Belgian Beer Styles
Belgium is without a doubt a beer country like no other. In more than 160 breweries, give or take a few, countless beers flow into barrels, bottles and cans. The choice of beers on offer is truly splendid, but what really makes the country unique are the many varieties in which these beers come.
From low alcohol to heavy, from clear blond to intensely dark, from sweet and fruity to extremely bitter or sour. Not all of the described beer styles saw the light of day in Belgium but there is simply no country in the world which boasts such a wide range of endemic beer styles and types of fermentation as Belgium (and what about those glasses?).
In addition to the classic Belgian beer styles, we are now seeing beer styles that have been imported. Examples include stout and scotch, both very popular in the early heydays of British beers.
Another successful and recent imported beer style is India Pale Ale (IPA), which originated in England, crossed the ocean to the USA and has been embraced by Belgian brewers. IPA beers have a high hop content and tend to be quite heavy. They also distinguish themselves by the use of hops from America, New Zealand and other non-European countries.
Specific rules also govern the use of the name 'abdijbier', but they are less strict than those applied to the Trappist beers and consequently there are probably more abbey beers than tripels in Belgium. As a rule abdijbier is brewed by a lay brewery that has a contract with a still active abbey that used to brew beer.
It is not mandatory to brew within the abbey, the brewery can use the abbey’s name and will pay royalties to the religious order which, just like the Trappists, is obliged to use the money to support itself and for charitable purposes. All characteristics of the Trappists, from taste to alcohol content, apply equally to abbey beers.
There are currently over 25 ‘recognised’ abbey beers to be found in Belgium. To earn the ‘recognised’ label there must be historic sources that make a reference to brewing activity at the abbey site.
The name of the beer could also refer to an ancient abbey, which may have now vanished but where brewing used to take place. In that case the monks have no active involvement in the brewery. The ancient abbey recipe may be used but in many cases the beer follows a new recipe.
However, brewing is often done under licence of the abbey. This means that the monks give their approval to every new advertising campaign, each new beer launch, each new label, etc. The abbey receives a percentage of annual profits. The main difference with Trappist beers is that abbey beers are brewed outside the walls of the Abbey.
Amber (Spéciale Belge)
Spéciale Belge is a beer rich in tradition and with a history that harks back to the beginning of the previous century. A brewery from Chatelineau won a competition in search of a new and modern beer. The resulting brew was instantly well received and other breweries were happy to sail along on this wave of success.
This beer style is marked by a full taste married to a low alcohol content that makes it outstandingly drinkable and digestible. No herbs are used during the brewing process and coloured malts, yeast and aromatic hops determine the beer’s colour, aroma and taste.
In 1904 the Union of Belgian Brewers called on its members to develop a local alternative to pilsner (pils) which had been imported so successfully.
A higher quality version of the well-known top fermentation beer had to match up to the imports from Britain, Germany and Czechoslovakia. The fruit of these efforts was presented and tasted at the 1905 World Exhibition in Liège.
A new beer style was born and many brewers launched their own versions, with varying degrees of success, in the 1910s and 1920s. A typical trait of the ‘Spéciale Belge’ is that it has give or take the same strength as pils but with a richer taste, due to the use of lightly coloured caramel malts, mineral-rich water and mild aromatic hops.
Maize or malt sugars are not added. The character of this beer is predominantly determined by the choice of yeast culture. Its amber colour is provided by the malt. The end result is slightly hoppy, malty and fruity.
Amberbier is a Belgian classic. This clear, amber-coloured beer is brewed using top fermentation and has a mild and full taste. A traditional amberbier will be fresh, smell of roasted malt, and will provide a slightly sour and quite refreshing finish.
The most traditional fruit beer is, needless to say, a kriek beer, made with sour morello cherries. Formerly cherries were not only added to the beer to improve its aroma but also to encourage further fermentation. Krieken beer has all the characteristics of an oude geuze, complemented with a pleasantly fruity taste.
