An A - Z of Belgian beer

Everything you need to know, from Artois to Zot

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A is for Artois. It may seem strange that the world’s largest brewery has its headquarters in the Flemish university town of Leuven. But that’s where AB InBev started, as the city’s Artois brewery (of Stella fame), before gradually expanding to first consume the domestic beer market before emerging as a Belgo-Brazilian behemoth dominating the world’s beer supply.

B is for Balance. Many casual drinkers associate Belgian beers with high alcohol content. There’s some justification in this, given how many beers tip into double-digit ABVs. But despite these extremes, the best Belgian brewers are all about making beers with balance - not too bitter, not too sweet, flavourful but not overly so. The ideal Belgian beer is the one you keep going back for more of. 

C is for Celis, Pierre. Given the ubiquity of Hoegaarden on supermarket shelves and bar taps around the world, it’s strange now to think that it would not exist but for one stubborn brewer. When Pierre Celis opened his brewery in - you guessed it - Hoegaarden in the early 1960s he revived the local wheat-based beer style that had disappeared a decade previously. While the beer for sale today may not be the same as the one Celis brought back to life, he created a new beer category and sparked new interest in Belgium’s then-dying beer traditions.

D is for Devilish. If the popularity of Belgium’s Abbey and Trappist beers have taken a bit of a knock in recent years, the same cannot be said for their counterpart on the other side of the ecclesiastical divide - Duvel (local dialect for devil), and its many imitators, has experienced strong growth, aided and abetted by rising demand for strong blonde ales that drink light but pack a stiff alcoholic punch. And riding this wave Moortgat, the brewery that makes Duvel, has launched Duvel Tripel Hop Citra and Tripel Hop Cashmere, which in 2021 were joined by Duvel 6,66 - a blonde ale in the spirit of its predecessors with the alcohol toned down to a devilishly appropriate 6.66%.

E is for Elephants. Belgian brewers don’t like to talk about marketing. Ask any of the old guard and they’ll tell you it’s what’s in the bottle that counts and not what’s on the bottle. But you don’t build a global brand - and Belgian beer is still a global brand - without knowing a thing or two about marketing. And of all the Belgian brewery mascots created to hawk beer, probably the most recognisable are the pink elephants of Brouwerij Huyghe and its Delirium Tremens beers.

F is for Foeder. It may not be a wholly Belgian invention - the Brits were ageing beer in large wooden vats long before Belgian breweries took up the technique. But few other brewing traditions have conjured up the type of beers aged in massive wooden foeders (vats) in the cavernous foeder halls of the Rodenbach brewery. Numbering 294, and the largest among them able to contain thousands of litres of maturing beers, Rudi Ghequire and his crew take this liquid and blend it with freshly-brewed beer to make a marvellous sweet-and-sour brown ale unique to this corner of Europe.

G is for Gambrinus. King of the brewers and a mythical figure in European brewing mythology, Gambrinus - of Jan Primus, or Cambrinus - is claimed by Belgians as one of their own. No one can quite pin down whether he actually existed, but in Flanders they reckon he was Jan Primus, member of the Brussels guild of brewers in the 13th century and Count of Brabant. His name may adorn many beer brands around the world, but it is only in Brussels where they celebrate the annual Feast of King Gambrinus, a stone’s throw from where the beer king’s body is said to be buried.

H is for Hainaut. The francophone region in the south of Belgium that is home to a beer style likely to send brewers into raptures: saison. Emerging from farmhouse traditions based around supplying workers with something refreshing to drink after a day’s work. The standard bearer of the style - Saison Dupont, from the Dupont brewery in the village of Tourpes - is these days maybe a little strong to work as a thirst quencher, but is a beautiful, peppery, complex beer.

