It is a universally acknowledged truth that the Belgians make some of the best beer in the world. At least, that was the common opinion during the early days of American craft beer, when brewers drew inspiration from old world styles they loved. Lately, however, American interest in these exotic and incomparable beers has gone from one of discovery and cherishing to lovingly recreating, imaginatively reinterpreting and, perhaps, even appropriating. It’s time to bring this beer style back to its roots. So, here, we set off to explore the diversity, traditions and mastery of the beers of Belgium.
The Abbey Brewing Tradition
For some, the words “Belgian beer” conjure up images of hooded monks toiling over steaming brewing tuns in ascetic, monastic surroundings. There’s an element of truth to that, though today’s Belgian brewing monks are generally overseeing operations as modern and full of gleaming stainless steel as any American brewery. The monastic tradition in Europe stressed the self-reliance of individual monasteries, so the monks living and working there “grew their own food and made their own drink,” some of which was wine and, as the monasteries moved further into northern Europe, some beer, according to Garrett Oliver’s “Abbey Beer” in the Oxford Companion to Beer. Abbaye de la Trappe in Normandy garnered a reputation in the 17th century for making some of the finest ales in the land. The Trappist order arose in successive centuries and became closely associated with brewing. The term “Trappist” is an internationally protected “appellation controlee,” meaning that beers cannot bear the brand name or designation “Trappist” unless it fits some very specific parameters, as related by Will Robertson for October:
- The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery.
- The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery.
- The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture.
Somewhat confusingly, all Trappist beers may be considered abbey beers, but not all abbey beers are Trappist beers—regardless of style, branding or geographical origin, an abbey beer is not a Trappist beer unless it fits the above strictures, else the producer risks incurring the wrath of the International Trappist Association, which protects their trademark through litigation.
The fame and success of the Trappist monastic brewing tradition inspired a whole host of imitators, as their ales were of the highest quality and greatly prized. The abbey ale family of styles has a lot of diversity but, tend to share some common characteristics: “They are all top-fermented ales and often employ very warm fermentation temperatures…and Belgian yeast strains to produce a range of fruity and spicy flavors," as Oliver notes. And there’s most of the rub: Belgian beer generally, and abbey ales specifically, derive most of their character from the yeasts used to ferment them. Belgian yeasts, as noted, tend to like warmer fermentations, and most yeast strains will throw off more esters (fruit-like aromas and flavors) and phenols (spice or chemical-like qualities) the higher the fermentation temperature. These beers also tend to be fairly highly carbonated and strong, in a relative sense—until fairly recently, anything over 6% ABV was generally considered strong, and abbey ales usually run anywhere from 6 to 11% ABV. The style family is fairly diverse, encompassing pale, lower alcohol abbey singles, strong, golden-colored Tripels, and darker, ruby-colored dubbels and quadrupels. Again, see Will Robertson’s article for a more thoroughgoing discussion of these styles.
Not all Trappist beers are brewed in Belgium—there are now Trappist-certified abbeys brewing beer in America, Italy, and the Netherlands. For an example of a fantastic Belgian dark strong ale, similar to a “quadrupel,” depending on whom you ask, look to Stift Engelszell Trappistenbier-Brauerei in Austria. Their Gregorius, named after the first abbot of the monastery, is an almost 10% ABV russet-colored beer of high carbonation and aromas and flavors of fig, black currant, dark chocolate, and spice. Gregorius has a warming, wine-like finish and would pair beautifully with roast pork and root vegetables.
For a non-Trappist example of Belgian beer, seek ye out a bottle of Brouwerij Bosteels’ Tripel Karmeliet, a beer almost unrivaled in quality, craftsmanship, and attendant reverence. This is absolutely one of the very best beers you can buy off the shelf at virtually any self-respecting bottle shop. While technically a tripel—that is, highly carbonated, around 9% ABV, with sweet malt notes yet a refreshingly drying finish—it is atypical in that it employs both oats and wheat in its recipe in addition to malted barley, creating a creamy, full beer that is frighteningly drinkable at 8.4% ABV. This is a no-fail accompaniment to virtually any meal, and should be a welcome addition to any dinner party.
Saisons and Farmhouse Ales
Saison beers have a long and oft-misunderstood history. Originating in the French-Belgian border region of Wallonia, Yvan De Baets of Brasserie De La Senne in Brussels summarizes their complicated origin story thus: “They were essentially very local beers developed in farmhouse breweries, brewed only during part of the year and rarely distributed outside of their immediate region [and] the recipes varied greatly from one brewery to another, ” according to Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales. Obviously, that leaves a lot of room for interpretation, which is perhaps why American brewers love the style and experimenting with it so much.
