Beginners guide to Belgian beer

In Belgium, beer rules. No other country boasts a brewing tradition more richly diverse. Standard Belgian lagers, notably Jupiler, Maes and Stella Artois, are world class. That’s what you’ll get if you ask at any establishment for a pintje/bière (typically €1.80 for 250mL). But what really gets connoisseurs in a tizzy are the 'angels and demons' – big bold brews that often derive from old monastery recipes or compete for the most diabolical names (Duvel, which means devil; Forbidden Fruit; Judas). The most famous of all, the six Trappist beers, are still brewed in active abbeys.

There are hundreds of varieties of beer, yet each one is served in its own glass, uniquely embossed and specially shaped to enhance the taste and aroma. Dip into our beginners guide:

Abbey beers

In medieval times, beer was healthier than water and approximated to barley soup – a meal in itself. In the early 19th century monastic beer production developed into a source of revenue for rebuilding monasteries that had been ravaged following the French Revolution. Today many fine, flavourful Belgian brews remain ‘Abbey Beers’ in name only since the monks have sold their labels and recipes to big brewery chains.

Trappist beers

Six abbeys of the strict Cistercian order still make their own ‘Trappist Beers’. Widely considered the epitome of the Belgian beer experience, these brews come in varying colours and strengths, but all are rich, smooth and intriguingly complex.

White beers

Known as witbier/bière blanche in Dutch/French, white beers are thirst quenching wheat beers, typically cloudy, flavoured with hints of orange peel and cardamon and drunk ice-cold with a twist of lemon on summer afternoons.

Lambics & fruit beers

In the Senne Valley southwest of Brussels mysterious airborne microorganisms allow the spontaneous fermentation of archetypal lambic beers (lambiek in Dutch). The idea is magical. However the taste of pure lambic is uncomfortably sharp and acidic. It’s rendered less unpalatable by barrel-maturing for up to three years, then blending (to make gueuze), sweetening with sugar/caramel (for faro) or by adding fresh soft fruit, notably cherries.

Other brews

Not all beers fit into neat categories, and not all abbey-style brews are Abbey Beers. A plethora of small-production artisan breweries produce special beers, sometimes experimenting with curious vegetable additions and historic recipes or coming up with ‘seasonal’ beers.

Must-try Belgian beers

  • The Trappists – mythic Westvleteren 12 consistently tops the list. Orval, Rochefort 10 and Westmalle Triple come in just behind
  • Pannepot – like liquid, alcoholised black chocolate, this unique and powerfully delicious brew takes some effort to find
  • If Leffe and archetypal white-beer Hoegaarden seem a bit corny, try the lesser known, higher-strength Leffe 9° or sturdy Hoegaarden Grand Cru
  • Duvel, Grimbergen Triple, Double Enghien, St-Bernardus, Ename Triple, Brugse Zot and La Chouffe are all readily available golden brews that are well structured and deceptively strong
  • De Koninck – a characteristic brown ale of mild strength. In Antwerp, where it’s ubiquitous, just ask for a bolleke (a ‘little bowl’ as the glass is nicknamed). Try some at the city's oldest watering hole
  • Silly Pils– fun to find if only for the name
  • Kriek Boon – if you hate fruit beers and can’t understand lambics, this remarkable cherry beer just might change your mind
  • Kwak – a characterful red beer served in a hilarious glass that shouts ‘I’m a tourist!’
  • Oerbier – a complex, Marmitey dark brew that’s best on draft
  • Garre – this 11% draught marvel with an incredibly floral head is only available in one pub. Handle with extreme care!

And where best to try them

  • Beermania, Brussels – the place to start, or finish, any serious beer study
  • Bierhuis Kulminator, Antwerp – off the beaten route but well worth finding
  • Café Botteltje, Ostend – seaside pub with 280 beers and counting
  • De Garre, Bruges – well hidden bar between Bruges’ main squares
  • Herberg De Dulle Griet, Ghent – inside or outside, as the weather dictates
  • Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, Ghent – waterside location and a superb array of brews
  • Moeder Lambic, Brussels – grungy bar known worldwide for its extensive beer list
  • Oud Arsenaal, Antwerp – not a strict beer-specialist café, but can hold its own among the big guns
  • ’t Brugs Beertje, Bruges – Belgium’s most famous beer-specialist pub
  • Ter Posterie, Ypres – cellar café with a great summer courtyard.

Serious beer fans will want to visit Belgium's best breweries:

and specialist beer shops:

And, if that wasn't enough, time your visit for early September and you'll be able to catch the Belgian Beer Weekend, a beer tasting event held in Brussels' Grand Place that showcases new and time-honoured brews.

More information

Check out the Thorn Tree for some passionate discussion about Belgian beer, getting to Westvleteren without a car and other travel advice from Belgian beer-loving travellers.

This excerpt was compiled from Lonely Planet's Belgium & Luxembourg.