In a European country comparative to the size of Maryland, USA, no other country in the world has as diverse and ingrained beer culture as Belgium.
There is truly a staggering variety of beers available in Belgium. The range runs the gamut from “non alcoholic” to extremely strong. From light colored to opaque black, from sweet to extremely bitter. The size of breweries range from garages, to farmhouses, to monasteries, to large corporate sized breweries (and pretty much everything in between). Fermentation methods run from traditional top and bottom fermentation to the spontaneously fermented Lambic beers from the Pajottenland region just west of Brussels. Traditional raw materials (malt, barley, hops) are used, but then are beers made with bread and no hops? Come on, now!
Belgium has something to offer any beer drinker- even the most discerning. I fell in love with Belgium’s beer culture long ago- I mean, a different, specific glass to go with each beer? Who wouldn’t like that? The Belgian beer glassware aspect, is described more in detail at our TASTING BEER 101 page.
The classic Belgian styles are the most cherished for us to enjoy. The Belgians originally set the quality standard in those styles, but are constantly being challenged for taste and overall quality by brewers in other countries (we can think of a handful- one very much in particular).
So, here we list the best known classic Belgian Beer Styles that are available in the retail market. I write these style descriptions based on my 39-year beer tasting experience. They are not uber beer-geek technical (how boring). Rather, I am seeking to describe the styles in a way that appeals to everyone – sight, smell and taste (with a very brief viewpoint thrown in for good measure).
Santé mes amis!
Gordon A. Ponce
CEO – Belgian Beer Journal
ABBEY ALE | ABBEY BEER
There are specific rules for the use of the name ‘Abdijbier’|’Abbey Beer’|Biere D’ Abbaye. The convention is, it is a beer brewed by a lay brewery that has a commercial contract with an active abbey that used to brew beer. Brewing is usually done under license of the abbey, which means the monks must give their approval on all aspects on how the lay brewery conducts business. The abbey receives a percentage of annual profits. The main difference with Trappist beers is that abbey beers are brewed outside the walls of the Abbey.
Appearance: Can range from light golden to dark brown, and everything in between, usually mimicking styles known by Trappist ales. Head color can range from white to light tan, moderate to large in size and has good retention. Clarity can range from filtered to very hazy.
Aroma: Can range from light malt sweetness, to hoppy, to rich malt. Bready yeast esters are usually the norm.
Flavor: Wide range, aromas usually carrying over into the taste.
Mouthfeel: Wide range, the body can be light, to quite heavy. The commonality here is that the carbonation level is medium plus to high.
The IPA style in the beer world has thousands of variants, from mildly hoppy to IBU levels ranging 100+. The Belgian IPA style borrows characteristics more from the English IPA’s versus the US West Coast and East Coast IPA’s, both which can be quite intense. Our commentary is that Belgian IPA’s are more balanced in hop flavors married with Belgian ale characteristics- malty, spicy phenols, and bready yeast aromas.
Appearance: Light golden to amber in color. Off-white head is moderate to large in size and has good retention. Clarity is fair to quite hazy.
Aroma: Moderate to high hop aroma, tropical, stone fruit, citrus, piney, floral, grassy, spicy phenols. Gentle, sweet malt aroma, with little to no caramel. Banana, pear, and apple esters.
Flavor: Aromas carry over into the flavor, but can also include stone fruit, melon, citrus, sometimes low toasted or caramel malt. The finish is dry to medium-dry although some examples have a slight sweetness mixed with a lingering bitterness.
Mouthfeel: The body is medium to light. Carbonation level is medium to high. Some higher alcohol versions may be warming.
BELGIAN STRONG DARK ALE
Another classic style with many variants. Over the years the ones we have enjoyed have fallen into the styles brewed by the Trappist monasteries. However, some Belgian Strong Darks can be hybrids; beers made with spices and other materials such as chocolate, coffee, and others. They can be deceptively easy to drink, but some of the higher ABV versions do not hide their alcoholic strength.
Appearance: Usually medium to dark brown. Head color can be off white to light tan. There are filtered to very hazy (even cloudy) versions.
Aroma: Somewhat of a variant spectrum here, but usually you’ll find notes of cocoa, rich dark malt, raisins, with a low hop aroma. Hoppiness is normally is not present; but some examples we have tried over the years can have some, but it should be well balanced. You may also find some cooking spice aromas as well – cardamom, cinnamon, etc.
