Food & Drink

Everything You Could Ever Possibly Need to Know About Belgian Beer

Published On 04/09/2016 Published On 04/09/2016
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Anyone who has been to Belgium can tell you that it is easily one of Europe's most overlooked countries. It's a place loaded with history and tradition that's as fascinating as it is charming. But on an everyday scale, outside all of the culinary and historical aspects, it may be hard to top the contributions it's made to the world of beer.

Especially before the great craft beer boom, Belgian beer has been a gateway for people looking for beer beyond the lawnmower variety. The one downside to this? Studying Belgian beer as an outsider can be confusing. And with more and more brewers popping out Belgian-style beers, now more than ever, it pays to know more about Belgium than simple Bloodsport quotes.

With that in mind (and a saison in hand), we're here to lay it all out in one spot, from what each style is to prime examples you can get in a US beer store (thus, you’ll see some American breweries in here). It may not make you a pro, but it’s a great place to get started (or excuse to "study up" on styles more often). You'll thank us the next time you’re in the beer aisle wondering exactly what a "framboise" is.

Author’s Note: Categorizing Belgian beer has baffled people for as long as beer has been a thing -- even Belgians themselves, who are notoriously hard to baffle! For the sake of ease, and in keeping with one of the only coherent categorizing systems there is out there, we've decided to use the BJCP style guidelines and names. If you pick up a book somewhere and see some of the styles merged into one group or swapped, don't be confused or mad: there is no right answer in some of these cases... just delicious ambiguity and confusion.

Flickr/Jos Dielis (edited)

First things first: what the hell does Trappist mean?

It probably makes the most sense to start with a definition of a term that most people have heard but few understand. Trappist beers by legal definition are produced within the walls of a monastery (that's right: monks!) in a centuries-old tradition that dictates everything from style specifications to how money made from the sale of the beer can be used. As of now, there are 11 designated Trappist breweries in the world, with more than half in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one each in Italy and Austria... and as of 2013, even one in the good ol' US of A! Those Trappists make all the styles below. So, with that and a hallelujah, let's roll.

Dubbel

Booze factor: 6-7.6%
How’s it taste: Malt-driven, rich, and raisinated dried fruit flavors, with practically no hoppiness present and a dry finish
What you should know: According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, the name may come from the medieval practice of marking beer barrels with "X's" to denote alcoholic strength, since most people were illiterate. The "XX" mark thus became known as "dubbel," and we still call it that today even though at least half of the brewers out there can read and write.
What you should eat with it: BBQ is the layup pairing option here, especially pulled pork or ribs
Prime examples: Chimay Red, Corsendonk Pater, New Belgium Abbey, Sierra Nevada Ovila

Flickr/Yumi Kimura

Tripel

Booze factor: 7.5-9.5%
How's it taste: Spicy, bright fruit with a ton of carbonation and a truly deceptive lack of an alcoholic burn despite the higher ABV
What you should know about it: Even though they are higher in alcohol than dubbels, tripels somewhat confusingly are lighter in color (more of a yellowish golden color as opposed to dubbels' darker brown). Most would argue that the best versions of this beer are not on draft, as bottle conditioning is seen by many as a vital step in producing a well-balanced tripel.
What you should eat with it: Any rich, fatty, or creamy foods, like New England clam chowder, short ribs, or grilled lamb skewers with tzatziki
Prime examples: Westmalle Tripel, Chimay Cinq Cents (White), Unibroue La Fin du Monde, Brooklyn Local 1

Belgian dark strong ale

Booze factor: 8-12%
How's it taste: In most cases, these are big, bold, and intense, with spices (cloves and pepper) and dried fruit (like figs, cherries, and plums) blending to create a balance of sweetness, malt, and alcohol.
What you should know about it: If you were wondering where "Trappist quadruple" was on this list, you've found it! This is a difficult-to-define category that boasts some of the most sought-after beers in the world (especially the Trappist ones like "Westy" 12). This is sometimes the style you're also dealing with if you see a label sporting "Abbey ale."
What you should eat with it: Think big: pungent Stilton blue or washed-rind cheeses, grilled meats, hefty stews, or rich chocolate desserts all work well here. Perfect for Philly cheesesteaks with onions and mushrooms.
Prime examples: Westvleteren 12, AleSmith Grand Cru, Allagash Avance, Boulevard The Sixth Glass

