Belgian Beer

This article was featured in the February edition of Bartender magazine.

By Simon McGoram


Belgium, the home of the European Union, waffles, and damn good chocolate has a land area of only 30,528 km² – less than half that of Tasmania. Despite its diminutive territory Belgium is the forth largest brewing nation in Europe with an estimated 125 breweries in operation putting it behind only Germany, the United Kingdom and France despite all three having at least six times the population. It’s not Belgium’s output that is impressive, however, but rather the myriad traditional styles that are still available to this day.

“Belgium is also the only nation where one of the oldest forms of brewing – spontaneous fermentation – never died out.”

As with the rest of the beer drinking world cold fermented lagers and pilseners make up the majority of the beer consumed in Belgium with an approximately 75 percent slice of the pie. But this wasn’t always the case.

Belgium Beer Style Guide

Trappist Ales

This term should only be used for brews that are made at a monastery belonging to the Trappists – one of the most severe order of monks. There are six monastic breweries in Belgium (all Trappist) and all of them produce strong, bottle conditioned ales. The styles between the monasteries do differ and many can be aged for several years. The six monasteries are: Orval, Westmalle, Chimay, Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Achel.

Abbey Beers

The late Michael Jackson (the writer not the singer) tells us that this term applies loosely to ranges of strong ales that are made in a similar vein to some of the famous Trappist brews, but not made in monasteries. Some have names indicating a business relationship between an abbey and a commercial brewery like Leffe and Grimbergen. Whilst run by larger concerns (Leffe is run by brewing giant InBev for instance) royalty agreements often exist between the brewer and the abbey.

Belgian Brewing History at a Glance

Belgium beer brewing dates at least as far back as the Middle Ages with hopped beer being exported from the Netherlands in the 14th Century. Brewing was for the most part the dominion of various monastic orders during the middle ages. The famous Trappist monasteries that brew beer in Belgium to this were occupied in the late 18th century mainly by monks fleeing the French Revolution.

In 1830, Belgium seceded from the Netherlands to become a nation in its own right and during the 19th century the newly formed state eagerly participated in the industrial revolution – a revolution that also changed the face of brewing. Towards the end of the 19th century refrigeration enabled the consistent brewing of cold fermented beers namely lagers and pilsners – famous styles from Bavaria and Bohemia. These brews quickly gained popularity – enough to survive Belgium becoming the battleground of Europe during two successive World Wars.

After the war it looked as if traditional brewing might disappear entirely, but thanks to a load of monks flogging their specialty ales – brewed by the country’s six Trappist monasteries – the 1950s saw a resurgence of interest in ‘real ales’. Over the years many new brews have emulated the Trappist ales by affiliating themselves with an abbey and are hence called ‘Abbey Ales’.

“From beautiful blondes to mashed monks – the home of the EU is a beer lover’s paradise.”

In the 1960s a milkman by the name of Pierre Celis decided he’d revive a style once popular in his home town of Hoegaarden – witbier or ‘white beer’ which was first brewed there in 1445. The traditional brew is made from water, yeast, wheat, barley and hops, with coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel added for flavour. Fortunately Belgium was never subject to the German Reinheitsgebot or ‘beer purity law’ which banned the use of adjuncts. Hoegaarden (the brand beer is named after the village where it is brewed) has seen considerable global success and has many imitators.

Belgium is also the only nation where one of the oldest forms of brewing – spontaneous fermentation – never died out. Brewers don’t add yeast to their wort but rather use open air vats which allow in wild yeasts and bacteria. The resultant beer, once aged, becomes know as a lambic – the principle drinking style of which in Belgium is Gueuze – a blend of young and old lambics, corked and changed like a NV Champagne. Fruit flavoured lambics like Framboise (raspberry) and Kriek (sour cherry) are a popular export.

Today Belgium boasts a huge range of brews estimated at over 800 with seasonal releases bringing this number into the thousands.

Golden Ales or Blondes

Jackson tells us that in seeking to compete with Pilsener lagers by using very pale malts and Czech, Slovenian or German hops, whilst retaining ale yeasts, Belgium created a wide range of aromatic, fruity-tasting, golden specialities known as Golden Ales or Blondes. Some are at conventional alcoholic strength while others like the popular Duvel are much stronger at 8.5 percent alcohol by volume. .

White Beers or Witbier

Named after their cloudy white appearance, Belgium wheated brews contain a mix of malted wheat and barley, yeast, water and hops. Unlike their German cousins – wiessbier Belgium witbier often contains curaçao orange peel and coriander seeds. The brews are refreshing summer quenchers with a slightly sour taste due to the presence of lactic acid formed during the brewing process.


Lambic beers are spontaneous fermented brews which are aged and blended before bottling – often with macerated fruits. Whilst the unflavoured gueuze is the most common drinking style in Belgium cassis, peach, cherry and raspberry are also common flavours. Lambic brews are dry, vinous, and cidery with a distinct sour aftertaste. Lambic beer is considered to be the Champagne of brewing world.

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