A Cheese Primer

Belgian beer has mystique: Some of it’s made by monks. Some of it tastes really, really weird. Some of its labels show elves and devils. People who know beer are sometimes unable to resist blowing huge chunks of cash on it. It is, said famed beer writer Michael Jackson, the “Disneyland of beer.”

But like Disneyland on a warm holiday weekend, Belgian beer can be intimidating. Walk into a specialty shop or bar that stocks it, and you’ll probably be confronted with an overwhelming list of things you’ve never heard of—with names in French, Dutch, or a combination of the two. The beers will often be more expensive than other imports, and in some cases will deliver flavors the average American palate is unprepared for. It’s enough to make most of us just order a Sierra.

Still, Belgian beer is wonderful, and it can take you places you never expected. The range of flavors and aromas, like with wine, can be surprisingly complex and mysterious. To dive in, all you need is a little background and the curiosity to begin tasting. Whether you’re a fan of rich, dark ales or light, effervescent quaffers, there are delightful examples to be found. We’ve put together this primer on the various styles and where to locate them stateside to get you started.

Main Styles

Not all Belgian beer is craft beer: Belgians drink crappy beer sometimes just like Americans do. And among the craft options there’s a fallacy, says Dan Shelton, owner of Shelton Brothers, one of the primary importers of small-batch Belgian beers for the U.S. market, which is that they’re all ultrasweet, strong, spicy, or fruity, rather than hoppy or light. Not true.

Saison

Historically, saisons were made on farms with whatever grains were on hand to supplement the malted barley, so there was a lot of variation. (“Malted” means the grain has been moistened, allowed to germinate—which makes its starches more readily available for the brewing process—and then heated to stop it from sprouting.) They are refreshing, light in body, dry, golden to orange in color, effervescent, relatively low in alcohol (around 5 percent), and moderately hoppy. They may or may not have spices added (some take on a spicy flavor naturally from phenols produced during fermentation), and can be citrusy and floral.

TRY: Saison Dupont; Fantôme

Witbier or Bier Blanche

These are Belgian-style wheat beers made with a relatively high percentage of unmalted (raw) wheat and some lightly malted barley. Witbiers are pale to golden in color but can be cloudy because they’re unfiltered. Most, like Hoegaarden, are flavored with coriander and orange peel, but they don’t have to be. Like German hefeweizens, witbiers are refreshing, citrusy, relatively low in alcohol (4 to 5 percent), and easy to drink.

TRY: Vuuve 5 (spiced); Saisis Blanche (unspiced)

Trappist/Abbey

Trappist beers are brewed by a Benedictine order of monks. The tradition of creating products like beer, cheese, and bread dates back to 1098, to fund social work and make the monasteries self-sufficient. There are Trappist monasteries all over the world, but only seven brew beer, six of them in Belgium: Achel, Orval, Scourmont Lez Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. The seventh, Koningshoeven, is located in the Netherlands. You’ll often see Trappist beers labeled “double” or “triple,” and sometimes “single” or “quadruple.” The terms indicate alcohol content (double is stronger than single, etc.). Some Trappist breweries, like Rochefort and Westvleteren, skip this naming convention and use numbers; higher numbers indicate higher alcohol content (though they don’t directly correlate to the actual percentage).

“Abbey” is a term applied to beers made in the Trappist styles but not necessarily in an abbey. There are no regulations for what these styles should taste like, so they vary greatly. Here’s a rough generalization of what to expect:

  • Single, a.k.a Singel: There aren’t very many singles, but the ones you can find are lighter, easier-drinking beers, almost like pale ales, with 4 to 5 percent alcohol.
    • TRY: Witkap-Pater Singel (not from a Trappist monastery)
  • Double, a.k.a. Dubbel: Between 5 and 8 percent alcohol, often amber to brown, with a malty aroma and flavors like raisin, fig, date, caramel, plum, and even toffee and chocolate. They can be on the sweet side.
    • TRY: Westmalle Dubbel
  • Triple, a.k.a. Tripel: Usually a strong golden ale, around 8 to 9 percent alcohol. Triples are fruitier and crisper than doubles, and often more refreshing.
    • TRY: Achel 8° Blonde; Orval (a unique Trappist brew similar to a triple but considered a Belgian pale ale by some)
  • Quadruple: Very high in alcohol content (10 to 12 percent), sweet and raisiny, sometimes chocolaty. Kind of like a double on steroids.
    • TRY: Urthel Samaranth (not from a Trappist monastery)

Lambic

One of the most distinctive kinds of Belgian beers, traditional lambics are made using wild yeasts and bacteria—that is, the ones floating around in the air—to ferment the beer, instead of cultured strains from a lab. These free-floating microorganisms make the beers taste sour, and impart other flavors and aromas often described as “leathery” and “barnyard-y.” Lambics are an acquired taste that can be oddly addictive. And they’re extremely refreshing because of their tartness. They are usually made from a blend of unmalted wheat, malted barley, and hops; cooled in the open air (where they’re exposed to yeasts and bacteria); then aged in oak barrels for one to three years.