In the Brussels area this beer traditionally accompanies a sandwich of 'plattekaas' (cottage cheese) and radishes. Oude kriek is produced by steeping 100% oude lambiek in fresh fruit, at a proportion of 200g to 300g per litre. It will then be re-fermented in the bottle.
Over the past few decades consumers have developed sweeter tastes and brewers have cleverly taken advantage of this. Consequently the last few years have seen the introduction of quite a few sweet fruit beers.
These are usually pils beers or white beers with added fruit juice or syrup. Beer geeks are said to be unlikely to order a sweet fruit beer; but it is also said some brewers in fact hope to encourage women, who would otherwise have a glass of wine or cava, to drink them. Brewers also hope to steer the younger generation, who would otherwise maybe order a soft drink, cocktail or a sweet apéritif, into the direction of beer.
The traditional kriek as well as its sweet fruity brother are ideal beers to enjoy on a terrace, properly chilled, but they also go well with a tasty dessert and Belgian strong blue cheese.
Gueuze (geuze) is made on a lambic base. There are plenty of beers on the market carrying the gueuze name, but usually these are mixtures of traditional beers with a lambic. To make a distinction between these and the real traditional gueuze, which is made only using lambic, the latter ones are allowed to carry the name Oude Gueuze. To make Oude Gueuze, a ‘gueuzesteker’ will cut old and young lambic into the perfect mixture or blend.
Old lambic will add a pronounced aroma and depth to the beer whereas the young lambic provides the sour touch. The dead yeast cells are removed from the lambic to allow the remaining yeast to promote the Oude Gueuze’s in-bottle fermentation. This beer can be stored for many years without any problems.
Oude Gueuze is therefore a mixture of 100% old lambic, re-fermented in the bottle. ‘Old’ is not an indication of the beer’s age; rather it refers to its authentic, traditional character and its purity without the use of additives.
It is a return to the original taste of beer. Oude Gueuze is unique. It is a beer that you have to learn to drink. The best way to start is with a well-balanced Oude Gueuze before moving onto Oude Gueuze with a more pronounced aroma and taste. Lambic, gueuze’s underlying "mother" beer, is a spontaneous fermentation beer.
All lambic-based beers have a naturally sour taste, but some have a more noticeable sourness, bitterness and mildness than others.
The process was first used in the eighteenth century, when the French Benedictine Dom Perignon discovered how you can make a sparkling wine from a mixture of non-sparkling wines.
One century later, a brewer from Brabant mixed a number of different lambics which caused re-fermentation in the bottle. Gueuze was born. The increased popularity of glass bottles and the discovery of in-bottle re-fermentation together caused a revolution in the Brussels brewing world.
Lambic (lambiek) may well be one of Belgium’s oldest beer styles. It is a remarkable beer in every respect and the production process is almost completely the opposite of that used for conventional brewing. For example, the malt mixture (‘beslag’) has to consist of a minimum of 30% unmalted wheat.
Also, the brewing kettle will be fed with up to six times the amount of hops than is used in other beers. In addition, these hops are very mature, which reduces the aroma, bitterness and smell of the beer.
This is remarkable as other brewers use hops to lend bitterness and aroma to their beer, whereas lambic brewers employ hops to preserve their beer and to protect it from infections and oxidation. The most amazing step in the brewing process comes after boiling.
Even in these times of food safety and hygiene, the wort is pumped up to the loft where it is deposited in a wooden basin (‘koelschip’).
The wild yeasts (Brettanomyces) – it is a spontaneous fermentation beer - naturally occurring in the Zenne valley will determine the character of the beer. Once cooled down the beer is given plenty of time to continue fermentation. This takes place in stainless steel basins so the brewer has more of a grip on the process.
Traditionally lambic is brewed only throughout winter, say from September to April. Ageing takes place in wooden barrels where the lambic will rest for a number of years before it is ready to drink.
