Germany has long had a stronghold on the beer festival. Oktoberfest is celebrated worldwide, putting Germany and their delicious product at the center of the beer universe for several weeks. But what about the other beers of Europe? And what about the other months of the year? Why do October and Germany get to have all the beer fun and glory? It’s time for a beer revolution! Well, maybe nothing so dramatic, but isn’t it time to spread the joy of beermaking and drinking across the globe and the calendar? We think so. Oktoberfest, Schmocktoberfest.We declare Novemberfest, a month to celebrate the best Belgian beers. It’s time to understand that Belgians know how to make beer, too, and to celebrate Belgian beer. Jean-Claude Van Damme wants you to celebrate Belgian beer. Don’t let Jean-Claude down. It’s time to learn about the best beers Belgium has to offer.
Battle of the brews
Both Germany and Belgium have long histories of brewing, each going back centuries. But where Germany has a much more stringent method for making beer—the beer purity law, Reinheitsgebot, put into effect in 1516, limits the ingredients used in making German beer—Belgian beer making is a bit more relaxed and, no offense, Germans, creative. And while there may be a lack of regulations surrounding beermaking in the country, Belgians take it just as seriously as their German neighbors.
There are many different varieties of Belgian beer (some say 600, some put the number at 2,400...so one group is way off), giving the country a solid rep for specialty beers. One Belgian beer recipe can be very different from the next. Some brewers prefer to keep things simpler; others are ready to make full use of spices, fruits and herbs. Many Belgian beers require special glasses, the shape of which enhances the flavor and in which only that variety should be served. But that’s one of the few rules that Belgians stick to when making beer. The focus is more on innovation and the ability to create beautiful and unique flavors and styles. Nothing wrong with that, especially when all that nonconformity results in such good beer.
Different but the same
With so much beer and so much variety, it can get confusing trying to figure it all out. Luckily there are some ways to wade through this river of deliciousness without being entirely confused. Despite all the individuality, there are categories that each beer fits into to help drinkers better understand what they’re about to drink. Let’s break it down.
Trappist Ale: Trappist monks may not say much, but their beer speaks volumes. Trappists make some of the best, and strongest, beers. The Trappist designation does not refer to the style of beer, but who made the beer—monks. To be considered an authentic Trappist beer, the following criteria must be met:
o The beer was brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, by or under control of the monks
o The brewery and production must be managed by the monks
o Profits must be directed toward assistance and not financial profit
The Belgian Trappist breweries are Westmalle, Chimay, Koningshoeven, Rochefort, Orval, Achel and Westvleteren.
Dubbel: Dubbels are traditionally made in a monastery and have a dark amber to brown color (which comes from caramelized beet sugar). They are complex and tasty and have flavors of sweet malts, chocolate, nuts and dark fruit and are sometimes a little spicy. Some good examples are Achel 8 Brune, Westmalle Dubbel, Chimay Rouge, Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale and Westvleteren 8.
Tripel: A golden ale similar to the Dubbel but brewed with beet sugar that hasn’t been caramelized, Tripels are more subdued than Dubbels and have complex flavors. Interested? Of course you are. Get a Westmalle Tripel, Chimay Cinq Cents or Achel 8 Blond.
Quadrupel: Also known as Abt, these beers offer big flavor and strength. Quadrupels tend to be lighter while Abts are dark with dark fruit flavors. Try a Rochefort Trappistes 10, Achel Extra Brune and Westvleteren Abt 12.
Saison: A farmhouse ale, Saison is pale, citrusy and hoppy. Saison, meaning “season” in French, was originally brewed and stockpiled in cold months to be saved for the summer as a refresher. Saisons tend to be very dry and carbonated and have flavors that are both heavy in spice and fruit—there are many varieties within this variety. Try a Saison Dupont, Moinette Biologique or Dupont Avec les Bons Voeux.
Witbier: This tart beer—also known as biere blanche—is made from unmalted wheat, coriander and orange peel and is light and easy to drink. Hoegaarden and Caracole Troublette are good witbiers to try out.Belgian Strong Ale: This category is usually broken down further into dark and golden subcategories. Kind of catch-all categories, the dark versions tend to be similar to Dubbels and more malt-oriented, while the blonds are more similar to Tripels and have fruity, spicy hop flavors. La Chouffe, Unibrous Trois Pistoles, Kwak and Chimay Blue and are delicious examples of these beers.
Lambic: A funky little beer, a Lambic is dry and sour. An acquired taste, some might say. This beer is the product of spontaneous fermentation—it’s left out in open vats to collect wild yeast in the air. The process also involves boiling, letting bacteria settle and multiply and other weird things that result in a pretty unusual beer. Try a Girardin Oude Lambik or Cantillon Jonge Lambic Cognac.Gueuze: Strange name and strange flavor? Check. Gueuze is like an uncarbonated Lambic—it’s unblended and usually served on tap. It’s a mix of young and old Lambics and has flavors that include lemon, honey, brine, cheese and barnyard. Be bold and try a Drie Fonteinen Oude Gueuze or Boon Oude Gueuze.
Flanders Red and Brown Ales: These sour beers are historically aged in wooden barrels, making them plenty complex and flavorful. Dark fruit, black cherries, oak, chocolate, vanilla, currants—these are just some of the flavors you’ll come across in one of these beers. The browns have a deeper color and are nuttier in flavor and the reds are, well, a little cheesy. Try Liefman’s Oud Bruin or Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Proost! Op je gezondheid! Santé!
Belgium is small. Much smaller than Germany. You’d never know this based on the amount of beer they produce and the wild variety they come up with. Thanks to some good old initiative and creativity, you could probably go a whole year of drinking Belgian beers and not repeat. Those who aren’t glass purists will need some good vessels to try all those beers out—the Personalized Barware Crate, one of the best beer gifts for men, can lend a hand. Or glass. All that’s left is to choose a beer. And another. And then another. And give yourself plenty of time to enjoy.