Belgian specialty beers are all the rage at America’s hip watering holes right now. Call out for a “Grand Cru,” a “Cuvée” or a “Réserve” that arrives in a distinctive goblet, flute or chunky pastis-style glass and you’ll be a connoisseur for the price of a table wine. But how many of those cool kids crowding the bar really know a Trappist from an Abbey beer, a Lambic from a Gueuze, or why disturbing a Lambic brewer’s cobwebs amounts to high treason? Read on to learn the stories behind Belgium’s most revered specialty beers, where to quaff them and how to find the elusive monastery brew some deem an aphrodisiac.
Monks were the master brewers in medieval days, when monasteries were the Low Country’s inns. Since unboiled water was unsafe, beer was the drink of choice, and the brothers became so expert in producing their rich caramel ales that business flourished for centuries. Today, seven monasteries—six of them in Belgium—are officially licensed to produce Trappist brews.
Best in Class: Orval (the “secret spice” is the abbey’s own well water); Westvleteren (Some devotees say the Westvleteren 12, a toffee-colored brew, as redolent of prune and rum as granny’s Christmas fruitcake, arouses more than the soul. Enthusiasts can reserve limited quantities once every sixty days via the Beer Phone: 32-70-21-00-45. And don’t even think about returning before your specified date: The monk selling beer from the monastery back door records your license plate and has an eerily good memory for faces.); Chimay Grand Réserve; Westmalle (the tripel is one of the few “golden” Trappist beers).
This rustic farmhouse ale, redolent of pepper, citrus and spice, was originally brewed in autumn from farmers’ leftover grains—barley, rye, wheat, spelt—then fermented until summer for Wallonia’s seasonal harvest workers, the saisonniers. The brew had nearly died out by the 1990s, when American microbrewers swooned over the crisp flavor profile, and today, says Wendy Littlefield of Vanburg & DeWulf (one of the first to import Belgian specialty beers to the U.S.), more than eight hundred American brewers produce versions of Saison.
Best in Class: Brasserie Dupont (best sipped in situ at the brewery's Caves Dupont in Tourpes, with hunks of house-baked bread and farmstead cheese from shops across the road).
Lambics: Gueuze and Kriek
Wild yeast is the key to Lambic, a startling combination of sourness and barnyard funk. These microorganisms native to the Senne Valley around Brussels and the Pajottenland to the west require a micro climate, so distinctive brewers like Cantillon won’t touch a cobweb or clean mold from their century-old casks lest such a change alter the beer’s taste. Yet Lambic is just the starting point for Gueuze, like chardonnay for Champagne. After six months to three years in barrels, skilled blenders combine young and old batches to prompt a Méthode Champenoise–style secondary fermentation in the bottle. Kriek is another offspring of Lambic, steeped with local cherries, redolent of fruit but surprisingly bone dry.
Best in Class: Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen (a brewery and cafe just outside Brussels in the town of Beersel); Cantillon (a brewery cum museum where €6 buys a tour, a generous sample and an impassioned soliloquy on Lambic from the Van Roy-Cantillon family member minding the shop).
When lay breweries began licensing ecclesiastical names to tap into the popularity of monastery beers, there was some push-back from Trappists on “branding,” so a less restrictive category of Abbey beers was created for brewers of these lush dubbels and tripels.
Best in Class: Slaghmuylder (a brewery now helmed by a daring young brewer, Karel Goddeau, whose Witkap beer is named for the Cistercian monk’s cowl); Brouwerij Dilewyns (run by one of Belgium’s youngest brewers, 25-year-old Anne-Catherine Dilewyns); Brasserie de Silly (a name that sounds perfectly reasonable in French).
Strong Golden Ale
A glass of ale might look as pale and delicate as a fairytale princess, but don’t be deceived. These satiny brews with a refined hint of pear have names like Lucifer, Delirium Tremens and Duvel (Flemish for “devil”) for good reason: at eight percent alcohol or higher, they pack a wallop. Creating a strong light-colored beer is tricky business; most high-alcohol beers are dark, and nearly a century ago brewer Jan-Leonard Moortgat teased apart the formula for his favorite McEwan’s Scotch Ale to learn the secret. The distinctive tulip-shaped glass is crucial for this style to preserve its rocky head.
Best in Class: Scheldebrouwerij (look for their Hop Ruiter, a rare microbrew).
Sour Red of Flanders
These lip-puckering “Burgundies of Belgium” can challenge even advanced-class tipplers with a vinegar-like punch that smoothes into a raisin-and-malt finish. Their complex flavor profile comes from aging more than a year in old oak barrels, where they pick up tannins, caramels, unpredictable wild yeasts and the same lactobacillus as yogurt.
Best in Class: Petrus (no relation to the wine, but certainly wilder); Rodenbach (look for the Grand Cru, aged in immense 150-year-old wood tuns that are scraped before each batch to expose new wood).
Where to Drink in Belgium
- La Fleur en Papier Doré. Now an official national monument, the walls of this cafe are still covered with offhand sketches by René Magritte and his surrealist cohorts, who gathered here nearly a century ago. 55 Rue des Alexiens Cellebroersstraat, 1000 Brussels. Tel.: 02-511-16-59. goudblommekeinpapier.be
- Oud Arsenaal. This homey bar is revered for its peeling wallpaper, geriatric regulars and “democratic” prices. Pijpelincxstraat 4, Old City Centre, 2000 Antwerp. Tel.: 03-232-97-54.
- ’t Brugs Beertje. You’ll find more than 300 choices and a warm welcome at this charming café. Kemelstraat 5, Bruges Tel.: 05-033-96-16. brugsbeertje.be
- Bezoekerscentrum De Lambiek. This year-old Lambic Visitors Center trains guests to recognize the scent of hops, wheat, barley and cherries before offering tastes of more than two dozen brews. Entry fee EUR2. Gemeenveldstraat 1, Alsemberg. Tel.: 02-359-16-36.
- Brussels Museum of the Gueuze (Cantillon Brewery). This dusty, moldy, stunningly original family brewery was a well-known beer-lover’s haunt well before placards on the century-old equipment and a EUR6 admission fee transformed it into a museum. Tasting is included, but don’t even think about touching one of those sacred cobwebs, which might disturb the microclimate and ruin the beer. 56 rue Gheude, 1070 Brussels. Tel.: 02-521-49-28. cantillon.be
- The Great Beers of Belgium by Michael Jackson. While Jackson died in 2007, this is still considered the masterwork on Belgian Beer. Read it before you go.
- The Good Beer Guide to Belgium by Tim Webb. Take this on the road to track down every worthy cafe, brewery and beer style in Belgium.
- Chuck Cook. A blogger with Belgian beer cred. belgianbeerspecialist.blogspot.com
- Vanberg & DeWulf. An encyclopedic source for Belgian beer information. Founders Wendy Littlefield and Don Feinberg have been introducing Americans to Belgian specialty beers for more than thirty years and were the first Americans inducted into the Belgian Brewers’ Guild. belgianexperts.com
- Visit Flanders. Up-to-date travel information. visitflanders.us