Oud Bruin (Brown beers)
Like Zuid-West-Vlaams roodbruin brown beer (traditionally from the region around Oudenaarde), or Oud Bruin, is a mixture of two beers. In common with roodbruin bier, mixed fermentation occurs during the brewing process. The underlying basic beer undergoes a first fermentation in open basins to which a home yeast is added.
Traditionally a second beer is brewed after which both beers are ‘cut’ together. Sugars and yeast are added and then the beer is bottled. The beer is mild with a pleasantly sour touch, dry and complex.
In its aroma you will pick up hints of caramel coming from the malt, but also nuts and cherries which provide a taste link with wine. Many see this as the ideal beer to use in the preparation of a Flemish stew.
Oudenaards bruin bier is characterised by a different treatment of the malt. This is dried or roasted for slightly longer and at a higher temperature. This process results in a darker colour.
These beers acquire their typical and unique taste through the mixed fermentation. The taste is also determined by the longer storage period (up to three years in chilled tanks) and the blending of young and old beers. In the glass, the result of years of expertise in cutting (blending) beers of different vintages is clearly noticeable.
But when did brewers start mixing beers? - They had to be able to store beer brewed in winter until the following summer. Thus, older beers were mixed with younger, fresher and sweeter beer to refresh their taste. The beer will re-ferment after it is cut, leading to a more balanced taste that varies less from year to year.
Oud Bruin and Zuid-West-Vlaams roodbruin have much in common. The malt is dried with hot air (this process is called ‘eesten’) for a longer time and at a higher temperature compared to most beers. Both beers also take longer to boil (up to twenty hours) compared to other specialty beers.
This promotes the production of caramel in the wort. Both beer styles are top-fermented and use hard water with a high calcium content. The beer is sweetened when it is transferred to the fermentation tank. Both beers are blended. Young and old beers are mixed in a specific proportion before bottling. Finally, both beer styles tend to be quite light.
Considered an 'international' style by the Belgian Brewers. Pils is the most widely brewed beer in the world by quite some margin. Over 90% of global beer consumption is of this enduringly popular beer style. The word is derived from the Czech town of Plzen – or Pilsen - where the first pils was brewed at the beginning of the 19th century.
Of course, the Czechs were already confirmed brewers, but the newly-discovered way to use malt, making the beer much clearer, was hugely appreciated by beer drinkers.
A traditional pils is brewed using the four basic beer ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast, although these days a number of breweries add other ingredients such as sugar, maize or barley.
Pils is a low or bottom fermented beer and to a large extent it is the yeast that determines the taste of the beer.To brew a good pils you need soft water. It goes without saying that only pale malts are used for pils. Filtering gives a crystal clear beer.
Originally you could discern a certain bitterness in the taste of pils. In an era that has seen general tastes evolve towards sweeter flavours, the large breweries have adjusted the aroma of their pils to respond to this trend.
Pils is now primarily a thirst quenching beer but it also makes an ideal aperitif, especially if you manage to find a slightly bitter variety. Pils needs to taste pure, with a dry aftertaste that neutralizes quickly. The alcohol percentage fluctuates around the 5% mark.
Red Beers ('Zuid-West-Vlaams Roodbruin')
Roodbruine bieren (red beers) are a phenomenon of West Flanders. The beer ferments at high temperature and will then be given the chance to mature for months or even years in wooden barrels. This is where it will turn sour under the influence of bacteria. The brewing process of roodbruin bier thus involves a mix of fermentation styles: high and spontaneous.
The result when it reaches your glass is very thirst-quenching with a light sourness and a sharp aroma. A roodbruin beer makes the perfect aperitif and is especially pleasant to drink on a terrace in summertime with a helping of peeled shrimp.
The roodbruine bieren of South-West Flanders are mixed fermentation beers that mature partially or entirely in vertical oak barrels called foeders. They have a reddish-brown colour from the use of coloured barley malts.