I is for Idolatry. Belgium’s monastic brewing tradition is probably its most famous beer export. Images of frocked abbotts peering into large copper brewing vessels in brewhalls fitted out with ecclesiastical stained glass windows are an essential part of the country’s self-image. Even if they no longer do much of the brewing themselves, and as it becomes harder to convince men to take up holy orders, the Trappists remain the most famous exponent of this tradition. But it’s the rare Belgian brewery that does not have an abbey or a winking monk or the name of a saint somewhere on one of their beers. 

J is for Jackson, Michael. The Yorkshire-born writer and broadcaster who did so much not only to bring Belgium’s beers and rich brewing traditions to the world in his books, but also convinced the world to come to Belgium and discover the beers in the way the brewers intended. It’s strange to think of a world in which beer styles didn’t exist, but Jackson - in books like his totemic Great Beers of Belgium - like an ethnographer or botanist categorised Belgian beer using language and descriptors we are still using today.

K is for Kerstmis. If Belgian beer is known for anything, then it’s for dangerously drinkable high-ABV beers and a willingness to use ingredients in brewing that would make a German Braumeister blanch. The style that best exemplifies these two traits comes around once a year, when December rolls around and alongside it the country’s seasonal Christmas beers. 20th century Belgian brewers took the template of sweet, dark Scotch Ales and amped up the booze and added signature spices (in modest quantities, mind) like aniseed, coriander and others, and created the Christmas Ale - a perfect warming accompaniment to cold winter nights.

L is for Lambic. If Lambic didn’t already exist, then you wouldn’t try to invent it. Lambic - involving complex grain bills, extended brewing sessions and old-fashioned techniques, cooled by ambient night time air, spontaneously fermented, and barrel-aged for anywhere between 12 months and 4 years - is one of the most fascinating beer styles, full of complex flavours and aromas. But it is also an important and tenacious cultural tradition that reminds us, when done correctly, of the pre-industrial heritage of beer.

M is for Merckx, Rosa. No, nothing to do with Eddy (the world’s greatest ever cyclist - and greatest ever Belgian?). In an industry that, like much of the rest of the world, remains disproportionately dominated by men, Rosa Merckx was an early pioneer for female brewers in Belgium. She became the country’s first female brewmaster when she was appointed by the Liefmans brewery in the town of Oudenaarde in East Flanders, having joined the brewery in 1946. Retired now, her signature is still printed on every bottle of Liefmans Goudenband beer.

N is for National Pride. Few countries have raised beer and brewing to the level of national fervour, but Belgium runs Bavaria and the Czechs close for the importance beer holds in the national psyche. In a land divided by culture and language, beer remains - alongside the national football team, and frites - as one of the few symbols cherished by everyone in the country, no matter where you’re from or what language you speak.

O is for Orval. Could it be anything else? This unique, idiosyncratic beer brewed under the supervision of monks deep in the south of the country is good value for all the superlatives bestowed on it by drinkers around the world. Constantly evolving thanks to the addition of brettanomyces yeast at bottling, it is an iconic ambassador of Belgian beer, from the bottle to the cut glass chalice to the burnt orange beer inside.

P is for Pils. As much as Belgium’s international beer reputation is built on strong, flavourful beers made in odd or unusual circumstances, the locals like to keep it simple. Bottom fermented lager beers, introduced in the late-19th century remain by far the most popular beer style in the country. Avoid the mass-market and seek out a Redor Pils (from Dupont) or a Contra Pils from Contreras.

Q is for Quadrupel. The nomenclature around Belgian beer styles can be both confusing and daunting. It’s worth spending less time trying to make sense of what the name for a Belgian beer style means - most origin stories are a mix of myth and misinformation anyway - and more remembering the basic categorisations. Blondes are in the region of 6-7.%, Dubbels usually the same ABV but dark, Tripels higher in ABV and beautifully golden, and Quads (a style originating in The Netherlands next door) is more nebulous, clocking in anywhere from 9% to 14%, but usually dark and dense and rich. But don’t worry too much about style categories - Belgian brewers certainly don’t!

