Belgian beers travel guide
The best beers in Belgium
Beer is a quintessential part of Belgian culture. So much so that UNESCO added Belgian beer culture to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2016. The country is home to the world’s biggest brewery and over 700 types of beer, from dark, strong Tripel beers to lighter, fruity ales.
Despite producing only 1% of the world’s beers, the unique flavours of Belgian beer make it stand out. Local brasseries or taverns are the best places to try them, the former usually offering a fixed-price menu serving food and drinks, while the latter focuses on drinks only.
If you want the ultimate beer-tasting experience, this country won’t disappoint. Read on as we explore Belgium’s wide selection of beers and where to try them.
History of beer in Belgium
The history of Belgian beer dates back centuries, long before the country gained independence. Its brewing landscape evolved across rural farmland, small villages and monasteries at a time when people couldn’t drink water because of its poor quality.
The first recorded sale occurred on the 1st of June 1861, which marked the beginning of beer-making methods as we know them today.
The two most popular beers are Trappist and Abbey. Production of the first Trappist beer (Westmalle) began in 1836 and was exclusively for monks. It’s famous for its sweet taste. Abbey beers are also monastic and can be produced by a commercial brewery in agreement with an existing monastery.
Presentation is crucial in the beer-making industry. Glassware is the go-to in almost every bar, partly for marketing and taste purposes. A lot goes into deciding which glasses to use, including alcohol level, desired serving temperature, aromatic qualities and handling dynamics.
The different types of beer in Belgium
Whether you prefer it bitter and robust, or fruity and sweet, Belgium’s beer landscape knows no bounds. We’ve gathered some of the country’s most famous beer types, with something to suit all tastes.
As mentioned, monastic-style beers were the first to be produced and are still a fan-favourite today. There are six Trappist breweries in Belgium which produce different ales, from Belgian pale ales to Tripels and Quadrupels. These paved the way for Abbey beers, bottled-conditioned ales with strong yeast profiles. The most common Abbey beers are Dubbels and Tripels, where alcohol levels are between 6% and 9%.
Hoppy, dry and refreshing, saisons are farmhouse ales, highly carbonated with strong pepper and citrus notes. They are produced in Wallonia, in southern Belgium, and were initially consumed by farmers in winter. These beers have an alcohol level between 5 and 6.5% and include Saison Dupont, Saison de Dottignies and St-Feuillien Saison.
Witbier (white beer) is an unfiltered, hazy beer brewed using 30 to 60% raw wheat. It’s delicate and light, with dried orange peel and coriander to add a refreshing note. This beer is perfect for summer and includes Hoegaarden, St. Bernardus Wit and Vedett Extra White.
Characterised by high carbonation and rich layers of foam, blonde beers are a go-to for many beer enthusiasts. These ales have a subtle spicey citrus taste complemented by a bitter aftertaste. They include Ename Blond, Omer and Duvel.
Spéciale Belge beers were created in response to German lagers and English ales of the early 1900s. These traditional Belgian beers are malty, gentle and have a nutty flavour. They are balanced and light and include Bolleke De Koninck, Palm, ‘Spécial’ De Ryck and Tonneke.
Lambic is a flat wheat beer fermented with airborne yeast and aged in wooden barrels. When blended into Geuze – a type of lambic beer – it becomes refreshing, highly carbonated and acquires an oaky taste. Brewers combine these beers with raspberries, cherries and apricots. The most common lambic beers are 3 Fonteinen, Cantillon and Oud Beersel.
Belgian beer tastings and tours
What better way to learn about Belgian beers than to sample them at a local brewery? Here are some of Belgium’s best beer tasting tours.
- Cantillon Brewery: This family-run brewery in Anderlecht has operated since 1900 and is famous for its unique lambic beers. Guided tours take place between 10:00 and 16:00 and last 45 minutes. Tasting cost 7€.
- De Halve Maan: Bruges is Belgium’s crowning jewel, and De Halve Maan is one of its highlights. This brewery is home to the world’s first beer pipeline, connecting the venue to a bottling plant. The 45-minute tour occurs daily between 11:00 and 16:00. It ends with a tasting of the Brugse Zot Blond beer.
- De Koninck: Recently renovated to include a visitor’s centre, De Koninck is Antwerp’s oldest brewery. It’s the birthplace of Bolleke, a malty pale ale with notes of caramel and cinnamon. Watch the magic happen on a 90-minute tour and treat yourself to a tasting.
- Het Anker: This is one of Belgium’s oldest breweries and has operated inside a convent since 1471. The tour lasts around 2 hours, including a tasting, and ends on the beautiful rooftop terrace.
Belgian beer festivals
If you’re lucky enough to travel to Belgium for one of its beer festivals, you’re in for a treat. Live music performances, dance and more beer await you. Here’s where and when they take place.
- Belgian Beer Weekend: Taking place during the first week of September, the Belgian Beer Weekend represents Belgian beer culture at its finest. It’s held in Brussels’ stunning Grand-Place, boasting over 50 regional stands and national brewers around its perimeter.
- Zythos Beer Festival: Welcome to the epitome of a Belgian beer festival. Zythos Beer Festival used to take place in Saint-Nicolas but became so popular that it was moved to Leuven in 2004. Today, it hosts over 80 stands.
- BAB Bruges Beer Festival: BAB Bruges Beer Festival is held in April and features over 450 beers. All Trappist beers are available, including the traditional Westvleteren.
- Brassigaume: This festival takes place over two days in the first half of October, with 25 master brewers showcasing their best creations.