The ingredients are limited to barley malt, yeast, other types of grain that can be raw or malted, local mineral water, hops, herbs and a sweetening agent. Roodbruin beers were traditionally produced in the regions around Roeselare, Tielt and Kortrijk. The production process of these beers is similar in many ways to that of high fermentation beers. In this case, ‘mixed fermentation’ refers to the production process which uses various micro-organisms that, whilst the beer is maturing in oak barrels, interact to ferment the beer and determine its taste.
A particular aspect of this brewing process is that the beer ripens in vertical oak barrels; another one is the blending of mature beers.
We are doing well to remember that beer is the fruit of an ancient conservation method. The 'roodbruine bieren' were first brewed in the early Middle Ages, even before the introduction of hops. At the time, brewers used a herbal mixture called ‘gruut’ to preserve their beer, to give it additional aroma and to hide unwanted smells. The Vikings introduced the hop plant to South West Flanders at a later stage.
Roodbruin bier fits very well into this tradition. This beer can be stored thanks to the lactic and acetic acids present in the brew. The ‘mixed’ top fermentation and the two-year maturation in oak barrels (foeders) result in a mildly sour taste and a complex fruitiness.
To find the roots of Saison you have to search the province of Hainaut, where this beer is brewed in small, artisanal family breweries who have never really shouted about their great product. This is why Saison is not, or barely, consumed in the rest of the country. But in this case, ignorance isn’t bliss.
This beer had traditionally been brewed on the farm each winter for centuries, ready to refresh the workers in the field during the summer. These days some Saison beers are quite heavy, orange in colour and very sparkly. They often have a beautiful collar of froth thanks to re-fermentation in the bottle. The general aroma is extremely fruity.
Saison is a Belgian beer style characterised by top fermentation and an alcohol content of 5% to 6.5%. Most Saisons have a beautiful golden colour, typical for this beer style.
The yeast used is made up of several different cultures and so provides plenty of character. There may even be a ‘wild’ yeast component which will give a slightly sour touch. Most often, hard (mineral) water is used which gives even more support to the hoppy character. A Saison beer is light, slighty sour, dry, herbal and fruity. Under the law, production of Saison used to be allowed only until 29 March to avoid contamination by stray wild yeasts.Today however, Saison is produced all year around.
Typical for Saison is that the malt mixture (‘beslag’) is heated to a high temperature which promotes the production of additional sugars that will not be fermented. The main fermentation stage is traditionally followed by maturation in a warm room and the addition of further hops (dry hopping).
The in-bottle fermentation adds to the production of carbon dioxide, giving a refreshingly zesty taste. An excellent, slightly sour thirst quencher. Today, Saison has made a convincing comeback.
This beer style is once again in demand especially from abroad. Thirty years ago, this style was close to extinct. It is now popular in Hainaut once more and and with Saison-styled brews being created all around the world this style serves to inspire many a brewer abroad. In the United States for instance you will find plenty of craft brewers producing their own version of Saison.
A separate Belgian beer variety is represented by the strong blond beers. Thanks to the use of a very pale malt these are often even clearer and purer than a pils but don’t be fooled: they are far more complex. Typical varieties of hops are used during brewing and all strong blond beers have a bitterness in common.
This is what gives them their complexity and accounts for their popularity. All blond beers will rank highly on the alcohol content ladder but are nevertheless easily drinkable.
They have everything needed to make the perfect aperitif but some may fear that their high alcohol content makes them maybe less suitable for drinking at the start of a meal. Initially Belgian brewers were waging war against imported pils beers by producing light, amber-coloured beers, but they were unable to prevent pils gaining ground.
After the Second World War an increasing number of brewers introduced strong, blond, high fermentation beers. Inspiration was often found in the Westmalle Tripel, a heavy blond from the 1930s. These strong blond beers never reached the popularity levels enjoyed by pils but are nevertheless appreciated by a great and growing number of beer lovers and so soon conquered the Belgian as well as the international market.
Nowadays, almost every brewer will include a top fermentation strong blond beer in his range. Generally speaking these strong blond beers are easily drinkable.