Flavor: Rich malt, chocolate, raisins, dark rum, bready yeast.
Mouthfeel: The body is medium to very full. Carbonation level can range from medium to medium plus. Long, rich finish.
BIÈRE DE GARDE
Bière de Garde (“beer for keeping”) is a farmhouse ale originating from the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. Traditionally brewed in the winter and spring, most commercial examples we have enjoyed are moderate to high in alcohol, bottle conditioned and have good aging potential.
Appearance: Color ranges from medium gold to copper. Head color can range from white to light off white. Most examples are unfiltered, but some filtered examples are produced.
Aroma: Toast, Caramel malt, low levels of hop aromas.
Flavor: Toasty malt, spices, low hop bitterness.
Mouthfeel: Medium bodied, fills the entire mouth with the richness of malt. Low to medium levels of carbonation, quite round, very easy drinking, and mild finish.
For decades in Belgium, the archetypal Blonde ale has been (and still is) Duvel. It is also considered a ‘Belgian Golden Strong’. These days, many breweries (in Belgium and in other countries) have a ‘blonde ale’. Different breweries have their own ideas of what a Blonde ale is. We will describe the characteristics that are from the classic Belgian style.
Appearance: From light straw colored to medium golden. Many commerical Blonde ales are filtered, but some can have light to a medium amount of haze, usually resulting from bottle refermentation. Head color is usually white, with a pillow / cottonball density, 2-3 finger height.
Aroma: Can range from some hoppiness, citrus, and light tropical fruit. Bready yeast phenols are usually the norm.
Flavor: Aromas usually carry over into the taste, but can also have honey aromas. The higher hopped versions will be well balanced, which adds another level of complexity.
Mouthfeel: Ranges from medium to medium plus in body. Carbonation level can range from medium to almost champagne-like effervescence. The spicy phenols are quite evident in the finish.
DUBBEL | DOUBLE
The Dubbel style originated from the Westmalle Abbey in Belgium in 1856 (also originators of the very popular Trappist Tripel style). The style has been copied far and wide by breweries, both Trappist and secular. Dubbels will range in strength from 6-8% ABV.
Appearance: Medium to dark brown, mostly unfiltered. The best examples have quite a bit of haze due to bottle conditioning / refermentation.
Aroma: Raisins, prunes, dates, chocolate, cardamom, bready yeast. Spicy phenols are quite evident in the classic examples.
Flavor: The aromas will carry over into the taste, but can also have a pronounced peppery spiciness.
Mouthfeel: Rich, coats the entire mouth. Carbonation levels are medium (and in some of the better examples) can be high. Very inviting, has a blend of spice and rich malt in the finish.
FLANDERS OUD BRUIN | OUD RED
Both ales share similar characteristics in terms of their nearly zero hop bitterness, and lactobacillus sourness. Both ales undergo a secondary (and sometime very lengthy) fermentation, usually in oak foeders. Bottled versions undergo a third referm process.
Appearance: Hazy dark copper to dark brown. Head color is usually off white to light tan that dissipates somewhat quickly due to the ale’s high acidity levels.
Aroma: Insane amounts of umami. Notes of cherries, plums, raisins, oranges, liquid aminos, tannins from wood.
Flavor: High levels of sourness from the lactobacillus, the umami aromas most definitely carry over into the taste. I’ve had aged versions that even had a slight soy sauce note to them.
Mouthfeel: High levels of acidity, tickle the palate in a way that lingers. A true degustation beer.
One of the most ancient styles of beer, Lambic (and its subcategories) nearly ran extinct in the 80’s and into the 90’s in Belgium However, due to the efforts of purists and enthusiasts, Lambic is enjoying a well deserved revival. Respect must be shown where it is due. We abhor any brewers that call their beers ‘Lambic-style’. We feel that in order for a beer to be called ‘Lambic’, the beer must orignate in Pajottenland (and its surronding areas in Belgium) and be truly spontaneously fermented from wild yeasts. Respect the long history. And… NO kettle souring!!
STRAIGHT UNBLENDED LAMBIC
Appearance: Gold to medium amber. Fluffy, dense white head that (in the best examples) can sustain for a moderate period of time. But then, dissipates due to the high levels of acidity.
Aroma: No hop aroma. Notes of horseblanket, hay, goat, horse saddle leather, freshly opened can of tennis balls, strong funky Brettanomyces.
Flavor: Bracingly sour, puckering, winey, cidery.
