By Rick Steves, Gene Openshaw, and Dave Hoerlein
Though only the size of Maryland, Belgium has about 120 different varieties of beer and 580 different brands — more than any other country.
The traveler faces a wonderful dilemma when perusing a Belgian beer menu. Even small café menus include six to eight varieties. Connoisseurs and novices alike can be confused by the many choices, and casual drinkers probably won't like every kind offered, since some varieties don't even taste like beer. Belgian beer is generally yeastier and higher in alcohol content than beers in other countries. You must be 16 years old to legally enjoy a good Belgian beer (18 to drink wine and hard liquor).
The locals take their beers as seriously as the French do their wines. You'll find beers corked and wired like a bottle of Champagne, and some beers will mature in the bottle up to six years. Belgians even pair beer with food, much as the French pair wine. In general, lighter-colored beers (blonde or Tripel) go well with chicken or pork; darker beers pair nicely with beef; and wheat beers complement seafood.
To bring out their flavor, different beers are served cold, cool, or at room temperature, and each has its own distinctive glass. Whether wide-mouthed, tall, or fluted, with or without a stem, tulip-shaped or straight, the glass is meant to highlight a particular beer's qualities. The choice of glass is so important that if, for some reason, a pub doesn't have the proper glass for a particular beer, they will ask the customer if a different glass will be acceptable — or if they'd like to change their beer order.
To get a basic draft beer in Flanders (Bruges, Antwerp, or Ghent), ask for een pintje (ayn pinch-ya; a pint); in Brussels, where French prevails, request une bière (oon bee-yair).
But don't insist on beer from the tap. The only way to offer so many excellent beers and keep them fresh is to serve them bottled. In fact, because many specialty beers ferment in the bottle, some of the most famous brews come only in bottles. Increasingly, though, bars are adding a few high-end brands to their draft menus.
In Flemish Belgium, a stamcafe is where the locals hang out. A stamtafel is a table reserved for regulars. "Cheers" is proost or gezondheid in Flemish, and santé in French.
Despite its popularity, Belgium beer is still not well known in the US. Its small but growing export market is hampered by the fact that some varieties don't travel well, and many beers are made in small quantities.
Not to mention that they're likely to get swallowed up before they leave home. Each Belgian consumes an average of 29 gallons of suds a year. By comparison, the average Yank sips a mere 21 gallons, while Czechs show their pride in inventing Pilsner by guzzling over 40 gallons a year — the highest per capita beer drinking nation in the world. That's even more than Germany (but if you break it down by region, first prize goes to those beer-crazy Bavarians, who guzzle over 50 gallons per year).
Specialty beers can be much more alcoholic than what you're used to back home, and tourists often find themselves overwhelmed by a single pint of Belgian brew. Bottles (and often menus) list the alcohol percentage of each type of beer. For comparison, most mass-market American beers are between 4 and 6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), while a heavy Belgian ale can run 7 to 9 percent — and a few powerful beers can reach, or even exceed, 10 to 12 percent.
Monk-run Trappist breweries have given the beer world the terms Enkel, Dubbel, and Tripel (single, double, triple). While originally these indicated the amount of malt used to gain a higher alcohol content, these days they have more to do with the style of beer: Enkel is a very light (nearly "lite") blonde ale; Dubbel is a dark, sweet beer; and Tripel is a very strong, golden-colored pale ale. The less commonly used term Quadrupel is a gimmick to emphasize a beer's alcohol content — usually more than 10 percent.
Some beer producers have returned to their medieval roots, flavoring their beer with a secret mix of spices called gruit. This can result in some surprising bouquets that charm and puzzle beer aficionados.
Beers by Type
Here's a breakdown of types of beer, with some common brand names. This list is just a start, and you'll find many beers that don't fall into these neat categories.
Ales (Blonde/Red/Amber/Brown): Easily recognized by their color. Try a blonde or golden ale (Leffe Blonde, Duvel), a rare and bitter sour red (Rodenbach — its maroon color comes from two years spent in an oak cask), an amber (Palm, De Koninck — similar to a British bitter), or a malty, hoppy brown (Leffe Bruin, Oudenaarde). Kwak, an amber ale named for a 19th innkeeper, has a unique hourglass-shaped glass that is reason enough to try this one. Saison beers are "seasonal" (summer-brewed), lightly alcoholic pale ales.
