Belgium's beer-making history goes back centuries and from whatever bar of the world you come from you'll know that this is serious beer country. Official estimates suggest that there are more than 700 beers to choose from, with the rarest and most precious given all the reverence of a fine wine. The professional beer drinker will already know the brews we list, but for the tippling amateur we have produced this top twenty to get you started. Every bar in Brussels has a beer menu and although it's unlikely that any one establishment will have all those listed, all of them should have at least a couple. Cheers!
Bush Beer (7.5% and 12%)
A Wallonian speciality, it is claimed that the original version is - at 12% - the strongest beer in Belgium, but it's actually more like a barley wine, and has a lovely golden colour, and an earthy aroma. The 7.5% Bush is a tasty pale ale with a zip of coriander.
Brugse Straffe Hendrik (Blond 6.5%, Bruin 8.5%)
Straffe Hendrik, a smart little brewery located in the centre of Bruges, produces zippy, refreshing ales. Their Blond is a light and tangy pale ale, whereas the Bruin is a classic brown ale with a full body.
Chimay (red top 7%, blue top 9%)
Made by the Trappist monks of Forges-les-Chimay in southern Belgium, Chimay beers are widely regarded as being amongst the best in the world. Of the several brews they produce, these two are the most readily available, fruity and strong, deep in body, and somewhat spicy with a hint of nutmeg and thyme.
La Chouffe (8%)
Produced in the Ardennes, this distinctive beer is instantly recognizable by the red-hooded gnome (or chouffe ) which adorns its label. It's a refreshing pale ale with a hint of coriander and it leaves a peachy aftertaste.
Corsendonk Pater Noster (5.6%)
The creation of Jef Keersmaekers, this bottled beer is easily the pick of the many Corsendonk brews. It is known for its Burgundy-brown colour and smoky bouquet.
Delirium Tremens (9%)
Great name for this spicy amber ale that is the leading product of Ghent's Huyghe brewery.
Gouden Carolus (8%)
Named after - and allegedly the favourite tipple of - the Habsburg emperor Charles V, Gouden Carolus is a full-bodied dark brown ale with a sour and slightly fruity aftertaste. Brewed in the Flemish town of Mechelen.
De Koninck (5%)
Antwerp's leading brewery, De Koninck, is something of a Flemish institution - for some a way of life. Its standard beer, De Koninck, is a smooth, yellowish pale ale that is better on draft than in the bottle. Very drinkable and with a sharp aftertaste.
Gueuze (Cantillon Gueuze Lambic 5%)
A type of beer rather than an individual brew, Gueuze is made by blending old and new lambic to fuel re-fermentation, with the end result being bottled. This process makes Gueuze a little sweeter and fuller bodied than lambic. Traditional Gueuze can be hard to track down and you may have to settle for the sweeter, more commercial brands, notably Belle Vue Gueuze (5.2%), Timmermans Gueuze (5.5%) and the exemplary Lindemans Gueuze (5.2%).
The role model of all Belgian wheat beers, Hoegaarden - named after a small town east of Leuven - is light and extremely refreshing, despite its cloudy appearance. It is brewed from equal parts of wheat and malted barley and is the ideal drink for a hot summer's day. The history of wheat beers is curious: in the late 1950s, they were so unpopular that they faced extinction, but within twenty years they had been taken up by a new generation of drinkers and are now extremely popular. Hoegaarden is as good a wheat beer as any.
Kriek (Cantillon Kriek Lambic 5%, Belle Vue Kriek 5.2%, Mort Subite Kriek 4.3%)
A type of beer rather than a particular brew, Kriek is made from a base beer to which is added cherries or, in the case of the more commercial brands, cherry juice and perhaps even sugar. It is decanted from a bottle with a cork, as with sparkling wine. The better examples are not too sweet and taste simply wonderful. Other fruit beers are available too, but Kriek is perhaps the most successful.
This Flemish beer, the main product of the family-run Bosteels brewery, is not all that special - it's an amber ale sweetened by a little sugar - but it's served in dramatic style with its distinctive hourglass placed in a wooden stand.
Lambic (Cantillon Lambik 5%, Lindemans Lambik 4%)
Specific to the Brussels area and representing one of the world's oldest styles of beer manufacture, lambic beers are tart because they are brewed with at least thirty percent raw wheat as well as the more usual malted barley. The key feature is, however, the use of wild yeast in their production, a process of spontaneous fermentation in which the yeasts of the atmosphere gravitate down into open wooden casks over a period of between two and three years. Draught lambic is extremely rare, but it is served in central Brussels at À la Bécasse . The bottled varieties are often modified, but Cantillon Lambik is authentic, an excellent drink with a lemony zip. It is produced at the Cantillon brewery, in Anderlecht, which is home to the Gueuze Museum. Lindemans Lambik is similar and a tad more commonplace.
Leffe (Leffe Brune 6.5%, Leffe Blond 6.6%)
Brewed in Leuven, just to the east of Brussels, Leffe is strong and malty and comes in two main varieties. Leffe Blond is bright, fragrant, and has a slight orangey flavour, whereas Leffe Brune is dark, aromatic and full of body. Very popular, but a little gassy for some tastes.
One of the world's most distinctive malt beers, Orval is made in the Ardennes at the Abbaye d'Orval, which was founded in the twelfth century by Benedictine monks from Calabria. The beer is a lovely amber colour, refreshingly bitter and makes a great aperitif.
Rochefort (Rochefort 6 7.5%, Rochefort 8 9.2%, Rochefort 10 11.3%)
Produced at a Trappist monastery in the Ardennes, Rochefort beers are typically dark and sweet and come in three main versions: Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, and the extremely popular Rochefort 10, which has a deep reddish-brown colour and a delicious fruity palate.
Rodenbach (Rodenbach 5%, Rodenbach Grand Cru 6.5%)
Located in the Flemish town of Roeselare, the Rodenbach brewery produces a reddish brown ale in several different formats, with the best brews aged in oak containers. Their widely available Rodenbach (5%) is a tangy brown ale with a hint of sourness. The much fuller - and sourer - Rodenbach Grand Cru is far more difficult to get hold of, but is particularly delicious.
Verboden Vrucht, or Forbidden Fruit (9%)
Forbidden Fruit is worth buying just for the label, which depicts a fig-leaf clad Adam offering a strategically covered Eve a glass of beer in the garden of Eden. The actual drink is dark, strong and has a spicy aroma, and has something of a cult following in Belgium. Produced by Hoegaarden.
Westmalle (Westmalle Dubbel 7%, Tripel 9%)
The Trappist monks of Westmalle, just north of Antwerp, claim their beers not only cure loss of appetite and insomnia, but reduce stress by half. Whatever the truth, the prescription certainly tastes good. Their most famous beer, the Westmalle Tripel, is deliciously creamy and aromatic, while the popular Westmalle Dubbel is dark and supremely malty.
Westvleteren (Special 6° 6.2%, Extra 8° 8%)
Made at the abbey of St Sixtus in West Flanders, Westvleteren beers come in several varieties. These two are the most common, dark and full-bodied, sour with an almost chocolate-like taste
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