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What to know about Belgian beers

by Jeff Flynt

Since a trip to the liquor store or beer aisle in the grocery store is now an exercise in persnickety selection as opposed to the old "grab and go", there is one "style" of beer that may be more confounding than any other.

I put the word style in quotations in the previous graph for a reason, because according to Peter Bouckaert, Brewmaster of New Belgium Brewing, "In Belgium, there are no styles."

While that may be true in Antwerp, it isn't true in Appleton, Green Bay, Chicago, New York or anywhere else in the U.S.

Speaking of the Belgian genre; there are sub-categories within such style as there is with any other beer variety. 

Here are some of the main ones to consider (from Beer Advocate):

  • Belgian IPA - Inspired by the American India Pale Ale (IPA) and Double IPA, more and more Belgian brewers are brewing hoppy pale colored ales for the US market (like Chouffe & Urthel), and there's been an increase of Belgian IPAs being brewed by American brewers. Various malts are used, but the beers of the style are finished with Belgian yeast strains (bottle-conditioned) and the hops employed tend to be American. You'll generally find a cleaner bitterness vs. American styles, and a pronounced dry edge (very Belgian), often akin to an IPA crossed with a Belgian Tripel. 
  • Saison/Farmhouse Ale - Saisons are sturdy farmhouse ale that was traditionally brewed in the winter, to be consumed throughout the summer months. Not so long ago it was close to being an endangered style, but over recent years there's been a massive revival; especially in the US.  This is a very complex style; many are very fruity in the aroma and flavor. Look for earthy yeast tones, mild to moderate tartness. Lots of spice and with a medium bitterness. They tend to be semi-dry with many only having touch of sweetness. 
  • Witbier - A Belgian Style ale that's very pale and cloudy in appearance due to it being unfiltered and the high level of wheat, and sometimes oats, that's used in the mash. Always spiced, generally with coriander, orange peel and other oddball spices or herbs in the back ground. The crispness and slight twang comes from the wheat and the lively level of carbonation. This is one style that many brewers in the US have taken a liking to and have done a very good job of staying to style. Sometimes served with a lemon, but if you truly want to enjoy the untainted subtleties of this style you'll ask for yours without one. Often referred to as "white beers" (witbieren) due to the cloudiness / yeast in suspension.
  • Dubbel - The Belgian Dubbel is a rich malty beer with some spicy / phenolic and mild alcoholic characteristics. Not as much fruitiness as the Belgian Strong Dark Ale but some dark fruit aromas and flavors may be present. Mild hop bitterness with no lingering hop flavors. It may show traits of a steely caramel flavor from the use of crystal malt or dark candy sugar. Look for a medium to full body with an expressive carbonation. Traditionally a Trappist Ale, many brew similar "Abbey Dubbels" to try and emulate the originals (Trappist Westvleteren 8, Westmalle Trappist Dubbel & Chimay Première). 
  • Tripel - The name "Tripel" actually stems from part of the brewing process, in which brewers use up to three times the amount of malt than a standard Trappist "Simple." Traditionally, Tripels are bright yellow to gold in color, which is a shade or two darker than the average Pilsener. Head should be big, dense and creamy. Aroma and flavor runs along complex, spicy phenolic, powdery yeast, fruity/estery with a sweet finish. Sweetness comes from both the pale malts and the higher alcohol. Bitterness is up there for a beer with such a light body for its strength, but at times is barely perceived amongst the even balance of malts and hops. The lighter body comes from the use of Belgian candy sugar (up to 25% sucrose), which not only lightens the body, but also adds complex alcoholic aromas and flavors. Small amounts of spices are sometimes added as well. Tripels are actually notoriously alcoholic, yet the best crafted ones hide this character quite evil-like and deceivingly, making them sipping beers. 
  • Lambic - A spontaneous fermented unblended ale that is indigenous to the Senne Valley of Belgium, a large portion of wheat brings out the crispness though the flavor is dominated with a unique tartness from the wild yeast and bacteria that inoculate the brew from both airborne and tainted barrels that they ferment in. Light bodied with little hop flavor or bitterness. Look for hard cider, white wine or similar tartness. Lambics are aged before consumption to ensure that the tartness has mellowed. 

Hopefully this guide will allow you to more easily navigate and sample some of the world’s oldest and most outstanding beers right in the comfort of your own home.