Written by Nick Jurkowski
Filed Under: Beer Tasting
You will find most anything you are looking for among the beers of Belgium. From crisp, thirst-quenching lagers to darker strong beer and sour gueze lambic, Belgian beers run a gamut of flavors that are both strange and wonderful. For many beer-lovers, there is still an aura of mystery surrounding Belgian beer - estery flavors and unorthodox brewing techniques abound, giving many Belgian ales a character unlike any other beer in the world. Once you develop a taste for them, you'll find that Belgian beers can develop a flavor and complexity that rival the finest wines. Here is a rundown of the styles and some recommendations.
As with everywhere in the world, it seems, Belgium has a taste for light lagers. The well known Stella Artois is one such an example, and though it is a decent beer, if its the only Belgian-style beer you've had, then you haven't really had a representative sample. That being said, Stella Artois is a fine place to start if you've never had a Belgian and you don't really know what to expect. It is light and easy to drink, and there is a slight yeasty taste to it, which makes a good introduction to the fuller, more complex Belgians.
A Note on Terminology
When perusing Belgian beers, you will most likely notice the terms "Trappist" and "Abbey." These are not individual styles, but categorizations that will tell you a little about how the beer is brewed. "Trappist" means that the beer was brewed in a Trappist Monestary under the authority of monks, while "Abbey" simply means that the commercial brewer of the beer has licensed the name of an Abbey for use on their product (very few of them are actually brewed in Abbeys). Though the difference is somewhat arbitrary, there are subtle differences in the taste. For example, a Trappist dark strong ale will taste a little different than an Abbey example of the same style. For now, don't worry too much about these designations, and just get to know some of the important styles: dubbels, tripels, golden and dark ales, and blonds (lambics will have to wait - they are a category unto themselves).
Belgian Beers Commonly Encountered in the Wild
Dubbels: are complex, spicy beers that are not too dark, not too light, and have interesting esters present that will give a wide variety of fruity tastes (often plums or dried cherry). The alcohol level is generally pretty high (in the 6%-7% range), and there will probably be a little hop flavor and aroma. The spicy and fruity flavors are not due to the addition of spices and fruits, but are byproducts products of the fermentation process. For me, the dubbel is the quintessential Belgian Beer. Try Chimay Red or La Trappe Dubbel (both of these are Trappist beers, FYI).
Tripels: Are lighter and more alcoholic than dubbels, and are typically quite dry. The fruity character leans more towards citrusy, and the hops used are spicier. In spite of the high alcohol content (generally 7%-9%), there isn't a whole lot of alcohol flavor or intensity. Try Unibrou's Fin du Monde (actually from Quebec, but one of my favorites of the style).
Golden and Dark Strong Ales: Are quite alcoholic, (ranging 8%-12% ABV), and have excellent malty flavors. Golden ales have lighter, citrusy esters while the dark ales offer the taste of raisins or figs. A Golden can taste a lot like a Tripel, but are generally even lighter and crisper while darks are strong and often a bit peppery, with a deep, complex character. Duvel is the quintessential example of a golden, while Chimay Blue is one of my favorites of the darks.
Blonds: These beers often have a similar style as a trippel, but aren't as dry and are lower in alcohol (6%-7%). They often have an almost lager-like character, which makes this style popular with those unfamiliar with Belgian beer. Try Val-Dieu Blond.
In serving most Belgian Style ales, you will (in general) want a wide mouthed, bowl glasses with feet and long stems (which look like a cross between a wine glass and a typical English pint.) These glasses are perfect for allowing you to fully appreciate the subtle aromas and flavors of the best Belgian beers.
Don't think for a minute that we have exhausted the topic of Belgian beers - we haven't addressed lambics, sour browns, the Walloons' "Saison" style, or Flemish Reds (with a name like "Flemish," it has to be good), to name a few. One could spend volumes talking about Belgium's brewing history, and in fact, many have. It pays to be adventurous with Belgian Beers, so just keep trying them - you never know when you'll find your new favorite.