Belgian beers have long been thought of as some of the finest beers produced in the entire world. There are hundreds of breweries in Belgium, and thousands of breweries worldwide, that produce Belgian style beers. Belgian beers have certain characteristics that separate them from beers produced in other countries. In a single word “yeast” is the differentiating factor. The fruity esters and spicy phenols produced by the yeast provide flavors that simply aren’t found in other beer styles that have their origins outside of the Belgian region.
Belgian beers are often times produced in abbeys, but in very special cases are produced by something known as “Trappist” breweries. Though there are hundreds of abbeys that have breweries, there are only a handful of Trappist breweries. To be designated an authentic Trappist Brewery, three specific criteria must be met: 1) the monks producing the beer must be from a certain order, known as the Cistercian order; 2) the monastery must control the brewery; and 3) the brewery’s purpose must cover the sustenance of its monks and provide for the community in which it resides.
Six of the seven “classic” Trappist Breweries (Rochefort, Achel, Westmalle, Chimay, Orval, and Westvleteren) reside in Belgium, while Koningshoeven of The Netherlands serves as the sole outlier. Trappist breweries typically focus on just a few exceptionally crafted Belgian styles. “Trappist,” however, is not a style, but a designation and therefore Trappists and non-Trappists alike can produce the same styles of beers.
What is a Belgian beer? Here are a few of the more popular styles of Belgian brews enjoyed throughout the world.
A style revived by a milkman-turned-brewer named Peter Celis from the town of Hoegaard, Belgium. This light, refreshing wheat beer was and still is traditionally brewed with bitter Curacao Orange peel and coriander to give it a sweet and tart refreshing quality. Cloudy from the high content of unmalted wheat, this beer can be consumed in quantity. Hoegaarden (pronounced WHO’ garden) is the quintessential example of this style.
Belgian Pale Ale
With its signature pear ester flavor and amber color, a Belgian pale ale is quite different from its American counterpart. Not nearly as hoppy, this beer is more of a malt and yeast ester showcase. Ommegang’s Rare Vos is a fantastic example of this style.
This is not a Belgian beer at all, but an American creation that is a twist on the IPA. Traditional ingredients of malt and hops are used, but a Belgian yeast strain is used to ferment the beer, providing phenols and esters that add flavors to the finished product. Stone’s Cali-Belgique is a classic example of this style.
This is a fairly hearty beer (usually around 6.5-7.0 percent alcohol) which showcases rich flavors of dark fruit such as figs, prunes, dark raisins, and plums. The beer is very estery, with these flavors presenting themselves up front, but it finishes dry and clean. Dubbels are excellent food companions due to their adaptability to just about any dish. Westmalle Dubbel is a great example of this style.
This light colored beer can fool a non-suspecting consumer with its 9.0 percent alcohol. Belgian base malt, some optional spicing, and just enough hops to balance, the trippel is refreshing, effervescent and hides its alcohol like a thief, leaving the consumer to realize it only when they stand up from their bar stool and lose their balance! Victory’s Golden Monkey is a nice American example of this Belgian classic.
Belgian Golden Strong
A variation of the tripel that is slightly lighter in color, slightly more effervescent, and a touch higher in alcohol. Duvel is the key commercial example of this beer.
Belgian Dark Strong
Sometimes also known as a Quad, this is the granddaddy of all the Belgian styles, with its richness, complexity, and intense flavor profile. Like the double, it has flavors of dark fruit, including dark cherries, plums, prunes, dark raisins, and much more, but in a more concentrated and extreme package compared to the dubbel. Typically found around 10.5 percent ABV, this is the true definition of a complex beer that is full bodied, full of flavor and the exemplary definition of the art of fine brewing. St. Bernardus 12 and Gulden Draak are fantastic commercial examples of this beer.
Belgians are also known for their sour beers such as Flanders Red (Rodenbach Grand Cru), Flanders Brown (Liefman’s Goudenband), Lambic beers (Lindeman’s Kriek) and Gueuze (Cantillon) to name a few.
Questions about Belgian (or any other styles ofbeers)? Drop us a line! And watch for Barrio Brewing Co.’s first batch of Belgian Dark Strong, out right now to commemorate our 25th Anniversary Celebration.