R is for Renewal. Belgian beer might appear to be this eternal tradition that has existed for centuries, suspended in amber at some unspecified time in a past filled with rosy-cheeked brewing monks. But one of the aspects of the country’s beer culture that makes it so enduring is that it is constantly absorbing influences from other countries and other industries. The country’s most forward-thinking breweries are making constant tweaks to the established formula to stay connected to the taste preferences of their customers. Today’s brewers are, for example, taking aspects of contemporary American and English brewing - lots of hops, and lots of IPAs - and working to adapt them to Belgium’s particularities, some well, and others less well.

S is for Speciality Beers. In Belgium, beer is generally divided up into two categories: Pils for all the Lager beers; and Speciaalbieren, or speciality beers, which means everything from top-fermented abbey and Trappist beers, to Lambic, Geuze and Kriek beers, and everything in-between. The speciality beer segment has seen its popularity rise since the late 1970s and the early 1980s when brewers like Frank Boon at the Boon Brewery, Kris Herteleer at De Dolle Brouwers, and Chris Bauweraerts of La Chouffe pioneered new flavours and new beer styles. You could also add a new category that is also growing at the moment, Low and Non-Alcoholic beers, but let’s not spoil the fun.

T is for Tournée Générale. If the variety of flavours and styles is what makes Belgian brewing stand out, then what gives the country’s beer tradition its heart is cafe culture. It is the comfort of table service. Or the pageantry of a fantastic beer, being served into the right glass, at your table by a surly waiter, and with just the right level of foam. Or the cafes themselves, remnants of bygone ages with tobacco tarred walls and odd smells. Or all of it together. And if you really want to ingratiate yourself with the locals the next time you’re in a Belgian brown cafe, just shout “Tournée Générale” - “The next round is on me!”

U is for United Kingdom. It may seem odd to say that much of modern Belgian brewing owes a serious debt to the larger island nation across the English Channel, given how different on the face of it these two beer cultures are from each other. But geography is powerful, and whether it was Flemish farmers introducing hops to Kent in the Middle Ages, or English brewers helping their Belgian counterparts modernise their brewing techniques in the 19th century, there has always been a back and forth between Belgium and the UK - each enriching the others’ brewing and beer.

V is for Verlinden, Hendrik. It isn’t monks we have to thank for the creation of the legendary Westmalle Tripel. Or at least, not directly, because when they decided in the early 1930s to create a strong blonde ale, they brought to the monastery one of Belgium’s leading brewing scientists, Hendrik Verlinden. Together with Verlinden they created a modern classic and the reference for Tripels. 

W is for Wet Vandervelde, or Vandervelde’s Law. Introduced by the Belgian government in 1919, the law severely restricted, and in some cases prohibited, the sale of spirits in Belgian bars. Some believe drinkers sought out higher-ABV beers to compensate, brewers very happy to oblige, and the country’s love of strong beers took off.

X is for XX Bitter. In the 1990s, highly-hopped beers were non-existent. And then Nino Bacelle and Guido Devos came along with their De Ranke brewery. Their flagship beer was a - for Belgian tastes - extremely bitter pale blonde ale. Considered the most bitter beer in Belgium for a long time, this proto-Belgian IPA paved the way for a new generation of breweries willing to explore more overt hop flavours and profiles in their beers. 

Y is for Yeast. Yeast is to Belgian beer culture what hops are to American brewing, and malt is to German brewing heritage. Few countries - and certainly no countries so small in size - possess such a diverse variety of brewing traditions and beer styles. And the uniqueness of many of these beers centres around the fermentation used to make them, be it the spontaneously fermented Lambic beers, Trappist abbey beers high in fruity esters, or sweet-sour acidity of mixed fermentation red-brown ales from Flanders.

Z is for Zot, Bruges. Zot in Dutch means crazy, and in what other country would a brewer get the madcap idea to build an underground pipeline to bring beer from the brewery to the bottling facility. But that’s exactly what the Halve Maan brewery in Bruges did, installing a beer pipeline underneath the medieval city’s cobblestone streets.


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