The historical permutations of this rustic style family aside, I think most people who love saisons have a baseline understanding of what they typically encompass: A pale-to-golden beer of moderate-to-high strength with spicy, fruity or sometimes funky characteristics, highly carbonated, with a prickly acidity and dry finish. If that sounds similar to the generic description of an abbey ale, you’re right: The style families bear some resemblance to one another, the brewing traditions coming from the same part of the world, after all. Historical saisons were brewed in the winter months as a fortifying drink for fieldworkers in the summer and were thus much lower in alcohol than most contemporary examples, though modern American craft brewing has rehabilitated the lower-alcohol varieties in the form of modern table beers and grisettes.
For an old world saison experience, instead of the classic standby Saison DuPont, look for Brasserie de Blaugies’ Saison D’Epeautre, a more rustic, “traditional” saison made with spelt—a strain of wheat that imparts a spritzy, lemon-like tartness. The Blaugies beers tend to be very phenolic, which is something you’ll likely either love or hate—on a good day, they’re redolent of cloves and black pepper and on an off day, they can smell a little like a warm vinyl pool toy.
American saison, on the other hand, is experiencing something of a moment. Look at any list of top American saisons and you’re going to be confronted with a lot of stuff that’s nearly impossible to get: Hill Farmstead, Sante Adairius, de Garde, Side Project, etc. One that pops up on these lists that’s sporadically available is Anchorage Brewing Company’s Love Buzz Saison, a decidedly modern interpretation of this storied style: Funky, fruity, spicy and strong at 8%ABV, this saison was aged in French Pinot Noir barrels for an added oaky complexity.
Sour Ales of Belgium
In many ways the apex of craft in western European brewing traditions, Belgian sour and wild ales have captivated and polarized beer drinkers for centuries. The Belgian sour beer universe is oriented along an axis: The malty, complex sweet and sour ales of the Flanders region in the north of the country and the incomparable, sharp and acidic lambics and gueuzes in the Payottenland just west of Brussels. While production methods differ from brewery to brewery, there are some constants: Virtually all of these ales will have spent some amount of time in oak barrels or vats. Most of them will have been blended to taste and strength from a mixture of beers of varying acidity, intensity and alcohol content. And all of them have undergone some amount of “mixed fermentation.” The latter means these beers are fermented and conditioned not just with lab-cultured brewer’s yeast, but with “wild” yeasts and bacteria that produce the cornucopia of exotic aromas and flavors that make these beers so special. In addition to various strains of Brettanomyces yeast, which can create aromas as diverse as tart pie cherry to pineapple to gym bag to barnyard, these microorganisms are responsible for the creation of the acids that make sour beers so distinctive: Lactic acid, which is lemony, bright and tart, and acetic acid, which is vinegary, sharp and powerful.
Getting into the world of Belgian sour beer can be a little overwhelming at first. I find the Flemish and Brussels distinction works well as a kind of rough taxonomy: Beers from Flanders tend to be darker, from pale brown to deep burgundy, though usually without any roasted malt character. These beers are typically balanced between malt sweetness and acetic acidity, creating a sweet-sour contrast that sometimes plays right on the edge of savory and always loves the accompaniment of food. Brussels and the Payottenland region west of the city are famous for lambic, a pale beer of moderate strength made from pilsner malt and unmalted wheat, the long, slow mixed fermentation of which produces a nearly uncarbonated beer with a lactic sourness and wealth of rustic character. Young lambic is often described as earthy or barnyard-like. A blend of one-, two- and three-year old lambic is used to create gueuze, a singular beverage that referments in the bottle to create a fine, sparkling effervescence. Traditional gueuze is one of the most complex drinks in the world, and the long fermentation and exposure to oak create a beer overflowing with aromas of citrus, apple, spice, honey, oak, vanilla, earth and hay. These beers can be quite sour, but the best of them “have some acidity, much like white wine, but not much more,” according to Jeff Sparrow’s Wild Brews.
For a fine example of Flanders-style sour ales, seek out Liefman’s Goudenband, a strong oud bruin (old brown) ale. Liefmans has been brewing brown sour ale since the late 17th century, and their expertise is on full display in this 8% ABV beer laden with flavors of tart cherry, raisins, oak and malt, with just a slight acidic edge that you feel in your cheeks. A phenomenal food beer, try it with lamb or a strong blue cheese.
For a go-to gueuze, my first choice is typically Boon’s Oude Gueuze Mariage Parfait, which you should be able to find at any good bottle shop with a little poking around. Also 8% ABV, this beer is tart and refreshing, with a mineral dryness and all the complex lemon and funk associated with this style. Try it with oysters for a revelatory culinary experience.