Belgium Beer Types – What You Need to Know Part 1
If you put most people on the spot and ask them to name something typically Belgian, chances are they will say one of the following; chocolate, waffles or beer. For a small country (compared to the likes of the USA) Belgium has an overwhelming variety of beer, and not just a huge number of breweries, but a rich, complex, culturally and historically significant diversity of beers. For many, Belgian beer is where their love affair with beer began. For some beer lovers, the Belgian beers are their only true love. This article’s mission is to welcome you aboard the Belgian beer booze cruise; to guide you through the deliciously diverse types of Belgian beer.
Let’s get the Belgian ball rolling with a little bit of history. Evidence of beer brewing was discovered at Ronchinne when a brewery and malthouse from the third and fourth centuries AD. was excavated, although it was no doubt being brewed during earlier periods. Through the Middle Ages, beer was brewed using a mix of herbs and spices, known as gruit. There is written evidence of this in 974 AD when the bishop of Liège was granted the right to sell it at Fosses-la-Ville. Gruit was later replaced by hops from the fourteenth century, following the example of imported beers from Holland and Northern Germany. It was not long after this that several Belgian towns began to create their own beers for export, such as the caves of Lier, the uitzet of Ghent and the white beer of Leuven and Hoegaardenof. Monasteries, as in Germany, had a role to play in the development of Belgian beer, but initially, they were only brewing for monastic consumption. Their role in the wider world of Belgian beer did not take place until the late nineteenth century when the Trappists of Chimay developed a brown beer which was made commercially available.
A significant change took place in 1885; a shift in legislation meant that German-style bottom-fermenting beers could now be produced in Belgium; this was the dawn of industrial scale brewing. Belgium has not looked back since! This change, however, did see the number of breweries shrink dramatically; from 3223 in 1900 to just 106 in 1993. Happily, this decline did not mean the traditional beer styles, such as lambic and white beer, were lost and new kids on the block arrived, like the Belgian strong ale and spéciale belge. In 2018 there were around 304 breweries, from the big boys to the Trappist monasteries, catering for a very busy domestic market, and avid international market. Such is the impact of Belgian beer that UNESCO added Belgian beer culture onto their intangible heritage of humanity list!
Now that you’ve had your appetite whetted, let’s dive straight in…
Abbey Ales or Trappist Ales
An abbey beer refers to a Belgian Trappist-style beer that has been produced outside of a monastery, since only beers which have been brewed in Trappist monasteries can be given that name. In the world of the Abbey or Trappist ales, there are several different types to wrap your taste buds around; singels, dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels. There is a degree of confusion around the linguistics here because there does not seem to be the mathematical relationship between the styles that the names would suggest. In fact, historians can’t even seem to agree on where the names originate from. So what do we know? There is a general increase in strength. The singel, does not seem to be widely produced and certainly does not appear to leave the monasteries where it is produced; making it a rare and elusive beer in deed. It appears to be a very low alcohol, pale beer that monks produce for their own consumption; I guess they don’t want to be tipsy on the job!
The dubbel is a more clearly defined Abbey beer. Whilst brown ales of various flavours and sizes were commonly produced in monasteries for many years the dubbel took its more modern and recognisable form in 1926, when the Westmalle monastery released Dubbel Bruin; which proved to be an instant hit. Many breweries tried to imitate their success and the dubbel was born.
The dubbel is usually reddish-brown in colour, and of moderate strength, tending to be between 6-8% ABV. No longer the preserve of just monasteries, the dubbel is traditionally made with heavily caramelised beet sugar. It is this sugar that provides much of the reddish colour that is characteristic of the dubbel, as well as giving the beer a lighter body.
Fort Lapin Rouge from Fort Lapin brewery is a fine example of the dubbel. The Fort Lapin brewery was established in 2011, named after the area just north of Bruges where the brewery is based. It is a modern Belgian microbrewery, which is dedicated to brewing high-end Belgian ales. The Fort Lapin Rouge pours an orange-chestnut colour, with a classic spicy aroma. The flavour is toasted and malty, offering further spicy notes and a slightly floral character.
The quadrupel, is like a dubbel, but a dubbel on steroids! Made with pretty much the same ingredients, producing the same kind of flavours and colour – just amplified. The quadrupel has some heavy hitting plum, raisin and caramel flavours, with a peppery edge and a noticeably bigger ABV – usually plus 12%.
As with all things in the beer world, there are always some variations. For example, Préaris Quadrocinno from the Belgian Vliegende Paard Brouwersis is a quadrupel ale brewed with coffee beans. These guys are relative newcomers, but won the RateBeer ‘Best New Brewer In Belgium’ award in 2013. The Préaris Quadrocinno has a deep, dark, brown-black colour, full of coffee aromas, as well as dark fruits and roasted malts. After an initial sweet, vanilla and caramel flavour, it develops dark fruit layers, evolving through to a slightly bitter coffee aftertaste.
Belgian Strong Dark Ale
Just to make things a little more complex, not everyone in the Belgian beer world accepts the term, quadrupel, some prefer the less specific umbrella term, Belgian strong dark ale.
One such example is the Ellezelloise Quintine De Noel, a Christmas beer from Brasserie des Légendes. This festive beer presents with a generous reddish-amber colour and frothy white head – remind you of anyone? Enticing aromas of toasted malt, caramel and floral hops, tantalise the nose, with a pronounced bitterness and dry finish.
