Not All Belgian Beers Go to Heaven

 

We’ve discovered a recent trend in New England: Belgian inspired restaurants that sell little to no actual Belgian beers on their menu. We’ve noticed this on recent visits to Duck Fat in Portland, Maine and Saus in Boston. Both restaurants have a quality selection of craft beers, just not Belgian ones. And while many local bottle shops in Boston carry Belgian beers, the selection is very limited for one of the world’s greatest beer producing countries. So how can Americans learn more about the wonder of Belgian beer?

Beers Close to God

This is in reference to beers produced by Trappist monks of the Benedictine faith, some of which have been brewing beer for centuries within their abbey walls. These are not to be confused by ‘abbey style’ ales, which are produced by a wide range of Belgian breweries outside current Belgian abbeys. There are only six Belgian monasteries that produce beer, and even among them, there’s varying philosophical differences in how they brew and how they interact with the outside world. Listed below are all six, in descending order from largest to smallest beer production.

Trappist Brewers

Brugge Town Square
1) Chimay opened in 1863 and produces 3.2 million gallons of tasty beer per year. It’s the most commonly found Trappist beer in the United States and many other countries.

2) Westmalle opened in 1836 and produces almost as much as Chimay, but doesn’t export as much of their beer outside Europe as Chimay does.

3) Orval opened in 1931 and brew 1.2 million gallons of beer per year. This is a really interesting beer because it tastes extremely different when drank chilled compared to not chilled (that’s all beers, but this one especially). When not chilled, the beer tastes much sweeter than when it’s cold, which I always found striking.

Not only can you visit their abbey for spiritual advice, but you can also stay with these monks for free if you don’t have the money to pay. Their website quotes Saint Benedict with “Let all guests be received like Christ, for he will say “I was a stranger and you let me in.” Now that’s the essence of what Christianity should be, but this is not the norm of Trappist monasteries, most of which do not allow overnight stays.

La Trappe
4) Rochefort dates all the way back to 1595 and produces 480,000 gallons of beer. Rochefort 8 and Rochefort 10 are two of my favorite beers in the world. Be especially careful with the Rochefort 10 as it’s a whopping 11.2% alcohol! This is a beer to savour slowly, as the depth of malty fruit flavors is complex. And it’s a beer that can age like wine, as its taste can mature for years. We aged some while living in the Netherlands and wish we had some ageing now!

5) Achel only came about in 1998 and the monks struggled a bit with their brewing in the beginning, not receiving a very good reputation. These brothers have vastly improved though and their Achel Bruin (brown) in large 75 cl bottles is a quality beer.

6) Westvleteren dates to 1838 and has previously been rated as the best beer in the world. It is an extremely rare beer, especially on the global market, but even within Belgium. The monks at the abbey of Sint-Sixtus typically don’t brew on a large commercial scale. Three years ago they increased production for a limited period and sold special 6 pack gift boxes to build a new roof for their abbey. Typically they only sell their small batch beer straight from their abbey gate.

You can find Westvleteren in some speciality Belgian and Dutch bottle shops and pubs but expect to pay around €12 ($13.50) and up for a small bottle. That’s very expensive for a Trappist beer, and if you want to drink it cheaper you’ll need to visit the cafe across the street from the abbey called In de Vrede, or order in advance directly from the abbey itself. The monastery and brewery of Sint-Sixtus is never open to the public, so if you want a case of 24 bottles you can pre-order their beer during limited hours and each car’s license plate entitles you to a maximum of one case per month. The monks then arrange a time to hand deliver your beer at the gate of the abbey.

logo_authentic_trappist_product
These are the only Belgian breweries allowed to print the official ‘Authentic Trappist Product’ logo on their bottles, signifying that the beer was brewed within cisterian abbey walls. The majority of the world’s ‘Trappist’ breweries are in Belgium but there are a handful elsewhere. The Netherlands has a Trappist brewery at the abbey of De Koningshoeven, which brews the popular Dutch beer La Trappe (and is a gorgeous place to visit). There are relatively new Trappist breweries in Austria like Engelszell, Tre Fontane Abbey in Italy and the St. Joseph’s in Massachussetts (producers of Spencer), all which only began brewing the last couple years and have been influenced by the Belgian monasteries.

Trappist beers are generally classified in four categories: enkel (single), lowest in alcohol but still typically over 5% abv, dubbel (double), which are usually around 7% alcohol and are sweet malty beers, tripels (triples) which are usually around 8% alcohol and are golden ales, and quadrupels, strong malty beers that are over 10% alcohol. Monks also typically produce what’s called patersbier (father’s beer), that is only consumed within the monasteries. If you see a Belgian beer in the store marketed as ‘patersbier’, such as St. Bernardus, this beer was not actually produced by the monks themselves- which can be a little confusing to some!

