When visiting Belgium, I was curious, what exactly makes Belgian beer so special – so famous? In order to find out, I went to the Delirium Cafe, a tap house in Brussels, home to over 3,000 different types of the beverage. Being the beer connoisseur that I am, I confidently marched up to the bar and asked for their “best Belgian beer,” upon which the bartender laughed and plopped a telephone book-sized list on the counter. Clearly baffled, the kind barman gave me a quick lesson and taste tests of each type to ensure I’d receive a proper beer education.
So, here are a few things I discovered! (All of the slightly confusing words are defined in a mini dictionary at the bottom).
1. Abbey Beer (‘abdjibier’) is the first type I learned about. Required by law, this type must be brewed by a lay brewery, and while it’s not necessary to brew within the abbey, the brewery can still use the abbey’s name. Therefore, fees are paid to the religious order, which are used to support the abbey and charities. Currently, there are over 25 of these breweries in Belgium.
2. Amber (Spéciale Belge) is a newer beer, appearing around the beginning of the 20th century due to a competition that was held to create a new, modern beer. The distinct trait is a very low alcohol content, but rich flavor. Specifically, they taste fresh, have a smell of roasted malt, and a slightly sour and refreshing finish.
3. Fruit Beers have received a soar in popularity only recently because of the increase in taste for fruity and sweet beverages (yummmm!!). Kriek beer is the most traditional of these and is made with cherries, which actually encourage further fermentation. Personally, my favorite beer out of all 3,000 (okay, I didn’t try all 3,000, but I tried several) was a Fruit Beer called Barbe Ruby… So next time in Belgium, make sure to try it!
4. Lambiek beers are one of Belgium’s oldest styles and have specific brewing ingredients and processes, consisting of at least 30% unmalted wheat, six times the normal amount of hops, and spontaneous fermentation contributing to the specific flavor. Typically, this beer is brewed only during the winter months (September until April), and then ages for a number of years.
5. Gueuze beers are made from a lambiek base, the traditional ones only using lambiek. Keep in mind that the majority of these are now just a mixture of traditional beers which use lambiek (which are not legitimate Gueuze). Old lambiek (authentic) adds a pronounced aroma and depth to the beverage, while young lambiek (uses additives) gives a sour taste.
6. Oud Bruin (Brown beers) are a mixture of two beers (typically young and old, in a specific proportion), and therefore mixed fermentation occurs during the brewing process. This type is top-fermented, uses hard water (having a high calcium content), and then is sweetened when transferred to the fermentation tank, resulting in a light beer. Oudenaards bruin bier (a specific type of a brown beer) is special because the malt is dried for longer and at a higher temperature in a process called eesten, resulting in a darker color.
7. Pils/Pilsener is the most widely brewed beer in the world (specifically, it’s over 90% of global beer production and consumption), and the name comes from the Czech town Plzen (aka Pilsen), where pilsener was first created. It’s brewed using water, pale malts, hops, and yeast, and is a low/bottom fermented beer, giving an alcohol content of about 5%.
8. Red Beers (Zuid-West-Vlaams Roodbruin) are a phenomenon of the West Flanders Region from the Middle Ages because it ferments at high temperatures, then matures for months (or even years) in vertical oak barrels (the bartender made sure to be very specific about these barrels). The basic ingredients include barley malts, yeast, local mineral water, hops, herbs, and a sweetening agent, and involves a mixture of high and spontaneous fermentation styles.
9. Saison is a type that’s mainly consumed in the Hainaut province of Belgium, where it’s brewed on a farm each winter (and has been for centuries). Due to its specific and traditional brewing location, it was close to extinction 30 years ago, but has made a phenomenal comeback and is now produced world-wide. Characterized by top fermentation, an alcohol content between 5% and 6.5%, and a golden color, these beers are light, dry, fruity, and herbal.
10. Prior to visiting Brussels, I received several recommendations to try Trappist beers because they’re the best known and most popular high fermentation beer. In Belgium, there are six breweries: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Achel, and brewing must take place in or near an active monastery and under the supervision of monks in order to receive the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo. While they have a wide-range of tastes, they’re typically high in alcohol content and rich in aromas. The main characteristics of this style are top fermentation, re-fermentation in the bottle, a sterile brewing process so that the beer can be stored longer, and the addition of sugar to increase the alcohol content and make the beer more digestible.
11. Wheat Beer (Witbier/Blanche) is a top fermented beer, and the brewer typically uses 30% unmalted wheat, adding herbs like coriander and orange zest to bring out the flavor. Having a cloudy appearance and mild taste, it traditionally was served with a slice of lemon. Dating back to 1318, the beer declined in popularity over the centuries and eventually became almost extinct, but Pierre Celis managed to single-handedly revive the beer during the 20th century.
Here’s a dictionary for those who aren’t familiar with the beer terminology (including myself):
1. Lay brewery is a brewery which has a contract with a still-active Abbey that previously produced beer.
2. Malt is barley soaked in water, germinated, and then heated to convert insoluble starch to soluble substances and sugar. It’s probably the main ingredient of beer.
3. Yeast is essential during the fermentation process because it converts the natural malt sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.
4. Hops are a type of herb that’s added to fermenting beer to give a bitter aroma and flavor.
5. Unmalted wheat typically provides a stronger flavor than malted wheat and is characteristic of Belgian Witbier.
6. Spontaneous fermentation is a process of re-fermentation that was discovered by Dom Perignon in the 18th century. He found how to make sparkling wine (aka champagne) from a mixture of non-sparkling wines.
7. Top-fermentation is characterized by a proneness of certain yeast cells (often called “ale yeast”) to rise to the surface during fermentation. This process works better at warmer temperatures due to the ability of this specific yeast to tolerate higher alcohol concentrations than the bottom fermenting yeast. Because it can’t ferment some sugars, it results in a fruitier and sweeter beer.
8. Low/Bottom fermentation is distinguished by the tendency of certain yeast cells (called “lager yeast”) to sink to the bottom during fermentation. This process works best at low temperatures, and ferments more sugars to give a crisp, clean taste.
9. Barley is a cereal grain that is malted for the production of beer and liquors.
10. Pierre Celis opened his first brewery in 1966 in order to revive the Witbier style of his hometown Hoegaarden.
Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Clemons