Belgium: Home of Abbey Ales, Lambic, Wit and Diverse, Distinctive Ales
Belgium is a small, beer-producing country where beer, culture and religion coexist in unique harmony. People have been brewing a variety of styles in this region since as early as the 1st century BC, and continue to offer a wide assortment of exotic ales to today’s connoisseur. Belgian brewers capture a wide range of flavors by straying from the German tradition of strict adherence to yeast, malted barley, water and hops and experimenting with barley sugar, fruits and spices in their beer-making process. The results are strikingly varied beer styles that mirror the diversity of the people and culture of the country.
Unique to Belgium is its long-standing tradition of producing beer in self-sufficient monasteries—a process rooted in the Middle Ages—with seven monastic breweries still operating in Belgium and Holland today. These Trappist breweries are part of the Benedictine order of Catholic monks and produce about 25 labels, all marked with the special designation of “Trappist” ales. It is from this tradition that the separate categories of “abbey” ales were developed, typically brewed in commercial secular breweries.
Other popular Belgian beer styles include lambic and wit beers. Distinctive in the world of brewing, modern lambic beers are almost wine-like and have tart, acidic flavors. Some are flavored with fruit juices. This style has become synonymous with producers like Bellevue, Cantillon and Lindeman’s. Alternatively, wit or white beers are cloudy wheat ales, traditionally lighter and easier on the palate and spiced with coriander and orange peel. A classic example of this style is Hoegaarden (the model for Blue Moon), which resurfaced in the U.S. and is increasingly popular with consumers.
Although fewer than 200 breweries are currently active in Belgium—compared to approximately 3,000 at the beginning of the 20th century—those that remain continue a rich tradition of brewing diverse, distinctive ales. Of the breweries still in operation, many can trace their foundation back further than 300 years. To the U.S. consumer, Belgian beers represent sophisticated examples of beer styles that the US craft-brewing industry strives to emulate. These distinctive ales invite contemplative, less-hurried drinking, serve as striking examples of Belgium’s rich brewing history, and are superb accompaniments to their cuisine.