10 best Belgian beers
From its world famous Trappist heritage to its burgeoning craft scene, there’s more to this land than chocolate and waffles
Is Belgium the greatest beer brewing nation in the world? Spearheaded by its six Trappist breweries, the country was always renowned for producing a great number of beer styles to exceptional standards. But when the craft revolution began, many of those styles were copied and modified by a wave of innovative new breweries around the world and Belgium looked like it might get left behind. Thankfully this lapse didn’t last long as the country’s breweries started to take note of what was happening elsewhere in the world.
Paul Walsh, of Belgian Beer & Food magazine, knows the local beer scene better than most and has keenly observed the new brewing trends. “What’s interesting now is that foreign influences are again making their mark in Belgium,” he says. In areas such as the Westhoek, traditional breweries like Leroy focus on local styles and using techniques that haven’t changed for decades, he adds. There are also “upstarts like Struise experimenting with influences and ingredients from all over the world”.
“If there is a common thread, it’s an obsession with balance and quality,” says Walsh. “You may from time to time find a dull or uninspired Belgium beer, but it’s rare to find one that’s imbalanced or technically flawed. The weight of tradition is hard to avoid, even for the latest Belgian startups.”
Now Belgian bars serve a vast array of traditional and modern local beers, which makes picking out 10 of the best a daunting task. To help narrow the field we’re restricting our selection to beers that are available online in the UK, ruling out some of the newest breweries along with a few older gems including the much hyped Trappist ales of Westvleteren, which are only available directly from the monastery.
So here’s our list of 10 beers from, in our opinion, the best brewing nation in the world.
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1. Westmalle Tripel, 9.5%: £3.30 for 330ml, Beer Hawk
If one beer could represent Belgium’s vast brewing output, it would probably be Westmalle’s Tripel: a Trappist blond ale brewed to a high strength. It has the unmistakable aroma of spicy Belgian yeast and a dense white head sits atop its golden body. The spice carries through to the taste, along with some soft fruit flavours and the smooth, sweet malts that provide its boozy base. It’s a fine example of Trappist brewing and deserving of its title “The Mother of Tripels”.
2. De Ranke XX Bitter, 6.2%: £2.30 for 330ml, Beers of Europe
This is a golden Belgian beer with the malt levels turned down a notch and the hop count set to high. The brewery describes it as having a “low alcohol content” at 6.2 per cent, but Belgium is strong beer territory, so to us Brits it’s almost like an IPA. It’s light and effervescent with a moderate amount of yeastiness and is gluggably dry. The hops are pepper and pine, displaying their bittering abilities to the fore but falling short of the full throttle roar of many modern IPAs. It’s a wonderfully brewed Belgian ale given a brilliant hoppy twist.
3. Duvel Tripel Hop Citra, 9.5%: £4 for 330ml, Beer Hawk
The golden sparkle and clean, crisp taste of a chilled Duvel has put it at the top of many drinkers’ best-beer lists for decades, but recently the brewers have started to play with its classic ale. In 2007 an additional “tripel hop” was added to the staple combination of saaz and styrian golding and in 2016, after trying numerous varieties in this intruders role, beer fans voted Citra as their favourite. At 9.5 per cent it’s a touch stronger than the classic Duvel and that hop addition gives it a lovely twist of grapefruit and lemon alongside the yeasty, peppery and subtly sweet and bitter flavours of the original. A brilliant modernisation of an enduring classic.
4. De Struise Brouwers Rio Reserva (St Emillion Wine and Kentucky Bourbon BA), 11%: £7.75 for 330ml, Beer Gonzo
De Struise is one of Belgium’s most influential modern breweries, giving old techniques such as barrel-ageing and blending a contemporary twist with some highly experimental beers. This edition of its Rio Reserva series has been aged for four years, initially in the brewery’s own tanks before being transferred to St Emillion wine barrels, finishing in Kentucky Bourbon barrels. You can taste the added booziness seeping into the beer, a vinous amber brew with smooth malts, rich caramel flavours and a warm, spicy tickle of oak – and that whiskey makes its presence known from the outset.
