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?
Authentic Trappist Products
This is in reference to beers produced by Trappist monks of the Benedictine faith, some of which have been brewing Belgian beers 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.
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.
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.
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)
There are some fantastic Belgian breweries that have run in the same family for centuries. One of our favorites 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.
Some Scientists have even made claims that certain Belgian beers can help you lose weight. That is thanks to the good bacterias in their overly yeasty beers. This is in moderation of course, not a six pack a night!
Anheuser Busch-Inbev Beers
If you see Belgian beers 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!