There’s no doubt about it — Belgium is the perfect destination to drink good beer. This country, known as one of the Lowlands (along with Luxembourg and the Netherlands), has tasty beer and a fabulous beer culture.
With approximately 180 breweries in the country, Belgium has a style of beer to match your taste buds. But there’s more than simply beer. There’s certain glasses for specific types of beer. There’s a revered history. And the Belgian government has requested that the beer culture be added to the UNESCO Intangible Culture List. So it’s about more than just the beer itself.
So how did Belgium become so well-known for its beer?
Let’s begin with a little history
Beer has been brewed in Belgium since around the 12th century. It began in the abbeys as a way to make some money. The beer was low in alcohol and served as an alternative to the water which was not to be trusted.
Over the centuries the process evolved, under the supervision of the abbeys, into the traditional, artisanal method we have today.
The Trappist beer came into being around 1836. This beer is brewed in the Trappist monasteries and is one of the first “Belgian” beers. But before that, in the 16th and 17th centuries, crabbalaer was a popular beer brewed in Ghent. At one point there were more than 50 different breweries producing more than 6 million liters per year.
A little more about Trappist beer and Abbey beers
So the Trappist beer is one of the older types of beer and one of the most famous of Belgian beers. For a beer to be a Trappist beer, it must be brewed in a monastery and the monks have to be involved in the production and the policies. The profits from the sale of the beer must be used to support the monastery or social programs outside of the monastery. There are only 10 monasteries that meet these qualifications — 6 of which are in Belgium.
But other than these guidelines, the beer itself can be whatever it wants. So a Trappist beer is more about where it’s made and where the money ends up than the style of beer, although they are mostly top-fermented. This means that the beer uses a yeast that ferments at higher temperatures than bottom-fermented beer.
An Abbey beer, on the other hand, is any beer that is made by a non-Trappist monastery. An abbey beer can also be a beer that is brewed under license to an abandoned abbey or a monastic order. The monastery has to have some control in order for the beer to have the logo associated with it. And a proportion of the profits must go to the abbey or its charities.
Other types of Belgian beer
Most Belgian beers run the gamut just like they do in America.
There are Amber ales which are popular in Antwerp. One of the most popular is De Koninck.
Blonde or golden ales are a lighter version of pale ales. These are often made with pilsner malt. Duvel is the one of the most popuar beers in Belgium.
Brown ales or brune beers are darker than amber ales and not as strong as a dubbel. Grottenbier is a well-known brown ale.
Champagne beers are finished in the same method as champagne meaning they receive a second fermentation and are stored for several months. The bubbles are smaller and softer, like Champagne.
Dubbel (double) is a brown beer and is one of the classic Trappist/Abbey styles of beer. It tends to be higher in alcohol at 6-8%. Some of the most popular brands are St Bernardus Pater and Adelarus Dubbel.
Flemish Red is made from specially roasted malt. It’s fermented by a mixture of several top-fermenting yeasts and a bacteria that is also used in the making of yogurt. This gives it a distinctive acidic, sour yet slightly fruity taste. Rodenbach is one of the most famous of the Flemish Red beers.
Lambic beers are wheat beers mostly brewed in the Pajottenland region which lies southwest of Brussels. They use wild yeasts and bacteria native to the Senne valley rather than the usual brewer’s yeasts. Lambic beers also undergo a longer aging period. The result is a dry, wine-like flavor with a slightly sour aftertaste. Gueuze, Fruit Lambic and Faro are 3 subclasses of Lambic beer.
Oud bruin, otherwise known as Flemish sour brown ale is a cousin the the Flemish Red. It’s aged in wooden casks, like wine. Goudenband and Petrus are 2 popular examples.
Pils or pale lager are the beers that you see the most in Belgium. These are the mass produced beers like Stella Artois and Jupiler.
Saison is a low alcohol pale ale mostly brewed in the Wallonia area of Belgium. These beers are seasonally brewed in the farmhouses of the area. Once thought to be a dying style of beer, Saisons have seen a resurgence in the past few years.
Tripel is typically a strong pale ale. Westmalle’s Tripel is the most famous and is the tripel most copied.
White or wheat beer called witbier in Dutch is made from a mixture of wheat and barley. These beers were dying in the late 1950’s but began to see a revival in the 1960’s. Wit beers, as they are commonly called especially here in the USA, are great summer time brews. Celis White and Watou’s Wit are a couple of popular white beers.
What’s up with the different glasses?
Just like wine, the aromas and flavors of the beer are simply “more” in the proper glass. And with beer, it’s important to maintain the head of the beer (the foam). Different glasses are better at holding that head for different types of brew. Here are a few glasses you’ll see in Belgium:
- Tulip glass – This is a round glass with a slight flare at the top. It is typically stemmed. It’s one of the more common glasses to drink beer from in Belgium as it helps trap the aroma yet maintain a large head on the beer.
- Champagne flutes – These are used for Lambics and some fruit beers. This narrow shape keeps the bubbles and the fruit aromas contained.
- Chalices/goblets – These are large, bowl-shaped glasses with stems and are used for Trappist and Abbey ales. Goblets have thinner glass and, as such, are more delicate. Chalices are heavy and thick.
- Pokal or Pilsner glass – This is the tall, V-shaped glass with a stem. These glasses usually hold 12 ounces of Pils or Witbier while maintaining the head of the beer.
This all leads to the beer culture
And what a beer culture it is! I mean, the Belgian government is trying to get the beer culture on the UNESCO list. It’s definitely special and really meaningful to the Belgians.
So what’ the best way to experience the beer culture?
Beer festivals are an awesome place to start. They’re plentiful and they take place year round. So no matter when you plan your trip, you’ll most likely be able to attend one of the many celebrations of beer. What a fabulous and fun way to delve into the beer culture!
There are several museums dedicated to beer and brewing across the country. This is an excellent way to learn more about the history and traditions of beer and beer making in Belgium. And naturally visiting one of the breweries is another great way to learn more about the brewing process. Some of the breweries also have museums as part of the tour.
Another way to experience the beer culture is to simply go to a restaurant. You’ll find an array of beer choices to accompany your meal. It’s quite like wine — pairing your food with the right beer to compliment the flavors of both. Sometimes you’ll even find the chef uses beer in his/her dishes.
Naturally there are cafés where you can simply sit and have a beer. On a nice day, find an outdoor table, relax and enjoy a glass of Flemish Red or Trappist beer. Cheers!
All photos courtesy of Pixaby.