There is controversy between fans of traditionally crafted lambics and fans of commercial lambics, because the latter are sweetened, not aged very long, and pasteurized, all of which, traditionalists say, goes against the type’s true definition. It’s hard to find straight lambic—that is, lambic bottled directly from one brew. Instead, you’ll usually drink it blended into what’s called gueuze.

TRY: Cantillon Bruocsella Grand Cru

Gueuze

Made by blending different ages of lambics (usually some combination of one-, two-, and three-year-old beers) to create a signature balance of flavors and more natural carbonation in the bottle, because there are still some unfermented sugars in the young lambic that continue to ferment. Gueuze also allows brewers to create a more consistent product from batch to batch by adjusting the blend of the highly variable lambics.

TRY: Oud Beersel Oude Geuze Vieille; Cantillon Classic Gueuze

Fruit Lambic

Many of the beers labeled lambic in the United States are sweet fruit-flavored brews reminiscent of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. For a more sophisticated fruit beer, look for those made using whole fruit and with 100 percent spontaneously fermented lambic. (Good beer lists will mention these things. If you are unsure, ask to look at the label before ordering.)

TRY: Oud Beersel Framboise (raspberry); Oude Kriek (sour cherry)

Flemish Sour Ale

Much like lambics, brown and red Flemish sour ales have a distinctly tart flavor. Many are produced using cultured yeasts for their primary fermentation, then aged in barrels with souring bacteria and wild yeasts that impart acidic flavors ranging from lemon to balsamic vinegar—and, sometimes, caramel flavors, too.

TRY: Aardmonnik Earthmonk; Rodenbach Grand Cru; Duchesse de Bourgogne

Brown, Golden, Blonde, Amber Ales

These often overlap with what people consider abbey doubles or triples, but some one-of-a-kind beers fall loosely into this category. Duvel is considered the benchmark for golden ales, with its high alcohol content, dry finish, and sparkling golden color.

TRY: Duvel; La Chouffe Golden Ale; Bink Blond

Other

It’s a misconception that everyone in Belgium is “drinking crazy beers,” says Joe Carroll, co-owner of the Spuyten Duyvil bar in New York. “Average people are drinking pilsners.” There are also Belgian stouts, Belgian pale ales, and Belgian-style IPAs.

TRY: De Ranke XX Bitter

U.S. Breweries Dabbling in the Belgian Tradition

Belgian-style beers are becoming easier to find (and cheaper), thanks to U.S. craft breweries creating their own twists on traditional styles. Allagash Brewing Company in Maine makes a bottle-conditioned dubbel, tripel, witbier, and others. (“Bottle-conditioned” refers to beers that are naturally carbonated by yeast that’s allowed to ferment in the bottle, leaving a layer of live sediment.) Jolly Pumpkin out of Michigan is brewing very interesting beers like La Roja, its take on a Flemish sour red ale, and a spiced witbier aged in oak with wild yeast and souring bacteria called Calabaza Blanca. The Lost Abbey, part of the Port Brewing Company in California, makes abbey-inspired beers like Lost and Found, and a saison-inspired beer called Red Barn Ale. And Russian River Brewing Company has a line of Belgian-inspired beers, from Damnation, a strong golden ale, to Sanctification, a beer fermented with the same type of yeast that’s used in traditional lambics.

TRY: Allagash White; Russian River Temptation

How to Serve Belgian Beer

Bottles, Not Kegs

“Belgian beer is really about the bottles, not the draft beer,” says Chuck Stilphen, co-owner of the Trappist, a Belgian beer bar in Oakland, California. Nearly all Belgian craft beer is bottle-conditioned. Consequently, in the United States you’ll find most Belgian beers offered in bottles. “Belgians on draft tend to be flatter and more one-dimensional,” says the Spuyten Duyvil’s Joe Carroll. When sharing a big bottle, some beer-lovers fight over who gets that last, sludgy shot: The yeast contains lots of vitamin B, which is good for hangovers.

Fancy Glasses

Belgian breweries distribute specific glasses to go with their beers. These range from ridiculous vessels (like Kwak’s science-fair-esque glass that looks like a bulbous test tube held up by a wooden stand) to dramatic stemmed chalices, and can be a fun part of receiving your drink. Some people say these are just marketing tools. Others, like Chris Lively, the proprietor of Ebenezers Pub in Maine, insist that the glassware is “how the brewery wants the beer to look—to present it, show off its smell, the head of the beer, how the bubbles will come up. … It almost starts to make it an extra art.” Regardless, it’s generally agreed that the standard straight-sided pint glass found in most bars is never an ideal glass from which to drink Belgian beer. Rather, Carroll suggests a straight-sided tumbler for witbiers, gueuzes, and pale ales; or a large wineglass for the more full-bodied or aromatic styles like the Trappists.

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