The slightly malty taste is overshadowed by that of hops and yeast. This yeast will often lend a fruity bouquet to these Belgian strong blond beers. With the recent trend towards increasingly hoppy flavours, the market has seen the introduction of very strongly hopped and extremely aromatic blond beers under the name of IPA (India Pale Ale).
Trappist is undoubtedly the best known and most popular high fermentation beer. There are six trappist breweries located in Belgium: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Achel. Certain regulations apply which have to be complied with before a brewery is allowed to use the Trappist name.
First and foremost, brewing must take place in or near an active monastery belonging to the Cistercian order. Brewing must be done by, or under the supervision of, the community of monks and the revenues have to be used to support the abbey or to fund charitable works.
All recognised trappist beers carry the ‘Authentic Trappist Product’ logo on the bottle. This logo warrants that the beer was brewed in a Cistercian abbey.
Morover, it guarantees compliance with the quality standards and traditions of the Trappist community. The logo is not only to be found on beer, but also on liqueur, cheese, bread, biscuits and chocolate produced within the abbey walls. Trappist beers are generally high in alcohol and rich in aromas. Unsurprisingly herbs are often used to give the beer its characteristic taste.
Most trappist beers come in blond, dubbel (brown) and tripel (a very pale blond) varieties but you will also find amber-coloured trappists. In fact, trappist is an indication of origin rather than a beer style as there are wide-ranging taste differences between trappist beers.
A dry, slightly sour, blond Orval for example is miles away from a dark Rochefort 8. Trappist beers are all heavy, top-fermentation beers but show up significant differences when it comes to aroma, colour, taste and alcohol content.
The main characteristics of this beer style are: top fermentation, re-fermentation in the bottle, a sterile brewing process so the beer can be stored for longer, no external (bio) chemical ingredients, and the addition of sugar to increase the alcohol content and make the beer more digestible.
Wheat Beer (Witbier/Blanche)
'Witbier' (wheat or white beer) is an unfiltered high or top fermented beer. To produce witbier the brewer will use 30% unmalted wheat. The addition of herbs such as coriander and orange zest is typical in Belgian wheat beers, imparting a pleasantly fresh aroma to the beer.
'Witbier' will re-ferment in the bottle and is unfiltered. Served in the glass, the beer has a cloudy appearance with an agreeably mild taste and a slightly sour touch. Witbier used to be served with a slice of lemon in the glass but this custom has now almost entirely disappeared. 'Witbier' has approximately the same alcohol percentage as pils.
The rural town of Hoegaarden is inseparably connected with witbier, which has been brewed here since human records began. The first written sources that link this sour, cloudy brew to the town of Hoegaarden date from 1318.
Medieval Belgians appear to have enjoyed their 'witbier': the number of witbier breweries in Hoegaarden saw a steady increase during the period. 'Witbier' became popular in this area thanks to its abundant supply of wheat. With the rise of the – relatively young – pils tradition, most white beer breweries disappeared over the course of the 20th century (the last one closed its doors in 1957).
However, white beer was brewed once again in 1966 at the ‘De Kluis’ brewery, at the initiative of Pierre Celis (1925-2011). Pierre is a legend in the brewing world and was single-handedly responsible for the witbier revival that, quite literally, saved this beer style from extinction.
And then there are many other beers on offer that, at first sight, are hard to categorise as they do not fit within a particular style. For instance, the many regional brews, which cannot be labeled an abbey beer or strong blond beer, but often are of excellent quality and also put in a stellar performance when it comes to aroma.
Moreover, most Belgian brewers will experiment with any ingredient that comes to hand, from chocolate to coffee or herbs, hops and spices such as ginger, saffron and pepper.
They are also looking for new and different ways of fermentation – getting to the heart of the beer – and so come up with surprising new beers and beer styles as the tripelgueuze for example. We can also spot a trend towards beers matured in oak barrels. The choice of barrel determines the aroma and taste of the beer to quite a large extent.
In this respect the brewers have a wide choice: new or recycled barrels previously used for storing port, sherry, wine, whisky or Cognac.
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