In Belgium, beer is sacrosanct. Committed to tradition, Belgian brewers make some of the world’s greatest and most timeless beer. In the thousands of local pubs spread across the small country, beer is a unifying source of pride for the Belgian people.
Belgian beer is diverse, with hundreds of breweries crafting unique artisanal products. The beer brewed in Belgium always has one thing in common: exceptional quality. Admiration for the craft runs through the fabric of Belgian society. Tradition and respect for beer has passed through generations of brewers and beer drinkers alike.
We’ve selected 10 of our absolute, timeless favorite Belgian beers – no easy task in a country with such rich beer history and tradition.
Belgian beer refers to any beer that is brewed in the small, beer-loving country of Belgium. Dating back centuries, Belgian beer is known for its quality and flavor. Despite Belgium’s diverse range of beers, there are common generalities when it comes to Belgian beer.
The majority of traditional Belgian beer has a very unique and distinctive yeast profile. Usually fermented warm, Belgian yeasts produce high amounts of esters and phenols. This creates fruity and spicy aromatics and flavors. On top of that, many Belgian beers are high in alcohol. Most beers are at least 7% ABV with many far exceeding 10%.
There are a few distinct, general families of Belgian beer styles:
Abbey beer is a general term for beer styles that were traditionally brewed at Abbeys, or Catholic monasteries. The most famous Belgian Abbey beers, of course, are from the Trappist breweries. In total there are 6 Belgian Trappist breweries: Westmalle, Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westvleteren, and Achel. The Trappist designation means that these beers are all brewed inside the walls of a functioning monastery by – or under the supervision of – monks.
Other Abbey beers, like St. Bernardus, are beers brewed with a connection, or previous connection, to a functioning monastery. Abbey beer styles includes Singel, Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel.
Across the country, regional breweries produce a wide variety of styles. Speaking very generally, most breweries have a pale ale, a dark beer, and a stronger beer, like a Tripel. Common across these styles is a specific yeast characteristic which is fruity, spicy, and complex. This typical yeast profile can be found in hundreds of Belgian beers, and is what brewers usually refer to as “Belgian yeast”.
Belgian Farmhouse beer, like Saison, also has characteristically Belgian yeast expression. Farmhouse beer usually has a more rustic, funky, or earthy undertone.
From traditional lambic, to Flemish Reds and Browns, Belgium has been producing sour beer for centuries.
Lambic is spontaneously fermented beer. That means wild, airborne microbes native to Belgium’s Senne Valley naturally inoculate and ferment this local specialty. There are a total of 10 lambic breweries, plus another 4 lambic blenders in Belgium. Lambic is sour, funky, and complex. It’s usually aged in oak barrels for 1 to 3 years, and blended to make gueuze and fruit lambic.
In Flanders, sour Reds and Browns rely on an acetic-character that adds bracing acidity and fruitiness. These are beers like Rodenbach Grand Cru and Duchesse de Bourgogne.
Centuries-old brewing culture has shaped brewers’ concept of flavor and brewing technique. Certain aspects of Belgian beer run through nearly every style of brewery and type of beer.
For the most part, Belgian beer should have very lively carbonation, a dry finish, and a billowing, pillow-like foam.
Almost exclusively, Belgian beer is bottle conditioned. This means that beer is re-fermented in the bottle to create carbonation. Doing so gives beer a fuller mouthfeel and fine, long lasting head.
Belgian brewers focus on yeast for the majority of the flavor contribution for many beer styles. Yeast selection and fermentation temperatures play a major role in overall beer flavor. Typical Belgian yeast is estery and spicy. Hops are normally used in moderation to accentuate the yeast complexities, creating an elegant balance.
With about 350 breweries producing over 1500 different beers, Belgian brewers use creativity to be distinct. Many breweries accentuate flavor with spices, like orange peel, coriander seed, or peppercorn.
Often, breweries keep their recipes – especially yeast selection – secret. Discovering the hidden intricacies of certain beers is part of the fun and excitement of drinking Belgian beer.
Trappist Westmalle is the second largest Trappist brewery in Belgium. It’s located in a serene and picturesque setting in North Eastern Belgium, not far from Antwerp. Since 1836, the monks at the Westmalle Abbey have brewed beers for the monastery, and eventually the world.
Westmalle Tripel is considered the archetype for the Tripel style. Pouring a slightly hazy golden yellow with a puffy white head, fine carbonation rolls through the glowing body. Estery banana notes from the yeast and spicy hoppiness immediately fill the nose. A full mouthfeel and a delicately fine balance of sweetness and hoppy bitterness coat the tongue. A warming 9.5% ABV creates a lucious, comforting experience without a trace of alcoholic bite.
Cantillon is widely considered the best sour beer brewery in the world. The small Brussels brewery has been family owned and operated since 1900. If you can get your hands on any bottles of Cantillon, don’t hesitate. They’re all amazing in their own way. Our favorite is Foufoune.
Foufoune is a lambic beer blended with fresh apricots. The fruit and lambic are left to ferment for about 5 weeks before bottling. The smooth mouthfeel balances an assertive acidity allowing the fresh apricot flavor to shine through. Layers of complex funk, acidity, and subtle malt coat the mouth. The snappy carbonation helps wash it down.
Adored worldwide by craft beer lovers, the Orval Abbey produces one of the most unique beers in Belgium. Orval takes influences from several classic brewing regions. The original brewer was Bavarian, inspired by English brewing techniques, resulting in a unique – yet very Belgian – beer.
