Belgian beer styles are numerous and diverse. Dominated by ales, Belgium produces beers that are difficult to classify and is home to more native beer styles than any other country. Overall, Belgian beers impress beer enthusiasts with their light body, low bitterness, and yeasty taste that often includes spicy or fruity notes. Belgian beers include pale, golden, and dark ales, Trappist ales like dubbel and tripel, and fruit and sour beers such as lambics and Flanders ales. All are crafted with centuries of brewing history and offer excellent food pairings.
- ABV: 4–14%
- Bitterness: 9–50 IBU
- Color: 4–36 SRM
What Is the Difference Between Belgian and German Beers?
Belgium and Germany are both known for brewing excellent beers. The neighboring countries share many cultural influences and have brewing histories steeped in tradition, though their beers are very distinctly different.
German brewers specialize in crafting fine lagers (including pilsners) and wheat beers, and they're considered among the best of those styles in the world. They brew other beers, too, but the industry has been held to the rules of the Reinheitsgebot law for over 500 years. These standards originally decreed that barley, hops, and water were the only ingredients allowed in beer. Later, yeast and malted grains like wheat were added to the list and many brewers continue to follow the guidelines.
In contrast, Belgian beers are dominated by ales and centuries of brewing traditions that predate its 1830 independence. The smaller country's culture has long been influenced by both France and Germany, as well as Austria and the Netherlands. Additionally, there are no regulations, so brewers in Belgium are free to innovate and a town or small locality may specialize in one particular style. These factors help explain the variety of beer styles that have made the country famous.
Belgian ales range from pale and refreshing to strong black brews. Trappist monks brew some of the best Belgian beers, and fruit and sour beer styles are common as well. These styles are so famous and well-rounded that they're often emulated by brewers in other countries.
Navigating Belgian beers can be confusing and the styles overlap at times.
Belgian blonde ales are the lightest in color and have brilliant clarity. The light- to medium-bodied beer has a very slight—almost undetectable—fruit note of fruit that is upstaged by the predominant clean flavor of hops and malt. The bitterness (15 to 30 IBUs) is mild compared to other Belgian ales, though the alcohol tends to be strong at around 6.3 percent to 7.9 percent ABV.
Belgian Pale Ale
A Belgian pale ale may also be called golden ale (some brewers use that name for the lighter blonde ale). It's a little darker, ranging from gold to copper, and is also very clear. Inspired by British pale ales, the Belgian version was developed to compete with German pilsners.
Known to be slightly bitter, some modern brews are accenting the hoppy bitterness to compete with American beers; the IBUs typically fall in the 20 to 30 range. The taste varies and often includes toasty malt tones and some spice notes. These ales typically use aged hops and some may add spice. They're also generally session beers, weighing in between 4.5 percent and 7 percent ABV.
"Strong" pale and golden ales are brewed as well. They generally amplify all the characteristics, including the alcohol (7 percent to 11 percent ABV) and bitterness (20 to 50 IBUs). Many are fruity, spicy, and complex, with a dry finish.
Belgian Dark Ale
Belgian dark ale is a very diverse style. The color can be anywhere from amber to ruby brown and they're known for thick, lasting heads. Generally low in bitterness (15 to 25 IBUs), dark ales can be dry with spice notes or sweet and malty, or anywhere in between. The ABV ranges from 4.5 percent to 7.5 percent.
A strong dark ale magnifies all of the style's characteristics and is typically fruitier. Bière de Noël is a spiced Belgian dark ale that's typically brewed for the winter holiday season.
Dubbel, Tripel, and Quadrupel
Falling into the category of "Trappist ales," authentic dubbel and tripel beers are brewed by Belgian Trappist monks. Quadrupel (or "quad") was inspired by their brewing technique. These styles are often replicated by craft brewers and those brewed in certified monasteries will say "Authentic Trappist Product."
These malty, rich beers have some fruit flavors, though not as pronounced as Belgian strong dark ales. Dubbel is known for its amber to deep brown color, medium to full body, good carbonation, dry finish, and often uses crystal malt for a sweet caramel flavor. It's generally between 6 percent and 9 percent ABV with a gentle bitterness of just 15 to 30 IBUs.
Tripel ales are bright yellow to deep gold with a dense, creamy head. They're brewed with triple the amount of malt typically used in Trappist ales. As complex as the dubbel, they're a little more bitter (20 to 40 IBUs), stronger (8 percent to 12 percent ABV), and focus on pale malts and candy (or "candi") sugar additives for a sweeter body.
Quadrupel is similar to dubbel but bolder in every aspect. It's a flavorful dark beer with red hues, full-bodied, rich, and malty. The bitterness falls between 25 and 50 IBUs; the alcohol is strong, ranging between 9 percent and 14 percent ABV.
Saison is a farmhouse ale that originates in southern Belgium. This rustic beer style is diverse, ranging from pale to dark and malty to hoppy with fruit or spice characteristics and moderate bitterness (25 to 45 IBUs). There are typically some sour aspects in this beer and it's generally 4.4 percent to 8.4 percent ABV.
