Belgian Beers 101: A Beginner’s Guide

With the rise of craft beer, brewers have really started experimenting with a lot of new styles, particularly here in the States. There are interesting takes on smoked porters, new styles of stouts that incorporate hot peppers. There’s even beer being brewed with yeast cultivated from some unlikely sources (we’re looking at you, Rogue, and you’re Beard Beer offering). 

With all that aside, there’s a lot to be said for going the traditional route, and it doesn’t get much more traditional than Belgian style beers. Belgians have brewed traditional, nonconformist beers for centuries. It can be confusing getting into Belgian style beers for the first time, though. What do those weird names mean – dubbel, tripel and the like? What makes a beer “Trappist”? 

Let’s take a quick tour through the various styles of Belgian beers, what makes a beer Belgian in the first place, and several other important things for an informed beer drinker to know.

What Makes a Beer “Belgian”?

Despite styles and flying in the face of country of origin even, you’ll hear drinkers proclaiming how “Belgian” a particular brew tastes. If you’re familiar with that difficult to define characteristic, you might find yourself agreeing with them after a sip. What is that underlying element that immediately identifies a beer as sharing its DNA with other brews from Belgium?

This is where things get a little tricky. With other national beer styles, it’s pretty easy to see the correlation. A bitter is a bitter. A Russian imperial stout is a Russian imperial stout. They all have variations and deviations from the norm, but they share more similarities than differences. Not so with Belgian brews, but they’re still intrinsically tied together.

Perhaps the best term to describe Belgian beers is “complex”. They’re known for their wide-ranging characters, the number of different spices and additions that might appear. You might find herbal aromas, or fruity ones (this last is one of the most common trademarks of Belgians, particularly here in the US). Many of these flavors come from actual fruit or herbs added during the brewing process, but a lot of them come from somewhere else – the yeast.

Yeast is responsible for fermentation – the transformation of sugars into alcohol. Belgian yeasts differ from those used in the rest of the world. While big breweries choose yeasts that provide clean, crisp tastes and little flavor, Belgian brewers go the other direction. They opt for yeast that offers the taste of clove, or banana, pepper or apples. It’s the yeast that’s responsible for Belgian beer’s complexity.

Styles of Belgian Beer

Now that we know a bit more about the essential “Belgianness” of these beers, it’s time to take a closer look at the various styles you’ll find out there. 

Abbey Ales: This is a very broad category, and you can thank the Trappist monks for this style’s enduring legacy. Abbey ales are some of the most complex you’ll find on the market and they come in many different subcategories – dubbel, tripel and quadrupel for instance.

There’s an immense amount of variation in those styles, but one thing remains true. Each type is stronger than the one preceding it. A tripel is stronger than a dubbel but weaker than a quadrupel. There’s more to know, though. 

Dubbels tend to be dark brown in color, with plenty of roasted malts in the mix. Tripels are denser, as they’re brewed with more malts. They tend to be lighter in color, though, and have more bitterness than other styles. Quadrupels are the strongest (10% ABV and up) and tend to be red/brown in color. 

Saisons: Saisons have become very popular in the last few years, but they’re a difficult style to really pin down. That’s because these “farmhouse ales” are intended to vary significantly, just as you’d find if you sampled the ale brewed at one farm and compared it to one brewed 20 or 30 miles away. Saison means “seasonal”, and they’re generally known for their fruity characteristics. They are also frequently herbed or spiced to create unique flavor profiles and can be a lot of fun to explore.

Lambics: The lambic style is incredibly interesting, and these beers can run a very wide gamut in terms of tastes, aromas and even body. Lambics are traditionally brewed in open fermenters, and any old wild yeast that found its way into the brew was allowed to colonize it. They’re super funky but super fun when you find the right ones. 

In the US, you’ll find straight lambic, which is the traditional form and harder to find here than other styles. You’ll also find fruit lambics, which are becoming very popular. There are quite a few brands out there, including Kriek and Framboise. Gueze is the third type of lambic. It’s a blend of new and old beer, and is usually aged for a year or so after combining to let the flavor profiles meld into something new. 

Witbier: Witbier, or Belgian white, is a popular style today. You’ll find it on offer from quite a few different breweries, from true craft brewers to Big Beer’s craft arms (Blue Moon is a prime example). These are pale beers with a thicker texture and lots of wheat. Orange peel and coriander are pretty traditional ingredients.

Flanders Red and Brown: Flanders is a city in Belgium, and it has two styles of beer for which it’s known – red and brown. Both are complex brews traditionally aged in wood barrels, and they generally contain a lot of sour notes along with complex fruity flavors.

What are your favorite examples of Belgian style beers? Do you have any preferred craft breweries that you think are really doing justice to the rich brewing traditions and heritage of Belgium here in the US?