch).

The majority of people in the tourist industry will speak English, but it's useful to have a sprinkling of the language to help you around. This a little confusing in Belgium where there are two national languages - French and Dutch (Flemish to be precise). Brussels splits between the two, though French usually wins out for tourist signage, whilst Bruges and Ghent are in the Flemish heartlands so favour Dutch. This means that dark beers will be called donker rather than bruins and you need to say dank u vel rather than merci. Bars that are worth seeking out in Brussels include Poechenellekelder, A La Becasse (for their selection of lambics), Mort Subite (for it's ambience) and Bon Vieux Temps amongst many others. The Delerium bar has the widest range of beers available but feels like a gloomy American college bar. It's also worth dining at t'Spinnekopke which specialises in beer cuisine. In Bruges the main bars of note are Garre and Brugs Beertje whilst the Eramus hotel is centrally located with a cracking stock of beers (one of the few places to stock unsweetened Liefmans cherry beer) and a decent restaurant. There is a also a superb restuarnt nearby called Den Dyver which does some of the worlds finest beers cuisine and offers an unmissable menu with beers matched to each course. Whilst Bruges can get quite quite in the evenings Ghent suffers no such problem, though you may tire of hen parties if you are walking between bars on a Saturday night. The best bars in Ghent include Dulle Griet, Trollekelder and Trappistenhuis whilst Waterhuis ann de Bierkant combines a superb selection of beers with great ambience and a canalside location.

Five Belgian Beers To Try -

1. Westvleteren 12: Dark bitter trappist ale that is stunningly smooth. Almost closer to a liquor than an ale. A base that is a coffee tasting porter, with a spiced fruit top and a smooth middle. A beer so well balanced that it trips all the tastes receptors on the tongue equally and is absurdly packed with flavour. Deceptively drinkable and very fine indeed. The best beer in the world? There certainly aren't any finer.

2. Moortgat Duvel Rood: Straw coloured strong ale (8.5%) that floats like a butterfly on the palate whilst still packing a hefty taste.

3. Girrardin Gueuze 1882: Sharp and sour beer with a fruity note and little if any sweetness. Very impressive and very interesting. Truly one to savour.

4. Palm Rodenbach Grand Cru: A superb example of a strident beer. A syrupy sweetness competes with a taste of sour cherries whilst a gentle gassiness lifts the taste and a deep oaky base grounds it. Aged for 24 months in oak barrels and well worth the wait.

5. Ellezelloise Quintine Ambree: Dark amber beer with a thick body, deep caramel flavour and a slow building bitterness. It has a roasted caramel aroma and deep spiced corriander finish and a nice sweet edge. An intoxicating (8.5%) spiced toffee apple of a beer.