There is so much to love about Belgium, and beer is at the top of the list! Our running tours to Belgium would not be complete without tasting a few (or, maybe a few cases) of the best beer in the world. Belgium has over 160 breweries and more than 1,100 beer brands. Some pubs in Belgium have over 400 beers available — they break out the “Trapper-Keeper” when you ask for the beer list! I have had people tell me that they “don’t like beer,” and to me, that is like saying, “I don’t like food.” With over 700 taste profiles, you are bound to find a beer you love (and, maybe even some you don’t!)
Below, I’ll give you a quick primer on Belgium beer. Some of the information is a bit “beer-geeky”, but you’ll need to join us on a tour to taste for yourself how amazing and unique some of these beers really are! (But, you don’t need to be a Beer Geek to enjoy it!)
The Beer Glass
The Belgians take their beer very seriously. Each beer has it’s own glass, which is meant to enhance and highlight the beer’s particular qualities. The glass may be wide-mouthed, tall, or fluted, with or without a stem, tulip-shaped or straight – and, it will be branded with the name of beer you are drinking. If, for some reason, a bar doesn’t have the correct glass available, they will ask you if another glass is acceptable, or if you would like to order a different beer — that’s how important the correct glass is!
In Belgium, don’t insist on ordering a “tap” beer. Many brewers “bottle condition” their beer (this means the final fermentation happens in the bottle) and other small producers (such as Westvleteren) package their beer only in bottles.
What the heck does “Trappist” mean?
A Trappist brewery has a strict legal definition. This has nothing to do with the style of beer, but rather it is about who made the beer – Trappist monks. The designation “Trappist” on a beer label guarantees the following: the beer was produced at the monastery, monks manage the brewery and production, and the proﬁts beneﬁt the community and social services. Therefore, these monastery breweries are not out to maximize profits — the proceeds must only be for the monastery’s upkeep and the monks’ social services. (But, I think keeping our taste buds happy is a very worthy social service!)
The six Trappist breweries are: Westmalle, Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Achel and Westvleteren. (You can also find two Trappist breweries in the Netherlands, and one each in Italy, Austria and the U.K., and even one in the U.S.A.)
An Abbey beer is similar to Trappist, but it does not have as strict of a definition. The beer may be produced at a monastery, but not a Trappist monastery (for example, it may be produced by Benedictine monks), the beer may be produced by a commercial brewery in partnership with a monastery, or it may even be a commercial brew branded with the name of a defunct abbey.
Belgian Beer Styles
There are no strict beer styles in Belgium – two beers may technically be the same “style,” but they may have completely different taste profiles. (So, be prepared to taste lots of different beers to find your favorite!) But, below are some general guidelines for the beers you will taste in Belgium.
Belgian White Ale (Witte / Witbier)
Brewed with wheat, this beer has a unfiltered, hazy and very pale color – giving it it’s “white” name. It is often brewed with orange peel and spices. It’s a great beer for a warm summer day. (Alcohol – 4.5% – 5.5%)
The name is said to originate from the beer requiring twice as much grain as a “regular” beer. This style has been brewed by monks and secular breweries for centuries. Dubbels are typically dark brown in color and it’s flavors are malt-driven — dried fruit, chocolate-caramel with very little (or no) hop bitterness. (Alcohol – 6% – 8%)
As with the Dubbel, the Tripel required three times the grain of a “regular” beer. Even though the Tripel is higher in alcohol than the Dubbel, it is much lighter in color (a yellowish, golden color versus the dark red or brown of the Dubbel). The flavors will be spicy with bright fruit with tons of carbonation. The alcohol is often not very detectable in the flavor, so be careful with this one! (Alcohol 7.5% – 10%)
Strong Blond Ale
This beer is similar to a Tripel, but it is a little less sweet and more bitter. It will have some fruity and spicy flavors and dry finish. This is what most people think of when they think “Belgian beer.” The name is often a give-away for this style — Duvel (meaning “Devil” in Flemmish), “Lucifer” or “Delerium Tremens.” (Alcohol – 7.5% – 10.5%)
Strong Dark Ale
A Belgian strong blond ale may be a close cousin to a tripel but a Belgian strong dark ale is not closely related to a dubbel. One important distinction is that the strong dark ale often uses roasted malt, which achieves a darker color and more toasty ﬂavor than a dubbel. The flavors are rich, sweet, bready, and caramel-like with dark fruit notes like prunes, plums or ﬁg. This style includes the Westvleteren 12 which many beer connoisseurs describe as the best beer in the world. (Alcohol – 8% – 12%)
Sour beers could be a complete article by themselves! Sours are made with spontaneous fermentation – the beer vats are left open to wild yeasts in the air. This produces unique flavors and sometimes very sour flavors. There are a couple different sub-types: Flanders Red and Brown Ale are generally aged in oak barrels where the microorganisms help to create the sour, almost vinegary flavors. Lambics, Geuze, Oud Bruin & fruit beers – these use open fermentation and are mostly brewed near Brussels. These can range from sour to mild and are often blended to achieve a balanced flavor. The fruit lambic beers are blended with strawberry (Framboise), cherry (Kriek) or other fruits. The fruit lambics can be sweet or slightly sour — some people compare them to a dry champagne. (Alcohol – 5% – 7%)
Most of the Beglian beers have a relatively high alcohol content. Be mindful of this and make sure you don’t over-indulge! Those cute cobblestone alleys can get a bit tricky after a few 10% beers!
Taste for Yourself!
We will be tasting many Belgian beers on our Great Breweries Marathon & 25k Tour and the Great Bruges Marathon & Half Tour. You’ll get to see our favorite pubs in both Antwerp and Bruges, plus there will be ample time for you to explore bars & breweries, and, finally, we will head out to the countryside to visit the Westvleteren Trappist Abbey tasting room where you get taste the famous Westvleteren 12. Cheers!
I’m enjoying a La Chouffe for happy hour (and, heck, maybe I’ll follow it up with a Leffe Brune!) and reminiscing about the Great Bruges Marathon & Half! It was a great race and a fantastic tour! Our Spring & Fall 2018 tours will be on our website in the next few days!!