When it comes to European beers, there are a handful of countries that get more love than all the others. We’re talking about the Czech Republic (or Czechia), The UK, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, and of course Belgium. While every country has its fair share of historical beers and great breweries, today we’re turning our attention solely to Belgium.
With its lambics, Flemish red ales, pale ales, strong ales, sour beers, geuzes, witbiers, and many other styles, Belgium is a beer-loves paradise. As of 2021, including traditional Trappist monasteries, historic breweries, and craft outfits, there were more than four-hundred operating breweries in Belgium. While that pales in comparison to the 9,000-plus breweries in the U.S., the small sample size guarantees that only great breweries actually make it in Belgium. You won’t find anybody opening up a craft brewery after a few months of making beer that their neighbor enjoys in their garage.
Brewing and drinking beer is a way of life in Belgium and it’s been that way for centuries. This means that numerous classic breweries have been cranking out notable brews since well before the U.S. even existed. One of the most well-known Belgian beers is Stella Artois. This iconic beer has been brewed since 1366. Another well-known brand, Affligem Brewery, can trace its genesis to 1070, making it one of the oldest breweries in the world, only being beaten out by Germany’s Weltenberg Abbey Brewery (1050) and Weihenstephan Brewery (1040).
All of this history and tradition might make you feel a little overwhelmed. It’s a lot. But if you’re looking for somewhere to start, you could do worse than these Trappist ales, blonde ales, strong ales, quadrupels, saisons, Flanders red ales, and even guezes. Even if you drink your way through this whole list, while you’ll be better acquainted with Belgian beer, you’re still a long way from scratching the surface of the brewing traditions of this European country.
Chimay Grande Reserve Blue
This nine percent ABV Trappist ale was first released in 1954. Originally, it was a Christmas ale called Blue Cap. This strong ale was so popular during the holiday season, Chimay decided to brew it all year long. They renamed it Chimay Grande Réserve and it’s one of the most popular Belgian beers. It’s well-known for its caramel malts, dried fruits, brown bread, fruit esters, sweet sherry, and dry, pleasing finish.
St Bernardus Abt 12
This 10 percent ABV quadruple is the flagship beer from St. Bernardus. It’s top fermented and is still made with the original recipe from 1946. It’s the kind of beer you can cellar for years, but you’ll probably want to drink it right away. The nose is pleasantly fruity and inviting. The palate is filled with yeast, dried fruits, and caramel with a lightly dry, bittersweet finish that leaves you craving more.
Rochefort 10 Trappist Ale
This is definitely not a beginner beer. You’ll have to work your way up to this 11.3 percent ABV quadrupel Trappist ale. One of the most popular beers in the world and a Gold Medal winner at the World Beer Championships, it’s known for its flavors of fruit esters, dried fruits, caramel malts, and a gentle, semisweet bitterness. Another beer that can be cellared for a number of years, your best bet is to buy two. Drink one now and save the other for a few years.
One version of delirium tremens is the medical term for the worst form of alcohol withdrawal. It includes body tremors, confusion, and possibly hallucinations. Luckily, this version is simply a delicious, popular Belgian beer. With a label adorned with the iconic pink elephant, Delirium Tremens is an 8.5 percent ABV strong blonde beer. It’s a warming, yeasty, clove, banana, fruit ester-filled beer that needs to be imbibed to be believed.
When it comes to the saison or farmhouse ale style, there are very few more well-known than Belgium’s Saison Dupont. Brewed since 1844, this stye of beer was originally created for farm workers to imbibe after a long day of work. Another beer perfect for cellaring, its flavors of grapefruit and other citrus, cloves, yeast, and fruit esters will only increase with age. If you only drink one saison, make it Saison Dupont.
Rodenbach Grand Cru
This popular Flanders red ale gets its Grand Cru name because its aged oak casks called foeders for an extended period of time. It’s a mix of one-third young beer and two-thirds beer that was matured in oak foeders for at least two years. The result is a sweet, tart, funky beer with a ton of fruit ester, dried fruit, wine-like flavors. It’s the kind of beer you’ll want to age even longer and then sip slowly like a glass of sparkling wine.
One of the most well-known and easiest-to-find Belgian beers on the market, Leffe Blonde is a 6.6 percent ABV Belgian blonde abbey ale. Brewed since 1240, it’s known for its flavors of vanilla beans, cloves, caramel malts, and light floral notes. It’s simple, fresh, and lightly bitter. It’s a great gateway beer to get you started on your Belgian beer journey. It helps that it’s easy to find in the wild.
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
If you’re not acquainted with the gueuze style of beer, use Cantillon’s beloved beer to get started. Cantillon Classic gueuze is a blend of five or six lambics that were oak barrel aged for different years. The result is a fruity, tart, yeasty, lightly acidic beer with a flavor profile made up of a ton of oaky wood, fruit esters, dried fruits, and a dry, pleasing finish. This is a great beer for wine fans to get immersed in the world of Belgian beer. Another beer that will only have its flavors increase when it’s cellared for a few years.
Achouffe La Chouffe
Adorned with a jolly gnome named Marcel riding a unicycle, this 8 percent blonde ale has won numerous awards over the years. Known for its lightly hoppy flavor mixed with tart citrus, sweet malts, and light spices, it’s the kind of beer your Belgian beer-loving friend has likely already raved about. Made the same way it was more than 40 years ago, it’s truly a classic that belongs in your fridge.
Orval Trappist Ale
This 6.9 percent ABV Trappist ale is brewed with simple ingredients like barley, water, candi sugar, hops, and yeast. It gets its tart, snappy, acidic flavor from the addition of Brettanomyces during bottling. The nose is yeasty and funky, almost like a barnyard. There are also some dried fruits and citrus peels. On the palate, you’ll find flavors of grapefruit, tangerine, fruit esters, caramel malts, banana, and a sublimely dry, memorable finish.