Home Lifestyle Food & Drink A guide to Belgian beer
Last update on August 20, 2020
Written by Jeff Evans

Once you enter the world of Belgian beer with hundreds of specialist beers to try, how can you narrow down your list of must-try beers?

So you are in Belgium and having the time of your life sampling their fantastic beers. You’re enjoying tasting the lambics, lagers, ales, and of course, the Trappist beers. But what exactly are these, and how do they create the different flavors? Is Trappist beer still brewed by monks in a monastery, and how do they differ from Abbey beers? And with the bewildering choice of beers, how do you know whether you are using your drinking time to sample all the must-try brews? Here’s a guide for all the aspiring Belgian beer connoisseurs who want to expand their beer knowledge, and discover more of the world’s must-try beers.

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Lambic beers

The spontaneously-fermented beers of Belgium are noted for their ‘funky’, earthy, rustic, and often tart flavors. They are created when wort (an infusion of ground malt or other grain) is subjected to wild yeasts in the atmosphere and then fermented/matured for months, if not years, in wooden casks that are riddled with benign, character-building bacteria. However, the final product tends to be packaged and presented in four, quite different ways.

Lambic beers are one of four types:

  • Plain lambic – a still, sour, draught drink blended from various casks.
  • Faro – a diluted and sweetened form of plain lambic (no longer common).
  • Gueuze – a sparkling bottled drink, that comprises a mix of young and old lambic.
  • Fruit lambic – a sparkling bottled drink, laced and fermented with cherries (kriek), raspberries (framboise/frambozen) or other fruits.

Trappist beers

Only 11 monastic breweries in the world have official sanction from the Vatican to use the term ‘Trappist’ on their products.

To qualify for Trappist accreditation, there are certain rules:

  • the beer production must occur within the confines of the abbey;
  • the monks must at least supervise production;
  • profits are only for the upkeep of the abbey buildings and for good causes.

Similar beers from commercial breweries for other abbeys under license may only be known as ‘Abbey’ beers. Although the flavor may reflect the distinctive Trappist style, Abbey beers don’t conform to the strict regulations of Trappist beer.

The emblem of the Orval Trappist monastery brewery in Belgium is a fish with a ring in its mouth. This recalls a legend from the early days of the abbey, way back in the 11th century. It is said that Countess Mathilda of Tuscany, visiting the site, lost the precious wedding ring given to her by her deceased husband, Godfrey the Hunchback, in a spring. Distraught, Mathilda prayed to the Virgin Mary for its return and, when a trout surfaced, ring in its mouth, she was so overwhelmed and delighted that she declared the area to be ‘the golden valley’ (‘orval’). Water from the same spring still supplies the monastery and brewery

Beer categories: top fermentation and bottom fermentation

The beer world broadly splits into two sectors: beers that are top-fermented and beers that are bottom fermented. These terms refer to the activity of the yeast. Some strains of yeast generally sit on top of the wort as it ferments, while others sink to the bottom.

Top fermentation is used for ale production, while bottom fermentation is generally for lagers. Here are the beer styles on either side of the divide.

Top-fermented stylesBottom-fermented styles
  • Stouts
  • Lagers
  • Porters
  • Pilsners
  • Weissbiers
  • Viennas
  • Witbiers
  • Rauchbiers
  • Berliner weisse
  • Bocks
  • Lambics
  • Dortmunder
 
  • Märzen

An A–Z of ‘must try’ beers

  • Amber Shock: Birrificio Italiano (Italy)
  • Black Albert: Struise (Belgium)
  • Celebrator: Ayinger (Germany)
  • Duchesse de Bourgogne: Verhaeghe (Belgium)
  • Espresso: Dark Star (UK)
  • Flekovsky Tmavy Lezak: U Flek ˚u (Czech Republic)
  • Grottenbier: St Bernardus (Belgium)
  • Hitachino Nest White Ale: Kiuchi (Japan)
  • It’s Alive: Mikkeler (Denmark)
  • Jenlain Ambrée: Duyck (France)
  • Kwak: Bosteels (Belgium)
  • Ligera: Birrificio Lambrate (Italy)
  • Matilda: Goose Island (USA)
  • Norwegian Wood: Haandbryggeriet (Norway)
  • Oerbier: De Dolle (Belgium)
  • Pliny the Elder: Russian River (USA)
  • Quadrupel: La Trappe (Netherlands)
  • Ripper: Green Jack (UK)
  • Sparkling Ale: Coopers (Australia)
  • Troublette: Caracole (Belgium)
  • Urbock 23º: Eggenberg (Austria)
  • Vitus: Weihenstephan (Germany)
  • World Wide Stout: Dogfish Head (USA)
  • XXXB: Batemans (UK)
  • Yankee: Rooster’s (UK)
  • Zinnebir: De la Senne (Belgium)

Interesting beer trivia

Fried beer, anyone?

Hats off to American Mark Zable for discovering yet another way to serve beer. His solution to this ever-perplexing problem? Just deep fry it. Zable launched his great invention at a food fair in Texas in 2010. His recipe calls for beer to be trapped inside a casing of salty, pretzel-like dough. The dough then fries for around 20 seconds, short enough for the alcohol in the beer not to cook off. The beer inside is Guinness or Texas’s own Shiner Bock, and the ravioli-like parcels of beer are now even available by mail order.

The National Brewing Library

Britain’s National Brewing Library is housed at Oxford Brookes University in Headington, Oxford. The impressive English-language archive is largely comprised of books permanently loaned by the Institute of Brewing & Distilling and back-copies of brewing journals, but also included are company publications and numerous scientific texts. A separate collection is dedicated to books donated by the estate of the late Michael Jackson. It includes some 1,500 titles Michael acquired during his career as a beer writer, plus copies of his own works, along with notebooks and other information gathered over 40 years of beer writing. Researchers should make an appointment for a visit.