Craft beer has been taking over the pub scene in recent years, with brews from the USA and UK competing with more established brands from across Europe. If you're a fan of small-batch beers you need to plan a trip to the place where everything began – Belgium. No matter which cities you visit, you'll discover that Belgian beer is big business for the locals and they take their brews very seriously. Remember, if you're planning a trip to Belgium, we can help. Get in touch to try our tailor-made travel service.
Belgium's beer-making history goes back centuries and it's famous the world over as being a top beer country. Official estimates suggest that there are more than 700 beers currently in production in the pint-sized country, with the rarest and most precious given the same reverence as fine wine. With so much choice, menus can be confusing, but these top 20 Belgian beers will give your taste buds a treat.
A Wallonian speciality, the Belgian brewery behind Bush claims that the original version is – at 12% – the strongest beer in Belgium. It tastes more like a barley wine and has a lovely golden colour and an earthy aroma. The 7.5% Bush is a tasty pale ale with a zip of coriander.
Straffe Hendrik, a smart little Belgian brewery located in the centre of Bruges, produces zippy, refreshing ales. Their Blond is a light and tangy pale ale, whereas the Bruin is a classic brown ale with a full body.
Made by the Trappist monks of Forges-les-Chimay in southern Belgium, Chimay beers are widely regarded as being among the best in the world. Of the several brews they produce, these two are the most readily available, fruity and strong, deep in body, and somewhat spicy with a hint of nutmeg and thyme.
Produced in the Ardennes, this distinctive beer is instantly recognizable by the red-hooded gnome (or chouffe) which adorns its label. It's a refreshing pale ale with a hint of coriander and it leaves a peachy aftertaste.
The creation of Jef Keersmaekers, this bottled beer is easily the pick of the many Corsendonk brews. It is known for its Burgundy-brown colour and smoky bouquet.
Named after – and allegedly the favourite tipple of – the Habsburg emperor Charles V, Gouden Carolus is a full-bodied dark brown ale with a sour and slightly fruity aftertaste. Brewed in the Flemish town of Mechelen.
This popular spicy amber ale is the leading product of Ghent's Huyghe brewery. There are even Delirium-owned craft beer bars across Europe in cities including Brussels, Lisbon and Amsterdam – the Brussels branch has over 3,000 beers to try from around the world.
Antwerp's leading brewery, De Koninck, is something of a Flemish institution – and for some a way of life. Its standard beer, De Koninck, is a smooth, yellowish pale ale that is better on draft than in the bottle. Very drinkable and with a sharp aftertaste.
Specific to the Brussels area and representing one of the world's oldest styles of beer making, lambic beers are tart because they are brewed with at least thirty percent raw wheat as well as the more usual malted barley. The key feature is, however, the use of wild yeast in their production, a process of spontaneous fermentation in which the yeasts of the atmosphere gravitate down into open wooden casks over a period of between two and three years. Draught lambic is extremely rare, but it is served in central Brussels at A la Bécasse. The bottled varieties are often modified, but Cantillon Lambik is authentic, an excellent drink with a lemony zip. It is produced at the Cantillon brewery, in Anderlecht, which is home to the Gueuze Museum (see below). Lindemans Lambik is similar and a tad more commonplace.
Another type of Belgian beer rather than an individual brew, gueuze is made by blending old and new lambic to fuel re-fermentation, with the end result being bottled. This process makes gueuze a little sweeter and fuller-bodied than classic lambic. Traditional gueuze can be hard to track down and you may have to settle for the sweeter, more commercial brands, notably Belle Vue Gueuze (5.2%), Timmermans Gueuze (5.5%) and the exemplary Lindemans Gueuze (5.2%).
The role model of all Belgian wheat beers, Hoegaarden – named after a small town east of Leuven – is light and extremely refreshing, despite its cloudy appearance. It is brewed from equal parts wheat and malted barley and is the ideal drink for a hot summer's day. The history of wheat beers is curious: in the late 1950s, they were so unpopular that they faced extinction, but within twenty years they had been taken up by a new generation of drinkers and are now extremely popular. Hoegaarden is as good a wheat beer as any.
Once again a type of beer rather than a particular brew, Kriek is made from a base beer to which cherries are added or, in the case of the more commercial brands, cherry juice and perhaps even sugar. It is decanted from a bottle with a cork, as with sparkling wine. The better examples are not too sweet and taste simply wonderful. Other fruit beers are available too, but Kriek is perhaps the most successful.
This Flemish beer, the main product of the family-run Bosteels brewery, is not all that special – it's an amber ale sweetened by a little sugar – but it's served in dramatic style with its distinctive hourglass placed in a wooden stand.
Brewed in Leuven, just to the east of Brussels, Leffe is strong and malty and comes in two main varieties. Leffe Blond is bright, fragrant, and has a slight orangey flavour, whereas Leffe Brune is dark, aromatic and full of body. Very popular, but a little gassy for some tastes.
One of the world's most distinctive malt beers, Orval is made in the Ardennes at the Abbaye d'Orval, which was founded in the twelfth century by Benedictine monks from Calabria. This Belgian beer is a lovely amber colour, refreshingly bitter and makes a great aperitif.
Produced at a Trappist monastery in the Ardennes, Rochefort beers are typically dark and sweet and come in three main versions: Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, and the extremely popular Rochefort 10, which has a deep reddish-brown colour and a delicious fruity palate.
Located in the Flemish town of Roeselare, the Rodenbach brewery produces a reddish-brown ale in several different formats, with the best brews aged in oak containers. Their widely available Rodenbach (5%) is a tangy brown ale with a hint of sourness. The much fuller – and sourer – Rodenbach Grand Cru is far more difficult to get hold of but is particularly delicious.
Forbidden Fruit is worth buying just for the label, which depicts a fig-leaf clad Adam offering the strategically covered Eve a glass of beer in the garden of Eden. The actual drink is dark and strong with a spicy aroma and has something of a cult following in Belgium. Produced by Hoegaarden.
The Trappist monks of Westmalle, just north of Antwerp, claim their beers not only cure loss of appetite and insomnia but reduce stress as well. Whatever the truth, the prescription certainly tastes good. Their most famous beer, the Westmalle Tripel, is deliciously creamy and aromatic, while the popular Westmalle Dubbel is dark and supremely malty.
Made at the abbey of St Sixtus in West Flanders, Westvleteren beers come in several varieties. These two are the most common, dark and full-bodied, sour with an almost chocolate-like taste.
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