What exactly is “Belgian Style” Beer? A brief synopsis of a complex category.
Brewing in Belgium dates back at least to the 12th century, but most experts agree beermaking likely predates this timeframe. Beer with a low (by modern standard) alcohol content was brewed and sold by local abbeys as a sanitary alternative to unsafe drinking water. From these traditional breweries, the Belgian Beer has evolved into a wide range of unique brewing styles and categories spanning nearly the entirety of the modern beer spectrum. With over 300 active breweries, Belgian beer culture remains one of the most active and influential in the global beer community. To claim that this is a comprehensive guide to all the distinct and unique styles of Belgian Beer would be the height of teetotalling hubris; rather, this guide is intended to help give a basis of information from which to leap off into the wonderfully diverse realm of the greater Belgian beer universe.
The (in)Complete Belgian Beer Style guide
- Trappist and Abbey Beers
- Belgian Ales
- Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel
- White, Wheat, & Witbier
Prominent Belgian Styles on the Brew Scene Today
Belgian beer is deeply varied and cannot be neatly described by a single unifying definition. Belgian Beers may be brewed in Belgium or they may be brewed internationally in traditional Belgian style. Perhaps the most collective similarity within the Belgian Beer genus is the use of Belgian yeast, which provides the characteristically “fruity” or “spicy” quality it is generally (although not explicitly) known for. With such an extensive selection, you are sure to find at least one Belgian Beer style (and likely a good many) that is exactly right for you.
Trappist beers are a singularly unique production style of beer in the brewing industry. This category of brewing dictates the manner in which the beer must be brewed as well as how the profits from its production and sale are used. To qualify as a true Trappist, it must be physically brewed within a monastery, the monks must participate in its production, and sale profits must be used in the support of the monastery (either directly or indirectly). All Trappist’s are Abbey’s, but not all Abbey’s are Trappists. Abbey Beers are similar in style or presentation to monastic beers, and the term generally describes the production rather than the flavour profile of the beer itself. The primary difference between the two categories is under the conditions of the production, with Abbey beers having somewhat more flexible guidelines to meet and still maintain their qualifier as an Abbey.
Ales brewed in the Belgian style are not entirely dissimilar to their international counterparts, with the most notable difference being the use of Belgian yeast and featuring a less hop-forward profile. Like the traditional pale ales popularized in Britain, Belgian Ambers feature rich malt, but often feature a less hop focused and spicy and/or fruited taste making for a satisfying drink. Flemish Red ale is characterized by specially roasted malt and pronounced acidic sour fruit flavour. Similarly, Oud Bruin features notes of sour and rich malts with a deep brown body. Brown Ales feature the rich malting and colour without any pronounced sourness. Scotch ales are typically dark and sweet with heavy bodies. Blonde/Golden Ales feature crisp colouring and low bitterness making for easy drinking. The name “Golden Strong Ale” is often used interchangeably with a tripel, a style discussed a bit further on.
The labelling of a beer as a dubbel, tripel, or quadrupel indicates several characteristics and qualities you should expect, most notably the strength, intensity, and style of each different type. This category takes its name from the marking of keg barrels brewed by monks denoting the beer was brewed with either 2, 3, or 4 times the malt content as a standard beer. This increased malt addition notably led to a higher alcohol content. Brewers differentiated these barrels with “XX” or (XXX, etc.). While these styles take their name from the methods of traditional monastic brewing, they are not true trappist or abbey style beers unless specifically labelled as such. These names (when used alone) indicate they are brewed in the traditional style without falling under the strict guidelines of the trappiest/abbey style of production. Dubblels call for double the standard amount of malt which results in a dark brown colour, deep malted flavour, and an elevated alcohol content (generally around 6 – 8 % ABV. Dubbels are characteristically bottle conditioned. Tripels call for (you guessed it) up to three times the malt as a standard recipe. Often described as similar to a strong pale ale, tripels are lighter in colour than dubbels (due to the addition of “candi sugar”) but several shades darker than a traditional German pilsner. This style exhibits the spiciness and complexity typical of Belgian yeast and are notoriously strong, making them excellent sipping beers. The Belgian Quadrupel (sometimes called Grand Cru) takes this style to the extreme, maximizing the malt content and producing a bold, incredibly flavourful, and complex taste with an alcohol content to make even seasoned imbibers blush.
Translated from the French Season, the Belgian Saison style takes its name from the seasonal ales brewed in farmhouses in the cooler months at the end of the harvest. Before the invention and availability of refrigeration, brewers would take advantage of the cool weather when bacterial activity presented less of a risk of spoilage. Due to their broad range of styles and the unique conditions and ingredients used in their creation, Saison’s did not historically share enough notable similarities to distinguish them as a specific style outside of being a refreshing summer beer. After the brewing process, Saison’s were stored and conditioned for the summer, when they would be served to itinerant workers as a source of clean nutrition and hydration. Today, the style is regarded generally as a moderate to high ABV and highly carbonated refreshing drink with notes of fruit and spice accentuating its bright character.
This wheat-based beer is distinct from other Belgian styles in its fermentation. While the majority of modern brewing uses specialty brewer’s yeast to ferment, Lambic beers rely on open air exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are native to their region of production. After fermentation, the Lambic is subjected to varying degrees of conditioning or aging which ranges from young (3-6 months) to mature (up to three years). This process gives this style a distinctive profile, often described as dry, cidery, and sour. There are four categories of Lambic beers – Lambic, Gueuze, Fruit Lambic, and Faro – each of which feature varying degrees of aging and/or blending of the individual styles and/or the inclusion of additional ingredients.
Following the theme for most of the Belgian styles we have discussed herein, stouts brewed in Belgian style exhibit the expected and characteristically dark colour and rich flavour found in stouts in general but with the added layered complexities imparted by use of Belgian yeast. Unlike many of the other classic Belgian Styles, this style does not boast its own category in global competition and is not defined strictly within the nation itself. The Belgian stout category features beer ranging from dry to sweet and strong to weak (to be fair: less strong). The sweeter versions of these are likened to the once popular British style of milk stout, while the stronger versions often carry the title of “Imperial” and are markedly higher in alcohol content and/or roasted maltiness.
White, Wheat, & Witbier
The multicultural makeup of Belgium and its influence on its representative brewing styles form the namesake for this beer style. This style is top fermented, leaving yeast and wheat protein suspended which gives the beer a pale cloudy colour in its finished form. It is this haziness where it derives its white, blanche, or witte name. Although produced under different brands and with different flavour profiles, traditional Belgian wheat beers are hazy and lightly coloured, moderately strong, and nearly always spiced with lively coriander or bitter orange. This beer is crisp and rich but not overly heavy, making it particularly enjoyable as a summer refreshment.
Break into Belgians
As mentioned at the outset of this writing, the incredibly broad and nearly limitless diversity fostered in the Belgian brewing culture over the last thousand years makes it impossible to adequately identify all the distinct examples that abound in this style. With its rich cultural heritage, historical significance, and breadth of variety, Belgian beer offers more than refreshment; it offers an experience. While the depth of complexity found in this brewing style may seem overwhelming, there are so many completely different beers to be found that there is without doubt a character and flavour profile that is ideal for your taste. Although you cannot enjoy every day in the idyllic Belgian countryside with a fresh draught in hand, Beerfarm can bring a bit of Belgium to you with their growing selection of the most popular Belgian styles. Don’t be afraid to expand your taste this way and you can guarantee a new favourite awaits.