by Nathan Hak Biersommelier at Beerwulf 25 July 2021
Belgian beer styles
All about Belgian beer styles
Belgian beer is iconic, world famous, versatile, and delicious. Belgian beer culture is so special it's protected by the UN!
So, as you probably know, Belgium has a wide variety of beer styles. And at Beerwulf we have some great examples of these, but with so many cracking ones to choose from it can be a bit overwhelming.
If you really want to get a good grasp on the Belgian beer landscape, then this article is a great place to start.
Beer and beer styles are constantly evolving, but in Belgium there's are quite established, a characteristic of a traditional beer country. These styles are all top-fermented, so a term like Belgian Ale as a beer type doesn't say much, because they are all Belgian beer types: top-fermented beer from Belgium.
The bottom-fermented beer that us Brits are very familiar with - the lagers and the pilsners- do also dominate the beer landscape in Belgium. But despite their ubiquity they are not traditionally Belgian, and Belgians have not become world famous for producing these beers (although they make very good ones).
So,what are those styles, what defines them and what makes them so special? Here we explain the most important, including icons that are synonymous with the style.
Trappist beer is not a beer style. So, we've cleared that one up. This misunderstanding is quite persistent, so it's a good place to start.
This common misconception is understandable. Rather than commenting on the style, Trappist beer says something about the origin of the beer. That is, that it was brewed within the walls of a monastery. However, it says nothing about the actual style. Belgian abbey beer is also not a beer type or style. We have a much more detailed description in our article below.
Most beer lovers don't think of hair colour when they hear the word 'blonde'. Blond is a very popular beer style because it is drinkable, tasty and accessible at the same time. It is a light-coloured beer and sometimes golden. Slightly malty, slightly sweet, slightly bitter without too many hoppy aromas. As mentioned, it is top-fermented, and this yeast gives some fruity (esters) and spicy (phenols) notes. The alcohol percentage in the Belgian versions is above 6% and almost always remains below 8%.
4.1%-6.3% | 20-30 IBU | 12-24 EBC
Amber is the colour of this beer. Originally invented as a Belgian equivalent to the rapidly emerging lager, this beer style has now been overtaken by the many modern, American-hopped pale ales. The Special Belge is characterised by a mild, floral hop aroma. The malt delivers subtle notes of caramel and/or toast. A not very intense beer, it should also be easy to drink.
Style icon: De Koninck APA Bolleke, Palm
A Belgian Pale Ale that we must also mention is Orval. This beer is pretty special because it changes over time. This is because the Brettanomyces yeast remains active for years so has a different flavour impact depending on the age. That means that at certain ages, it will taste different. A young Orval tastes hoppy but over time it becomes more effervescent, drier with a wild touch that can be nicely described as funky. Its special and unique!
This beer style is characterised by the colour: brown, which admittedly isn't the sexiest description. It was for this reason that it is regularly called Belgian Brown or in French Brune. According to some beer professors these are different styles, but here they are put together because there are numerous similarities. The name comes from the amount of malt and original wort (amount of sugars for fermentation).
Westmalle Dubbel is considered the first of its kind. Brewed since 1926, it is the reference for all Dubbels that have succeeded it. The colour can come from dark malts, but also from dark candy sugar. The interplay of malt, candy sugar and yeast creates a beer with flavours of caramel, raisin and apricot. The hops (and sometimes herbs) provide a spicy touch. The finish is fairly dry with a mild hop bitterness. Delicious!
Powerful and tasty, but also accessible and dangerously drinkable. That's a Tripel in a nutshell. A very attractive beer for almost every beer lover.
A Tripel is blond to golden with a large, thick head. The yeast provides the fruity character, which is reminiscent of banana and pear, among other things. The sweetness and bitterness are well balanced, and the high carbonation completes the party.
Don't be fooled by the drinkability, this style is punchy and strong. And although the sugar syrups is what creates the high ABV it is also the sugar that ensures this beer is always easy to drink and approachable!