Mouthfeel: The high level of tartness tickles the entire mouth. The finish is dry and sour. Very refreshing.
Appearance: Reddish brown due to the use of brown sugar, off white colored head that has a bit more sustaining power.
Aroma: Similar to the straight unblended Lambic, but with some slight residual sweetness.
Flavor: Not as intensely sour as the straight unblended Lambic due to the fact it is a sweetened with brown sugar.
Mouthfeel: Lower levels of tartness, very refreshing. Easy to drink.
Appearance: The use of different fruits can influence the color of the liquid. Apple (Pomme) usually golden color with white colored head. Blackcurrant (Cassis) can be reddish, almost grape colored, but most are deep golden. Can have a very faint purplish head, but usually white. Cherry (Kriek) usually red to deep red, especially in the ‘Oude’ versions. Light pink head. Peach (Pêche) medium to golden color, with faintly off-white head. Raspberries (Framboise) red to deep burgundy. Light pink head. There have been other Fruit Lambics made with Pineapples, Bananas, Plums, Apricots, Blueberries and a host of others.
Aroma: Usually the fruit used will influence the aromas directly. In the sweetened versions, this can be more prominent.
Flavor: The Apple versions are softer than the berry and stonefruit ones. The most intense are the ‘Oude Kriek’ which can be quite tart.
Mouthfeel: Moderate to high levels of effervescence. Tickles the entire mouth. Ranges from dry to slightly sweet finish depending on the brewer and product.
GUEUZE | GEUZE | OUDE GUEUZE
Appearance: Gold to medium amber. Cloudy, due to bottle conditioning. White dense fluffy head that leaves strong lacing on the sides of the glass.
Aroma: Quite similar to the straight unblended lambic, but because Gueuzes are a blend of young lambic (one year old) and old lambic (two to three years) the aroma complexities can express blue veined cheeses, lavender, dry sherry, Finger Lakes Riesling.
Flavor: Dry, funky, lemon, grapefruit, cidery.
Mouthfeel: Low to moderate body, carbonation levels can range from low to medium. Dry, tart finish that is very refreshing and invites you back for another sip.
Commonly associated with the 14 Trappist breweries, Quadrupel is one the the heaviest, richest, and most intense of the classic Belgian styles. Copied far and wide, the ‘Quad’ is most definitely one of mine and Alan’s favorite styles to enjoy. Needless to say, there are excellent examples from Belgium, but our favorite was made by Master Brewer Jerry Vietz of Unibroue. The beer? His 2014 17 Grande Réserve (more commonly known as a Unibroue-Style Dark Strong Ale, but is a Quad in techie terms) that was aged in Rum and Cognac barrels, and tasted in 2019. Best beer of all time in our estimation. Haven’t had as good as that one since.
Appearance: Dark mahogany to very dark brown. The best ones are cloudy and murky due to bottle conditioning and refermentation. Head is off white / light tan, that is creamy, super dense, and leaves thick soapy lacing on the sides of the glass as the liquid is consumed.
Aroma: Chocolate, raisins, rum / rum butter, toffee, prunes, figs, brown sugar, molasses, high quality Trappist fruitcake. Barrel aged versions can even have some wood aromas.
Flavor: Aromas definitely carry over to the taste.
Mouthfeel: Creamy, rich, velvety, decandent. Some spicy phenols can have a bit a black pepperiness. Long rich finish. Enjoy slowly.
There’s always a season for a good Saison! Another One of the top 5 beer style favorites of Alan and I, Saisons are true degustation beers. From the lower ABV ‘Petite Saisons’ to the higher ABV Specialty versions, they are versatile, and can be enjoyed year round with a wide range of cuisines.
Appearance: Ranges from pale to golden (Petite & Classic versions) to dark brown in the Specialty versions. Pillowy, cotton ball dense white colored head that sustains for a long time, sometimes throughout the entire consumption time.
Aroma: Grassy, floral, herbal, hoppy, cooking spices, whiteflower. Some examples can even be quite funky (especially those that have incorporated Brettanomyces in the fermentation process).
Flavor: Low malt sweetness, hoppy, dry. Spicy phenols do not dominate, but compliment the overall balance.
Mouthfeel: A beautiful balance of creaminess and dryness. How is that possible? medium to high levels or carbonation. Awakens and refreshes the palate. Floral and grassy notes linger.