Lagers (Pils): Light, sparkling, Budweiser-type beers, served cool (but not usually as cold as our Yankee palate is accustomed to). Popular brands include Jupiler, Stella Artois, and Maes. But good Pilsner beers can be found anywhere in the world, so don't stop there…
Lambics: Wild-yeast beers. Lambics — popular in Brussels — get their start in open vats, where they're exposed to naturally occurring wild yeasts in the air. Some are even the result of a "double fermentation" (think Champagne) after being blended with other types of lambics. The second fermentation continues in the bottle, and the beer takes on a bubbly sparkle and a flavor sometimes described as "winey" or "cidery." Some brand names include Cantillon, Lindemans, and Mort-Subite (“Sudden Death”).
Lambics are often blended with fruits to counter their sour flavor. (Detractors claim that they taste like a perfectly decent beer mixed with cough syrup — but you be the judge.) Fruit lambics include cherry (kriek), raspberry (frambozen), peach (pêche), or blackcurrant (cassis). People who don't usually enjoy beer tend to like these tart but sweet varieties, similar to a dry pink champagne — try one after a long summer afternoon stroll around Bruges. Gueuze — a dry, sour, double-fermented lambic nicknamed "Brussels champagne" — is more of an acquired taste.
White (Witte or Witbier): Milky-yellow summertime beers made from wheat. White beer, similar to a Hefeweizen, is often flavored with spices such as orange peel or coriander.
Trappist and Abbey Beers: Heavily fermented, malty, monk-brewed beers. For centuries, between their vespers and matins, Trappist monks have been brewing beer. Three typical ones are Tripel, with a blonde color, served cold with a frothy head (and in the traditional chalice-shaped glass); Dubbel, dark, sweet, and served cool; and Enkel, made especially by the monks for the monks, and considered a fair trade for a life of celibacy. These styles originated at the Westmalle monastery; other official Belgian Trappist monasteries are Rochefort, Chimay, Orval, Achel, and Westvleteren. (Many of these monasteries welcome visitors looking to quench their thirst and satisfy their appetites in their on-site or nearby restaurants — the monks of Orval, for example, make wonderful bread and cheese.) "Abbey beers" (abdijbier) emulate the Trappist style, but are produced at other monasteries or by commercial brewers; St. Bernardus is one popular abbey beer. Try the Trappist Chimay Blauw/Bleu — extremely smooth, milkshake-like, and complex.
Strong Beers: The potent brands include Duvel (“devil,” because of its high octane, camouflaged by a pale color), Verboten Vrucht (“forbidden fruit,” with Adam and Eve on the label), and the not-for-the-fainthearted brands of Judas, Satan, and Lucifer. Gouden Carolus is good, and Delerium Tremens speaks for itself.
Mass-Produced Beers: Connoisseurs say you should avoid the mass-produced labels (Leffe, Stella, and Hoegaarden — all owned by InBev, which owns Budweiser in America) when you can enjoy a Belgian microbrew (such as Westmalle or Chimay) instead.
Beyond the Basics
Thirsty for more details? Michael Jackson's book Great Beers of Belgium will give you a more scholarly introduction to Belgian beer. They don't call him the "Beer Hunter" for nothing! Tim Webb and Joe Stange's Good Beer Guide to Belgium is a great source of info on over 600 pubs.
Much as some may try, tourists can't live on beer alone. Don't forget to sample Belgian cuisine, often called one of the finest in Europe. Belgium has more top-rated restaurants per cobbled square foot than any country in the world but you need not rub elbows with high-falutin' gourmets to get a good meal. You'll enjoy meals of French quality and German quantity at reasonable Belgian prices. Try specialties like mussels, the world's best fries, wild hare, hop sprouts, leeks, smoked ham from the Ardennes region, soups, eels, a variety of tarts and of course waffles, though the Belgian version is unlike anything you've had at IHOP. And chocoholics also know that Belgium has few equals. Of course, you'll have to perform your own research...to see if you agree.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves Belgium: Bruges, Brussels, Antwerp & Ghent guidebook. Dave Hoerlein is a veteran Rick Steves guidebook cartographer, tour guide, and travel consultant.