Allagash Brewing Company

Witbier

Booze factor: 4.5-5.5%
How's it taste: Citrusy and fruit-forward, balanced fruit and spices (usually because of ingredients being used) with practically zero hop presence (the spices are what are front and center for aromas here). It's uniquely refreshing, bright, and satisfying beer when done well.
What you should know about it: Witbiers are usually the first Belgian-style beer people try without realizing they’re drinking something of foreign roots. Unlike their German cousins, witbiers can be made with fruit ingredients like orange peel, or aromatic spices such as grains of paradise and coriander. It's practically synonymous with warm-weather drinking these days, but the style actually almost disappeared in the '50s after the last brewery specializing in witbier ceased operations. The next time you're sipping a witbier in the sun, you can thank Pierre Celis and Hoegaarden for bringing the style back from near death.
What you should eat with it: Witbier goes well with eclectic meals like brunch, where foods like egg dishes or bagels and cream cheese with lox are prominent. It also works with lighter appetizers like summer salads with light dressings or baked chicken made using plenty of herbs and spices. And oh my God! Lobster rolls. Lobster rolls!
Prime examples: Fantome Blanche, Allagash White, Stillwater Cellar Door, Hitachino Nest White Ale

Flanders red

Booze factor: 4.5-6.5%
How's it taste: A medium-bodied beer with fruity flavors (black cherry and currants) that can be bracingly sour, tannic, and complex... which often draws it comparisons to red wine
What you should know about it: This beer is aged in oak barrels for up to two years, which is historically what gave it its distinct sour edge. Microorganisms living in the wood affected fermentation, including lactobacillus and acetobacter, which is the same bacteria that eventually turns wine into vinegar.
What you should eat with it: This is an admittedly hard beer to pair with food, but you can do just fine with cheese (veer more towards gamey and barnyardy rather than sharp or overly stinky). A friend once recommended it alongside fried food, and I swear fried clams have never tasted better than during that pairing.
Prime examples: Rodenbach Grand Cru, Duchesse de Bourgogne, Bruery Oude Tart

Oud bruin

Booze factor: 4-8%
How's it taste: Think of this as a cousin of Flanders red: there are fewer sour notes, darker chocolate or caramel flavors with notes of figs or dates, and a very dry finish.
What you should know about it: While they’re relatively similar styles, oud bruins are less fruit-forward and vinegary than Flanders reds (even though this didn't used to be the case). One of the big defining differences between the two is that oud bruins today use stainless-steel barrels for aging instead of wood. Also, don't feel weird if you've never tasted or even heard of this style: other than straight lambic, it’s probably the most obscure style of the Belgian bunch in terms of how widely it's represented outside its home country.
What you should eat with it: Similar to Flanders red, stick to earthier cheeses like Brie de Meaux or Camembert, fried foods, or meat dishes without any heavy, overbearing sauces
Prime examples: Petrus Oud Bruin, Ichtegem Oud Bruin

Flickr/Tom Webster

Belgian blond ale

Booze factor: 6-7.5%
How's it taste: Medium bodied with a much smoother flavor favoring slightly sweet fruitiness and maltiness over spice (although you can still tell it’s got that Belgian pepperiness). You can tell it was designed to be easy-drinking: the BJCP guidelines describe it as "[often having] an almost lager-like character."
What you should know about it: Blonds are a younger beer style that developed in response to lighter beers like Pilsner booming in popularity through Europe. This is the part where adherence to history and modern innovation make classifying Belgian styles pretty frustrating. If you ever find yourself beating your head against the wall wondering if something is a Belgian blond or Belgian pale ale, just remember that even some seasoned tasters sometimes have trouble tasting the difference.
What you should eat with it: Doing this alongside Indian or Chinese takeout always seems to work well, since blonds will be able to help cut spiciness and stand up to bolder flavors without having too much to lose in the process
Prime examples: Leffe Blond, Affligem Blond, Green Flash Rayon Vert

Flickr/Ted Thompson

Belgian pale ale

Booze factor: 4.8-5.5%
How's it taste: A smoother beer with much less spiciness or floral character than most other Belgian styles (although there's still plenty of fruit on the nose and palate). Perceived hoppiness is even a thing here, especially on the dry finish.
What you should know about it: This is Belgium's answer to session beer, or lower-alcohol brews that you can drink more than one of without running the risk of getting goofy. You could also look at this as Britain's greatest influence on a Belgian brewing style, which was developed during the 18th century, and can use British yeast strains or hop varieties.
What you should eat with it: Mussels, clams (especially fried), peel-and-eat shrimp, and fish & chips all go well with this style, where the fruitiness works well with the natural sweetness of the seafood
Prime examples: Palm Speciale, Ommegang Belgian-Style Pale Ale (BPA)