The Westmalle Tripel (just like the Dubbel) is seen as the mother of the beer style. The first, however, was Witkap Pater in 1932, according to some sources according to Westmalle's recipe. Westmalle followed in 1934 and improved the recipe in 1956. Since then it has been called Tripel and this beer has set the standard for the beer style.
7.1%-11.2 | 20-50 IBU | 7-20 EBC
Powerful, tasty, blond, dangerously drinkable and loved by many beer lover. Do not confuse this with the Tripel, although it does look a lot like it. As with Tripels, light sugar syrups play an important role: they create a strong beer with a light body! They're also very moreish.
La Chouffe (available in bottle and SUB Keg) is a great example of blurring the boundaries between beer styles. They just call it blond, but this beer with the famous gnome certainly looks like a Tripel. Or taste Malheur 10, a beautiful strong blonde, which wouldn't look out of place among the Tripel.
If you try Duvel, you will immediately know the difference. Dryer, lighter in colour and less fruitiness from the yeast compared to a Tripel. The hops provide a clear citrus aroma. Duvel is this beer style, with many clones, such as Hapkin, Judas and St. Feuillien Grand Cru.
The beer with the pink elephant, that's Delirium. It's so iconic that it deserves its own mention. It has obtained this status partly due to the pink elephants on the labels, combined with the somewhat suggestive name. Delirium Tremens is the most famous version and does justice to the Strong Blond beer style, in all its formats. Although, blond, it is rather golden in colour, so a Golden Ale. The banana and pear aromas are reminiscent of a Tripel, complemented by spicy notes of coriander and cloves. This is Belgian beer at its best.
Delirium Tremens is available in SUB Keg and Draught Keg.
Blond Beer | 8.5% | 2 Litres
Blond Beer | 6.8% | 2 Litres
Blond Beer | 4.6% | 2 Litres
Dubbel Beer | 6.8% | 2 Litres
Blond Beer | 8.0% | 2 Litres
7.1%-11.2% | 20-50 IBU | 18-70 EBC
The Belgian answer to barley wines. Dark in colour, often brewed with dark sugar, in that sense, very similar to the Dubbel. In fact, many of these strong Belgian dark beers are considered as more powerful versions of the Dubbel. They are also a lot more complex, with malty flavours of caramel, honey, bread crust, raisins and chocolate. They often have a fruity and spicy element that comes from the yeast, such as apple, banana or cloves, sometimes these flavours are created by adding additional spices too.
The difference between these and barley wines is the dark sugar. The sugar creates a lighter body and makes them a lot more drinkable. That's ok, these beers are there to take your time over.
Kwak is another example of a typical Belgian beer that deserves a separate mention. It is world famous, getting its name from an 18th century innkeeper and brewer. As far as colour is concerned, it is more of a Special Belge, but all other characteristics go towards Strong Blonde and Strong Brown. A kind of Strong Amber. The sweetness and bitterness is balanced. You can taste notes of caramel and orange peel, hints of liquorice and a slightly spicy character. The light body keeps it drinkable.
9.1%-14.2% | 25-50 IBU | 32-72 EBC
This is actually a Dutch beer style, the Trappists of La Trappe introduced this style name in 1991. The La Trappe Quadrupel, is the style icon. However, there are plenty of fantastic Belgian examples.
This beer style has an overlap with strong brown. According to some beer connoisseurs - together with barley wine - it is all the same. However, we believe the difference is in the malt profile, which is more prominent in a Strong Brown. A Quad is more towards dried fruit, such as raisins and dates, supplemented with a malty touch of caramel, but no chocolate. Added sugars (there they are again) keep the whole thing drinkable, although they are typically beers to sip quietly and enjoy slowly.
Style icon: St. Bernardus Abt 12, Malheur 12, and of course, La Trappe Quadrupel
4.8%-5.6% | 10-17 IBU | 4-8 EBC
It's no wonder this refreshing beer style is especially popular in summer. Wheat beer is brewed with malted and unmalted wheat, coriander seeds and curaçao peels (a small, sour orange with a bitter skin). These act as complementary flavours to the bready, bright wheat notes.