As it appears to be with all things Abbey/Trappist, there are differing opinions about the origins of the tripel. At least there is agreement, from most quarters, that the modern tripel, like its cousin, the dubbel, gained in popularity due to the Westmalle monastery. It also shares the use of a generous portion of beet sugar. In the tripel, however, the sugar is not caramelised. This significant difference results in increased alcohol, but not the deep colour. The tripel has a deep golden hue, in part thanks to the use of lightly kilned malt. The result is a fruity beer, with hints of pepper, and ABV between 7-10%.
Also like the dubbel, the tripel is brewed with a good portion of beet sugar included in the recipe, but this time, the sugar isn’t caramelised. It still raises the alcohol level and lightens body, but it doesn’t impart significant colour—the beer’s beautiful golden hue comes primarily from the use of lightly kilned malt. Expect a beer filled with apple, pear, citrus, or banana-like fruitiness, clove-like or peppery spice, and a drying, but (ideally) subtle hit of alcohol on the finish. Slightly stronger than dubbel, tripel boasts a lofty ABV of around 7-10%, but remains dangerously drinkable. Named after the seventeenth century artist from Oudenaarde, with his self portrait shown on the bottle label, Adriaen Brouwer Tripel is a strong blonde Belgian tripel, brewed with organic malt and hops. Pouring a divine coppery blonde, it also boasts a robust, creamy collar of froth. Expect an aroma full of freshly picked apples, hints of citrus, a pinch of coriander and zesty esters with light hops.
Saison and Bière de Garde
Saison beer was a beer of necessity. On the farm everything slows down in the winter months. Times are hard; not much will grow, the days are short and the nights are long. What’s a farmer to do? The solution was to pass those long winter nights brewing beer with left over grain; beer that would be very much needed by the seasonal farmhands in the warmer months. This was a win-win situation; surplus grain found a use, the farmhands got to have safe hydration (let’s face it, water was not always safe) and even after the brewing process, the spent grain could still be fed to the livestock!
As with all things, there are lots of stylistic variations on saison, however, there is one that is generally considered to be the pinnacle of saison; Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont Vieille Provision, known simply as “Saison Dupont“. This dry, pale beer is a modern classic – a top fermenting lager, bottle fermented, with a lively hop presence.
Bière de garde has a similar history, but it has a greater maltiness and strength. There are a variety of types of bière de garde, ranging from pale (blonde) to amber (ambrée) through to brown (brun). Each of these present with a different expression of malt, but rather than the saison, the bière de garde has a less prominent yeast profile and it is fermented at cooler temperatures. The result of this means the fruitiness and spiciness is kept at bay.
Belgian Strong Pale Ale
Belgian strong pale ale is a relatively new type of Belgian beer, which is also referred to as Belgian strong golden ale. This beer has been attributed to the Belgian brewers, Duvel Moortgat, and it is simply known as Duvel. Incidentally, duvel means devil in Flemish. The Duvel on sale today emerged in the 70s and it is famous the world over. It is instantly recognisable with its highly carbonated, crisp and strong flavour. Some would say it has similarities to the tripel in terms of style, however the Belgian strong pale ale tends to have a drier taste, with a bit more bitterness and lightness of colour.
Belgian blonde comes in lighter than either the tripel of Belgian strong pale ale, usually between 6-8%ABV and are also often sweeter with a fruity flavour that comes through the fermentation process. They are usually made using the same sugar that is used in producing tripels.
Duvel 6.66% is a recent offering from the Duvel Moortgat Brewery, which was founded in 1871 by Jan-Leonard Moortgat, who was descended from a family of brewers that lived in Steenhuffel, Belgium. This beer has been specially created to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the brewery. Starting with the exclusive hop varieties Styrian Golding and Saaz, another four are expertly selected and added, including use of the dry hopping method.
Witbier or Belgian White
Witbier, also known as bière blanche or Belgian white, simply translates as white beer. This beer can trace its ancestry back to the Middle Ages, although it fell out of favour around the start of the twentieth century, overshadowed the pilsner and pale lagers. That is until Pierre Celis singlehandedly reignited interest in witbier at his brewery in Hoegaarden, Belgium. Such was his success, he went on to sell the brewery to the company that would become Anheuser-Busch InBev.
Witbier is brewed with unmalted wheat, coriander and orange peel, making it an über refreshing beer; light in body, tart in flavour, with a gentle 4-5.5% ABV. The yeast used to ferment it provides the perfect balance of spice and citrus zing. Made from a recipe handed down through five generations, Brugs Tarwebier, also known as Blanche de Bruges, is a Belgian wheat beer from De Haalve Maan Brewery, in Bruges. This is regarded as one of Belgium’s most authentic witbiers, with its full and rounded flavour, revealing the banana, cloves and black pepper elements. What marks this beer out from its competitors is the unusual use of raw, unsalted wheat, which results in a refreshing character.
Time to bring part 1 to a close, as we pause in our exploration of the many types of Belgian beer. There are so many delicacies to enjoy that a break is required to refresh the brain and palate before we plunge back into investigate the wonderful world of the lambic and Flemish red. Join us for Belgium Beer Types – What You Need to Know Part 2!