Belgian golden strong ale

Booze factor: 7.5-10.5%
How's it taste: What most people think of when they think "Belgian beer": fruity flavors of apples, oranges, and pears with spice and a dry finish. It might help to think of it as a reined-in tripel.
What you should know about it: The original commercial example of this was created by Duvel in response to popularization of pale beers. If you're ever unsure if what you’re drinking is a golden strong ale, a devil reference in the name is a dead giveaway (as you might've guessed, Duvel is the Flemmish word for "devil"), which pokes at how easy they are to drink despite their higher alcohol content.
What you should eat with it: Hearty fish like salmon, or aromatic spicy food like bánh mì or drunken noodles
Prime examples: Duvel, Russian River Damnation, North Coast PranQster

Lambic

Booze factor: 5-7%
How's it taste: Straight lambic and geuze will be relatively sour and earthy/barnyardy/funky with almost no hop bitterness. Straight lambics use spontaneous fermentation, are practically uncarbonated, and will vary greatly from batch to batch, whereas geuzes offer a bit more stability in that regard. Being fruit lambics, krieks and framboises (as we’ll discuss below) will obviously taste like their namesake ingredients, but the good-quality versions will never taste syrupy or candy sweet.
What you should know about it: So much to be said about this style, so little time! Historically, lambic is a rustic style that's made using spontaneous fermentation, which means that the beer uses ambient yeast from the surrounding environment to turn wort into beer. You can break the style down into four categories: geuze, framboise, kriek, and straight lambic. Geuze (or "the Champagne of Belgium") is a blend of at least two different aged lambics to create a consistent product, which is almost exclusively served in bottles. Straight lambic is practically uncarbonated and can only really be seen on tap in the Senne Valley around Brussels, so if you're looking to check this off your beer bucket list, start looking at airfare!

Fruit lambics are somewhat more known in the US (most assume lambics all contain fruit). Sometimes it's even easy to figure out which ingredient is being used if you paid attention in French class in high school! Framboises are made with raspberries and krieks are made with cherries, but there are plenty of examples where blackberries, apricots, or other local fruits are thrown into the mix.
What you should eat with it: Fruit lambics are fantastic for pairing with desserts like Black Forest cake, creme brulee, or cheesecake, especially if they're using the same fruit as a sauce. Like Champagne, geuze is a layup pairing for everything from pasta to popcorn (and any mushroom-centric dishes seem to especially love it).
Prime examples: Cantillon Grand Cru Bruocsella (the only bottled straight lambic), Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l’Ancienne, Boon Kriek Mariage Parfait, De Cam Framboise Lambiek

Flickr/quite peculiar

Saison

Booze factor: 3.5-9.5%
How's the taste: This will forever be one of the most difficult beers to categorize, as its color, ABV, ingredient bill, and overall profile will vary so wildly that calling it "manic" is an understatement. The defining thread is the yeast strain used, which gives it the telltale white pepper notes on the finish.
What you should know about it: How do you cram enough information in a space this small on a style you could write an entire book about? The style was first developed in the French-speaking region of Belgium for seasonal farmhands (called "saisoniers") who needed something to drink in the absence of clean water. Part of the manic nature of the style comes from the earliest versions using pretty much anything that was plentiful and on hand at the farm, leading to the huge variation in flavors. If you see one marked as a "table beer," it means it's on the low end of the ABV scale (usually below 5%).
What you should eat with it: The beauty of pairing saisons with food is that you can't overthink it because it’s pretty hard to screw it up. The rules usually dictate that rustic dishes go best with it as a rustic style of beer, so stews and roasts and the like are fair game. But being such a varied style, it can work with almost anything from spaghetti to pizza to pad Thai. Whenever all someone knows is that they're going to be ordering takeout for dinner, I always recommend a saison to take home for the meal.
Prime examples: Saison Dupont, Boulevard Tank 7, Great Divide Colette, Stillwater Classique

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Zach Mack is Thrillist's contributing beer writer, the owner of Alphabet City Beer Co. in NYC, a newly minted Certified Cicerone®, and nothing else. Follow him: @zmack.

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