Belgian beer contains the most varied selection of beers in the world. Belgian beer is unlike beer from the Czech Republic or Germany, in that it does not follow any purity laws or strict methods of brewing. This means an extremely varied selection of beers is on offer, many of which can be included among the finest beers in the world. Belgian brewing dates back almost one thousand years, and it is often regarded as the finest beer producer in the entire world.
Why Belgian Beer Is Different
Beers in Belgium are generally unlike many other European beers. Firstly, they are usually stronger than most English or Czech Beers. The weaker beers are at least 5%, with stronger beers around 8%. There are even beers up to 10% and above. Also, most Belgian beer is bottle fermented. This means it is still maturing within the bottle, and contains sediment. The beer is usually not clear, although this does not mean it is bad. In fact, the bottle fermentation process means the beer lasts many years, often improving with age. There are many unique brewing styles in Belgium, and the easiest way to distinguish beers is to separate them into various style categories. The most famous of Belgian beer styles include Pilsners, Trappist Beers, Lambics, Witbeirs, Abbey Beers and Saisons.
Belgian Pilsner Beer
Belgians Pilsners are typical lager beers, which are refreshing and crisp, if somewhat lacking in flavour. The most popular Belgian lager beer in Europe is Stella Artois, although other notable lagers include Jupiler and Maes Pils. These beers are often the weakest brewed in Belgium, and are usually around 5%. They are easy to drink, but compared to other Belgian varieties they lack character.
Lambics are an extremely unique beer, and although they sound strange can be some of the most refreshing brews around. Lambics are made using stale hops and matured with various yeasts and bacteria for three to five years. They are extremely acidic and sour, and unlike most other beers around. The most pure of all Lambic beers are the Gueuze family, which are made from almost 100% Lambic. A good introduction to this brewing unique style is Mort Subite Gueuze, which is not too sour and has a distinctive fruity flavour. If you get used to the sour taste, then try one of the more extreme examples like Cantillon, which produces some of the most sour and acidic yet extremely interesting Lambics around.
Witbeirs, or Wheat beers as we generally call them, have enjoyed a resurgence in Europe in recent times. This is mostly due to the popularity of Hoegaarden, and has shown the public that cloudy beer really can taste good. Other excellent examples of this style include the beautifully refreshing Wittekerke and the consistently tasty Vlaamsch Wit.
Saisons, as the name suggests, are seasonal beers made to be drunk during the summer months in Wallonia. They are usually thick, cloying beers that are quite hard to find, but nevertheless enjoyable. Dupont is the finest example of a Saison, although the most readily available of the Saisons is the strangely titled 'Silly'.
Trappist and Abbey Beers
Perhaps the finest of all Belgian beers are the Trappist and Abbey beers. These beers originated from the fact that drinking water was not to be trusted, so monks brewed their own beer to sustain themselves and provide refreshment for visitors. Abbey beers are more commercial these days, although Trappist beers are still very much traditionally made. There are just six Belgian Trappist breweries, all of which are under the direct supervision of Trappist monks. The largest and best known of the Trappist beers is Chimay. There are a number of different types of Chimay, although the dark, complex flavours of Chimay Blue are perhaps the best. Be warned however, this beer is over 9% and is extremely strong, so make sure you only drink it in small quantities! However, the best of the Trappist beers has to be Westvleteren, although it is also the hardest to find. This Trappist brewery does not advertise or distribute its beer, and so only a limited number of places have the beer in stock. Of the Abbey beers, the most widely available are Leffe Blonde and Maredsous, both of which are excellently malty and extremely drinkable products.
Other Famous Belgian Beers
There are almost too many Belgian beers to mention, with over 500 varieties on offer. However, no guide to Belgian beer would be complete without mentioning the Belgian Ales De Koninck and Duvel. These two beers are the best place to start your Belgian beer drinking, as they are really easy to find throughout Europe, as well as being wonderfully flavourful. If you want to experience beer paradise, then try some Belgian beer.