Close to Heaven in Taste (Belgian Family Brewers)

The rooftop view of Brugge at the De Halve Maan Brewery, a member of the Belgian Family Brewers Alliance.
The rooftop view of Brugge from the De Halve Maan Brewery, a member of the Belgian Family Brewers alliance.

There’s some fantastic Belgian breweries that have run in the same family for centuries and now fall under the label Belgian Family Brewers. One of our favorites in this group is Tripel Karmaliet. It’s a fantastic beer and a great selection in the Belgian Tripel category. It’s not only one of the best beers in Belgium, but also one of the easiest of the best Belgian beers to find in the USA and elsewhere around the world in specialty shops. Beers like Tripel Karmaliet, brewed by Brouwerij Bosteels, has remarkably been in the same family since 1795! Duvel also falls under this label but as they’re a far bigger brewery, we don’t find their beers to be among Belgium’s best.

Scientists have even discovered that certain Belgian beers can help you lose weight thanks to the good bacterias in their overly yeasty beers. This is in moderation of course!

Lambics

Cantillon Brewery
These beers are typically produced in Brussels and the surrounding area. Cantillon in Brussels is one of the best lambic breweries and we loved our prior visit there. Before our tour, the owner’s daughter told us “throw out any pre-conceived notions you have of beer. This will be unlike anything you’ve tasted before.” And indeed they were. Lambics are sour beers uniquely produced through spontaneous open air fermentation and then aged for in oak casks for between one and three years. The beers are also produced using aged hops, adding to their unique sour flavor. The beers are brewed without fruit, or most commonly with raspberries (framboise) or cherries (kriek). While not for everyone, many develop an affinity for lambic varieties once they’ve tried a good one.

Anheuser Busch-Inbev Beers

Cafe Leffe, Leuven
 

If you see Belgian beer at a corporate event, chain restaurant or chain hotel, it’s likely to be Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, or Leffe which are now brewed by the largest beer company in the world, Anheuser Busch- Inbev. Some are tasty, but because they’re mass produced, they’re not as good of quality as many small batch beers.

Cafe Leffe’s can be found scattered around Belgium and are similar to a Belgian TGI Friday’s. We ate at the restaurant in Leuven (home base of Anheuser Busch-Inbev) and found their food to be quality Belgian dishes and their beer selection surprised us by extending far beyond just Anheuser Busch-Inbev products. Their Trappist beer selection, among other outside choices, is very good!

Belgian Pils (pilsners)

Belgium also makes some great pilsners that are better quality than Stella Artois. While some people outside Belgium consider Stella fancy, it’s actually generally regarded as a lower quality pilsner, even in countries like England. Maes is a very nice Belgian pilsner and Jupiler is very drinkable for a mass produced beer in the region. To read more about what defines a quality pilsner, read this. If you love pilsners and no other variety, we’d also highly recommend visiting the Hessen region of Germany or the Czech Republic, where the local pilsners are as good as you’ll find anywhere in the world. Just be sure to give several varieties of the very best Belgian beers a try before leaving beautiful Belgium!

Belgium and Netherlands Tours

If you want to discover beautiful Belgium & the Netherlands, while enjoying some of these delicious beers with a fun group, consider joining my small group tour this September! You can also contact me about organizing a trip in this region or booking me as a personal guide for groups of five or more.

 

More from Wanderlust Marriage!

4 thoughts on “Not All Belgian Beers Go to Heaven

  1. Fabulous comprehensive article on the Belgium beers. I love the beers and they taste better while sitting at a Belgium hotel or eatery. Hope you get to share your knowledge with interested beer lovers on your tours!!!

    1. Thank you very much for the compliment! Indeed, Belgian beers taste even better when drank in Belgium as they haven’t had to travel, and they’re always served in their proper glassware, which helps to bring out their flavors once poured. The beautiful Belgian scenery certainly doesn’t hurt your taste buds either!

  2. I know nothing about beer or drink beer but I noticed right off the bat the mention of two restaurants I visited in November and thought What are the chances? I visited both Saus in Boston and Duck Fat in Portland when traveling. Excellent places for fries. I could eat at Saus every day. Yum

    1. That’s really ironic! Thanks for letting us know! You’re definitely a fan of fries and indeed both Duck Fat and Saus are excellent for this. On a side note, for Belgian beer aficionados The Publick House is one of the best places in Boston for their selection. Happy travels and eating!

Have something to share?