TAFELBIER (TABLE BEER)
A low alcohol beer (usually no more than 1.5%) is a staple in Belgian households. Children are usually introduced to the virtually non-alcoholic versions by their watchful parents at the dinner table. They are taught to respect beer as a beverage, as beer is so ingrained in their culture and daily lives. Trappist monks also enjoy this low-alcohol beverage with their dinner meal. A few of the Trappist breweries even make their own version of Tafelbier, usually for their private consumption. There are a few of the Trappist breweries that offer their Tafelbier to the public, but this is very specialized market.
Appearance: Can range from light straw colored to dark brown, depending on the raw materials and additives used.
Aroma: Usually malt forward, hop bitterness is low, but can be moderate.
Flavor: Also malt forward, some versions can have spices, but at low levels. Some versions have sugar added to improve drinkability and overall flavor.
Mouthfeel: Light to moderate, malt finish is typical.
There are so many articles written on the subject of Trappist beer. The internet, books, and magazines have much to offer. So without trying to be original, I’ll offer a condensed version what what makes a Trappist beer, Trappist. In 1997, The International Trappist Association (ITA) was founded by eight of the Trappist breweries to prevent non-trappist breweries from abusing the name. A Trappist beer must be brewed inside the walls of a monastery, either made by the monks themselves, or with close supervision within the brewery. Each Trappist Ale bears the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo on each beer bottle label. The brewery must be secondary importance and act as a witness to a proper monastic, Godly way of life. The income derived from the sales of their beers must act as a source of self-supporting income to cover expenses of operating the monastery and living expenses of the monks. Any other funds that remain go towards supporting local charities and helping less fortunate individuals in need. Beer is not the only product that Trappists make; world class cheese, milk, meats, jams, jellies, chocolates, preserves, and so much more are enjoyed worldwide.
Appearance | Aroma | Flavor | Mouthfeel
All these components can vary widely. The beer styles that are closely associated with the Trappist name are Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel. In the 14 breweries that are allowed to call themselves Trappist, there are also Belgian IPA, Blonde, and even Pilseners and Lagers.
TRIPEL | TRIPLE
The Tripel style originated from the Westmalle Trappist brewery in the 1930’s. It has been said that they named the beer ‘Tripel’ because they started using triple the amount of materials in their brew process, but even the most staunch of beer geeks leave this open for debate. Another one of Alan and my top 5 favorite beer styles, this is another one of our go-to beers. I have had many Tripels over my 3+ decade long beer journey. I can’t go without saying that our favorite Tripel of all time was a specialty brew from Master Brewer Jerry Vietz of Unibroue (see a pattern here?) It was a 2015 vintage of the La Fin du Monde aged in high-end Tequila barrels. Close your eyes and imagine.
Appearance: Usually medium to deep golden (some specialties can be dark brown) with a white colored, cotton ball like dense head. The best versions leave an extreme amount of soapy, spider-web like lacing on the sides of the glass as the liquid is consumed.
Aroma: Complex, spicy. Bananas, tropical fruit, bubblegum, Belgian Candi sugar, bready yeast.
Flavor: Pale malt, honey, trpocial fruit, citrus fruit, spicy yeast phenols.
Mouthfeel: From slightly dry to moderate. Carbonation levels can be moderate to very high. One of the rare beer styles that can assault all your taste buds in a profound and delicious way. Satisfying, a world class Tripel always invites you to eagerly take that next sip.
WITBIER | WHITE ALE
A beer brewed for many years in Belgium almost became extinct. The late Pierre Celis and the Hoegaarden brewery worked to revive this style in 1965. In 1991, Celis moved to Austin Texas to launch Celis Brewery. Despite winning numerous awards throughout the brewery’s tenure, sales unfortunately floundered. Here’s the condensed version: The brewery was sold in 2000. The assets of the brewery were then sold at auction. The Celis name was revived from those assets. Christine Celis (daughter of Pierre Celis) worked with the people who had the Celis Brand name asset to re-launch Celis Brewery in Austin Texas in 2017. Celis Brewery is alive and well and thriving.
Appearance: Straw, pale golden. Cloudy, thick white dense head.
Aroma: Citrus, spices (coriander and orange peel)
Flavor: Light, refreshing citrusy tartness (budda’s finger lemon pith) peppery spices.
Mouthfeel: Light body, light to medium carbonation, refreshing citrusy finish. The mix of tartness and spicyness lingers gently in the finish.