Belgium is known to most Americans for the eponymous waffle at Sunday brunch, but this small country nestled among France, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg produces more brands and types of beer than any country in the world. Typical estimates are around 500 different beers -- but including one-off specialty brews, the number exceeds 1,000.
So many beers, so little time. What's a Good Life writer to do?
On a recent trip to Belgium I became familiar with a number of these beers and was determined to not only bring some back but also to buy as many as I could once I returned. Unfortunately for your intrepid reporter, only a few of these beers are available here.
So If you can't make it to the
Delirium Cafe in Brussels, here's a guide to some of the better Belgian beers available to American consumers. These beers are excellent, high-quality beverages, a few of which are handcrafted by Trappist monks. If you're a fan of beer and looking for something a little different, why not live the good life and give some of these a try? Find them in your local high-end liquor stores or online at
Beer Through the Ages
A long time ago, way back in history,
When all there was to drink was nothin' but cups of tea,
Along came a man by the name of Charlie Mopps,
And he invented the wonderful drink, and he made it out of hops.
-- traditional British drinking song
Beer, Beer, Beer
The origins of Belgian beer can be traced to the Middle Ages, when monasteries began brewing as a source of income, but beer has a much longer pedigree.
A 3,900-year-old Sumerian poem contains the oldest known recipe for beer (made from barley), and beer shows up in the written histories of Mesopotamians and ancient Egyptians. Beer is mentioned in the epic of
, dating from at least the seventh century B.C. The Thracians made beer from rye around the fifth century B.C., and it was an important drink of the early Roman civilization.
The Finns arguably hold beer in the highest esteem: Their national epic, the
, composed of centuries-old oral traditions, has more lines devoted to the origin and brewing of beer than it does to the origin of people.
To watch Sean Driscoll's video take of this column, please click here
Ferment to Be
Beer is made by the process of fermentation of the sugars contained in malted grains, typically barley. However, since the process and ingredients used in beer vary widely from region to region, and in many cases from town to town, the taste and quality of the product does as well. This is one of the reasons why Belgium produces so many distinct brews.
Additionally, many Belgian beers go through a process of refermentation in the bottle. This is referred to as bottle-conditioning, and it's another way that Belgian beer stands apart from virtually all other beers worldwide.
Finally, most Belgian beers are "top fermented" as opposed to "bottom fermented" (like American pilsners), meaning the yeast rises to the surface during fermentation. This tends to create a very thick head and a beer high in esters, giving it a fruity flavor.
some microbreweries have recently bucked this trend, this level of beer diversity is not common in the U.S., where beer is thought of as being regular, dark or lite. If you consider beer a highly carbonated, yellow, slightly bitter drink, you'll be in for a surprise with these Belgian beauties.
Let's Start Drinking
I employed five current and former
staffers for a beer tasting. We compared and rated six Belgian beers using four general characteristics -- aroma, appearance, taste and aftertaste -- with 10 being the highest score.
And for those of you hipsters expecting Stella Artois to be in the following list, I'm sorry to disappoint, but Stella is Belgium's equivalent of Budweiser or Coors -- a mass-produced, cheap pilsner. (I'm not knocking Budweiser or Coors, but this is the Good Life, not the Regular Life.)
Chimay is a Trappist beer, meaning it is brewed in one of only six remaining Trappist monasteries and must be produced by the monks on the premises. Chimay comes in three different labels: blue, white and red, with the highest alcohol content in blue (9%), then white (8%) and red (7%).
Our tasters thought the beer had a fruity, slightly malty aroma, a cloudy, deep butterscotch appearance, a full, chocolaty taste (though slightly bitter) and a crisp, pleasant aftertaste.
Since it was the first beer sampled, it was an instant favorite, but it continued to hold its place throughout the tasting.
Kwak was a crowd pleaser, and not just because of the odd name. Tasters had a hard time pinning down the aroma, often evoking "light," but they were unanimous on the taste: very smooth, earthy, easy on the tongue with a slightly sweet aftertaste. The appearance was pleasing, a clear, deep amber with a nice head. Kwak also delivered the most consistent scores across the board.
Orval was the only other Trappist beer sampled, but this one was more controversial than the Chimay. It elicited strong reactions from nearly everyone -- rating from a 3.0 to an 8.5. But if you're a fan of challenging beers, you're going to love Orval. It's complex, somewhat bitter, but very rich.
Tasters noted the aroma as bitter and a little resinous. Some thought this was pleasant, but another found it "not exactly appetizing." The appearance was a slightly cloudy light caramel. The aftertaste was also full and bitter, even a bit musky (most likely the hops coming through).
My feeling is nearly everyone made up their mind on this one from the initial, strong aroma. This beer is not for the weak. You've been warned.
This beer was similar to the Hoegaarden (see below) in appearance and aroma; however, Corsendonk is not a wheat beer but a
, meaning it has been fermented twice.
Both Corsendonk and Hoegaarden have a light, cloudy yellow appearance with a somewhat fresh smell, but the taste is distinct from Hoegaarden. Everyone thought the Corsendonk had more bite and was a bit metallic, but some also remarked on citrus notes in the taste. It has a short, crisp aftertaste and finished cleanly.
This was a group favorite, one of our tasters even bestowing it with a perfect score. Hoegaarden is a wheat beer and much lighter than typical Belgian dark beers, even though it, too, is conditioned in the bottle.
The brand has been credited with reviving the wheat beer tradition in 1966, which is based upon the traditional 15th century formula of water, yeast, wheat, hops, coriander and dried Curaçao orange peel.
Tasters all noted the citrusy aroma, one dubbing it vernal, another noting an agreeable grassy smell. The appearance is pale golden, "like dirty lemonade," with a crisp and light taste -- "lemony" and "fresh" were common comments. The aftertaste was also enjoyable to all, some saying flowery and sweet but everyone noting the lightness.
Hoegaarden shaped up as the polar opposite of the Orval, so if you're not a big beer drinker, this is a great one to start with. The first time I had Hoegaarden was while sitting in the sun on a perfect summer day in Brussels, a slice of lemon in the beer. You cannot beat that.
Not very popular with the group, Affligem is a top-fermented beer with a somewhat strong, metallic aroma and a cloudy, medium-amber appearance. No one was particularly taken with the taste, all noting that it is quite carbonated -- a bit prickly on the tongue -- with a slightly burnt, bitter flavor that lingered through the aftertaste. The most kind words a taster could summon was "this is not a bad beer," but this one paled in comparison with the others.
A final note on these beers: In Belgium, most brands have a matched glass in which the beer should be served. While these are possible
to buy in the U.S., that's really more about style than substance (though many Belgian beer drinkers would certainly disagree). The majority of the glasses, though, share one characteristic: a wide mouth. These are full-flavored beers with unique aromas, so an open surface allows you to really appreciate the bouquet of the beer as you enjoy it. Drinking straight from the bottle severely limits your appreciation of the flavor and subtleties.
So pour one of these beers in a glass, take a nice long smell, drink up and enjoy the good life.