Witbier is Flemish for "white beer" and this style is also called blanche. It's a pale wheat beer brewed with unmalted wheat and typically contains aromatic spices like coriander and orange peel. Low bitterness (10 to 17 IBUs) and moderate alcohol (4.8 percent to 5.6 percent ABV) are common with a witbier.
Lambic is an unmalted wheat beer from the Brussels area. It has a unique crisp and dry flavor that improves with age. This sour beer is fermented with wild yeast to create the somewhat tart flavor. It typically has low bitterness (9 to 23 IBUs) and moderate alcohol (4 percent to 8 percent ABV).
Fruit lambics are quite common and a few substyles have developed. Kriek is a fruit lambic that is fermented longer because of the fruit addition (most often cherries). If the beer is fermented with raspberries, it's a framboise beer.
Faro beer tastes similar to a classic lambic, but with far less intensity. The finished product has a hint of sweetness from brown sugar and mild aromatic spices.
Gueuze is a subclass that undergoes a unique blending process of mixing mature and young lambics that still contain sugars. It has a sharp sparkle and is nicknamed the "Champagne of Brussels."
Flanders Oud Bruin
Flanders is a region of Belgium along the country's northern border with the Netherlands. It is home to two styles of sour beer and the brown version is called oud bruin, brown ale, or simply Belgian brown beer.
Many Flanders beers are a blend of young and old beers. This heavily malted beer style features full-bodied notes of caramel with a sour finish. The flavors vary and may have a spicy character, be sweet, or have wood undertones. Colors range from deep copper to brown and the bitterness is typically low (20 to 25 IBUs). The alcohol falls between 4 percent and 8 percent ABV.
Flanders Red Ale
Flanders (or Belgian) red ale is a sour beer specialty of West Flanders. It acquires a signature strong, complex flavor from a long maturation period in oak. These beers have a hint of sweetness and mildly discernible tart fruity notes with a dry, tannin finish characteristic of red wine. The bitterness and alcohol are generally low (4.6 percent to 6.5 percent ABV; 10 to 25 IBUs).
Inspired by American IPAs, Belgian brewers have extended into this style to compete in the U.S. market. Primarily too hoppy for Belgian tastes, these brews often use American hops and have a distinct influence from Belgian tripel, including the rather dry finish. Generally pale in color and strong (6 percent to 11 percent ABV) with an IBU range of 50 to 80, U.S. brewers are adopting this style as well.
How to Serve Belgian Beer
Despite the great variety, serving Belgian beer follows the same general recommendations. They're best at cellar temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. For glassware, a stemmed glass with a somewhat rounded bowl is preferred so the drinker can fully enjoy the aroma. Belgian blonde and pale ales, both Flanders styles, IPAs, and wheat beer are commonly poured into a tulip glass. Dark ales, dubbels, tripels, and quads are often poured into a goblet.
Since these ales can be very yeasty, it's often best to "decant" the beer when pouring. To do this, simply pour very slowly—even more than usual—to reduce agitation and leave the sediment in the bottle. Some drinkers enjoy a bit of yeast in the glass and will add the desired amount when the glass is nearly full.
Almost every Belgian beer makes an excellent food pairing. If you get the chance, an authentic Trappist ale goes perfectly with Trappist cheese. Easy drinkers like blonde and pale ales are excellent with chicken or barbecued foods, and there's no need to hold back on the spices. Witbier is nice with nutty Gruyere cheese and hearty dishes with cheese and potatoes.
The fruit and sour beers of Belgium are also delightful with a variety of dishes. Their flavor can clash with steak and similar savory fare. Instead, try a classic lambic with light, white meat entrées like roasted rosemary chicken and desserts. Kriek is nice with cheesecake and other rich, fruit-complimentary desserts. The molasses notes of faro beer are beautifully enhanced with any chocolate desserts, particularly dark chocolate truffles. For gueuze, try aromatic caramelized apples or spice desserts.
Whether brown or red, the Flanders ales are excellent with salty and savory foods (steer clear of sweet desserts). Try a brown ale serving of hearty steak au poivre for a traditional treat. The red ales are best with robust meat, such as garlic turkey sausage, or sharp cheddar cheese.
Belgium's influence on the world's beer industry cannot be understated. Beyond the Belgian-brewed offerings, many craft brewers are influenced by these beers, so you'll often see "Belgian-style" on labels.
- 3 (Drie) Fontinen Lambic
- Bières de Chimay Tripel and Première
- Brasserie de Rochefort Trappistes Rochefort 10 (Quadrupel)
- Brasserie Dupont Avril (Saison)
- Bronx Belgian Pale Ale
- Brouwerij Brasserie De Ranke XX Bitter (IPA)
- DijkWaert Eeuwige Liefde (Dark Ale)
- Duvel Belgian Golden Ale
- Ommegang Witte Ale
- Rodenbach Classic Flemish Red-Brown Ale