5. Rodenbach Grand Cru, 6%: £3.10 for 330ml, Beer Merchants
This Flemish red ale is a complicated beast, a blend of two thirds aged in oak foeders for two years and a third comprising younger beer. Various yeasts and bacteria strains provide the ammunition for fermentation that brings a fruity sourness to the rich oak and caramel malt flavours. Cherry and plum are the most obvious of those fruits, building to such a level that some people are surprised there are no real fruits involved. Serve yourself a plate of the softest cheese you can find and sip it like a fine wine. Classy stuff.
6. Fantôme Saison, 8%: £9 for 750ml: Beer Merchants
The traditional French and Belgian farmhouse saison is now brewed the world over, with the style morphing into many forms, so we had to find room for a classic Belgian offering in our list. Dupont’s saison is widely regarded as one of the best, while more experimental breweries including Brasserie de Blaugies and Fantôme produce some excellent examples of the style. The latter’s “standard” saison has a touch of the characteristic barnyard whiff along with the lighter aroma of lemongrass. It’s a beer of many parts, displaying funky yeasts, sourness, floral and grassy hops and some lemony spice. And once you’ve enjoyed this, move on to the brewery’s Vertignasse, an equally complex wit beer that comes in a vivid shade of green.
7. Boon Oude Geuze, 7%: £2 for 250ml, Beers of Europe
If you can track them down, geuzes – a blend of old and new Lambics – from Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen are worthy of attention, but thankfully Boon’s far more ubiquitous bottle is also an outstanding example of the style. It’s Champagne-like in its dryness and sparkle, thanks to the young Lambic additions causing a fermentation in the bottle, and has notes of musty grapes amidst the sour and oaky flavours. It’s a great choice for anyone wishing to explore the world of sour beers, with the funky, cheesy flavours nicely restrained, but it’s also a beer that will happily sit on the sour connoisseur’s shelf.
8. St Bernardus Wit, 5.5%: £2.25 for 330ml, Beer Merchants
Belgian wit beers are brewed with wheat and spiced with coriander and orange peel, and this offering, from a brewery that started out as a cheese factory, is as good as it gets. It has the heavenly appearance of fluffy golden clouds and a wonderfully invigorating aroma, built up of fruits, citrussy spice and yeast. It’s clean and refreshing but also has a soft, frothy carbonation, which is enlivened with the coriander and hints of lemon and orange. It’s a great thirst-quencher and the perfect beer to reset the palette if you’ve been drinking stronger Belgian ales.
9. De Cam, Framboise-Lambiek, 6%: £25 for 750ml, Beer Gonzo
It costs a small fortune but we’ve included this big bottle of Lambic-style fruit beer as a great example of a traditional Belgian beer produced by a modern brewery. It’s another sour ale, with more of those funky yeasts working their magic, and has been loaded with raspberries, giving it a sharp fruit jamminess. Barrel-ageing has brought in some woody depths and tipped the intense sourness towards vinegar, yet it remains a pleasure to drink – a soft and light beer full of vibrant tart flavours.
10. St Feuillien Brune, 8.5%: £3 for 330ml, Beers of Europe
St Feuillien is a Wallonian brewery founded in 1873, whose tripel gives Westmalle’s a run for its money. But we’ve picked it out for this Abbey-style brown ale. It’s a rich malty brew, with sweet caramel leading to dry fruit and grain flavours. It’s well hopped, which gives it a long bitter finish that gets increasingly dry and contributes to the layers of complexity developed by the other ingredients.
World class beers abound in Belgium so picking the best is a thankless task. But if you’re new to the country’s beer then we suggest starting with a strong, golden tripel – and of these, Westmalle’s sets the benchmark for the rest.
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