The enticingly hazy orange body comes from a mix of pale malt with a bit of caramel malt. An added layer of sweetness is thanks to Candi sugar being added in the fermenter. Large amounts of kettle and dry hops bring herbaceous and spicy hoppiness. Young, Orval is bright, floral, and grassy. As the beer ages, funkiness takes over due to a strain of Brettanomyces that’s added at bottling.
Whether you drink it young or with some age, Orval is one of the greatest beers ever brewed. Complex, unique, and immensely drinkable, this renowned Trappist beer is a must-try for every beer lover.
De Dolle is a quirky and vastly underrated brewery from West Flanders. They brew a range of typical Belgian styles with their own twists. Full of flavor and character, De Dolle’s beers are familiar yet completely unique.
Arabier is a pale beer brewed with a heavy hand of Nugget and Whitbread Golding hops from nearby Poperinge. Their house yeast character soars through this heavily carbonated elixir. It meshes amazingly with the floral and herbaceous hoppiness. A dry finish and lingering maltiness keep Arabier insanely drinkable. The bitterness is firm, with a lingering Belgian hop presence akin to an American IPA.
Most famous for their genre-defining Saison, Brasserie Dupont’s best beer is Avec Les Bons Voeux. Blurring the line between Saison and Tripel, this 9.5% ABV golden amber beer is both thirst quenching and layered with complexity. Spicy and fruity on the nose, a fine carbonation allows a bright white head to float on the sparkling body.
Avec Les Bon Voeux – French for “with good wishes” – is a beer designed to share on a special occasion. Age a bottle and savor the elegant and intricate yeast expression on a holiday or an anniversary. On the other hand, it makes an ideal pairing for even a casual weeknight dinner.
Diverging from traditional Belgian brewing and forging a new path, De Ranke has a focus on hop-forward and bitter beers. A Belgian Pale Ale, XX Bitter is hopped excessively with Belgian Brewers Gold and Hallertau Mittelfrueh. Despite its name, XX Bitter is not a Bitter in the stylistic sense. Rather it’s more of an IPA, but still distinctly Belgian.
Unique hop expression in XX Bitter is partly due to De Ranke’s fermentation profile, and also to their use of only the finest whole leaf Belgian hops. There is a decidedly farmhouse feel to this beer, with a rustic graininess subtly complimenting the floral hop profile. A meringue-like white foam floats atop the light amber body, leaving a dense and sticky lacing along the glass.
XX Bitter is refreshing like an American Pale Ale, but with a rustic and distinctive complexity.
3 Fonteinen is a lambic producer and blender from Pajottenland in Belgium. They’re famous for their complex and funky beer. Their beers are some of the most sought after in the craft beer world.
Cuvee Armand & Gaston pours a bright orangey-golden with a slight haze. The lively carbonation pushes a puffy foam above the glass. Acidic and funky, 3 Fonteinen has crafted the quintessential gueuze. It’s an amazing tribute to the brewery’s original founder Gaston Debelder, and his son, now-retired master blender, Armand.
The Trappist Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy, in Belgium’s South East, houses a traditional and modest brewery. Specializing in only three beers, Brasserie Rochefort has brewed exceptional ales since 1899.
Trappistes Rochefort 10, their quadrupel, is rich and saturated with dark fruit flavor. Pouring a near-black reddish-brown, a chewy, bready body is layered with fig, prune, and pumpernickel. Balanced bitterness keeps the richness in check and a lively level of carbonation makes the 11.2% ABV fresh and drinkable.
One of the all time great comfort beers, Rochefort 10 is a timeless, expertly brewed quad that never ceases to amaze.
Duvel is one of the most widely consumed and recognizable beers across Belgium. Owned by the massive Belgian beer conglomerate Moortgat, Duvel is proof that big breweries can still make excellent beer.
Duvel is the Belgian Strong Golden Ale, it basically defines the style. Crystal clear pale golden body with one of the puffiest foams in the business, Duvel is Champagne-like in its dry, spritzy carbonation. Classic Belgian yeast esters are pushed out of the glass, complimented by a spicy hoppiness. Duvel goes down smoothly. Too smooth, for its devilish 8.5% ABV.
The Dubbel beer style is often overlooked in the wide gamut of Belgian beer. Brewed properly, Dubbels can be deliciously satiating, like a liquid bread. Prior 8 by St. Bernardus is the best of the style, and one of the great beers of Belgium.
Prior 8 is a dark brown beer with creamy off-white head. Banana, clove, and light toast aromas pop from the beer. The taste is similar, with a surprisingly refreshing lightness. Nutty, jammy, and complex, St. Bernardus brings forth all you can ask for in a Dubbel. The ultimate autumn beer, but can pair equally well with a summer barbecue or a Sunday roast.
In Belgium, nearly every single brewery has specific glassware for their beers. Part tradition, part marketing, and part function, Belgian glassware is a fun and fascinating part of the country’s beer culture.
Traditional wide opening, chalice-like glasses make it easy to pour foamy Abbey-style beer. Often, Belgian glassware is very oversized to allow for that quintessential large foam. On top of that, the shape of the glassware has been chosen by the brewers to accentuate the aromas, flavors, and appearance of the beer.
Belgian beer should be poured into the center of an angled glass (preferably properly branded glassware) to create a dense foam of about 2” to 3”. Belgian beer is highly carbonated, so it may take some practice to get the perfect pour.
Always leave the yeast sediment – the last ¼” or so of beer – in the bottle. You can safely drink it if you want, but it’s always best practice to serve the beer without its sediment.