White beer is by definition unfiltered, making it look hazy. It is very light in colour but not white. The Belgian yeasts make them fruity and spicy with a light refreshing sour touch, thirst-quenching at its finest.
Style icon: St. Bernardus Wit, Blanche de Namur
4.4%-6.8% | 20-38 IBU | 8-14 EBC
Legend has it that Saison was originally brewed on farms for the farm workers, which is why it is also referred to as Farmhouse Ale. It was brewed in the winter (because of the lack of cooling techniques this was common anyway) and drunk in the summer months to quench the workers' thirst. A seasonal beer, in French 'saison'.
A typical saison is fizzy and dry. The yeast provides the typical fruity and spicy flavours, the high degree of fermentation provides the dry character. This means that most sugars have been fermented, so dry is the opposite of sweet. This whole is often topped off with aromatic hop scents. The aftertaste can be quite bitter due to the dry character. Properties that make it a very good aperitif beer.
Style icon: Saison Dupont, St. Feuillien Saison
Not all Belgian beers are top-fermented, beers of spontaneous or mixed fermentation are also typically Belgian. This form of fermentation means that they all have at least an acidic touch, the degree depends, among other things, on the brewing method and additives used.
4.8%-6.6% | 5-18 IBU | 24-50 EBC
These are two Flemish beer styles that are often spoken about in the same breath. Both of these undergo fermentation with lactic acid, which make them feels sour. The result is a sweet-sour beer.
The big difference between the two is to do with the wood aging, which is barely or not at all used with brown variations, it is indispensable with the Flemish Reds though. The latter undergoes a long maturation in wooden barrels. Many kinds of fermentation occurs, of which Brettanomyces is the best known. Because of this wood aging, Belgian Rood is more complex, Belgian Brown is milder and sweeter.
Style icon: Rodenbach Classic and Rodenbach Grand Cru (Red), Liefmans Goudenband (Brown)
5.0%-8.9% | 9-23 IBU | 12-80 EBC
These are the oldest and perhaps most complex beer types, coming from the Senne Valley, the area southwest of Brussels. These are as traditionally Belgian as you will get.
Lambic is a wheat beer (such as white and weizen) with 30-40% unmalted wheat from spontaneous fermentation. It is brewed with old hops, because they release less bitterness.
After boiling the wort, the sugar-rich liquid is pumped into a cooling vessel, a huge, shallow bath in the brewery. The windows or hatches of the room where the cooling vessel is located are then opened, so that wild yeasts and bacteria from the air and the room itself end up in the wort. These then initiate fermentation, after which the wort is pumped into wooden barrels. These barrels also each have their own yeast and bacterial flora. In 1 to 3 years, the beer undergoes all kinds of fermentation phases, resulting in a complex, sour to deeply sour beer.
Most of these lambics end in Geuze: a blend of different lambics. We call this blending, or mixing, stitches. This is a true art, the gueuze maker chooses from various barrels of lambic of different ages to achieve an optimal blend.
Style icon: Boon Oude Geuze, Oud Beersel Oude Geuze
5.0%-8.9% | 9-21 IBU | Colour depends on the fruit
The best-known fruit beer from Belgium is kriek-lambic. Using a gueuze or lambic as a base, cherries are added. Then it can be sweetened, with a sweet, cassis-like beer that has a sour undertone.
Oude Kriek is a variant that is not sweetened and undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle. The result is quite complex in taste thanks to the barrel maturing. Cherries are also added to Belgian Brown, such as in Liefmans Kriek Brut.
It doesn't stop with cherries either; raspberries are also beautiful fruits to use. Lindemans also has a lambic with peach juice and a version with apple juice.
Style icon: Boon Kriek and Oude Kriek, Mort Subite Kriek Lambic