When it comes to beer, Belgium produces the most beer per capita among any other nations, some 500 to 1.200 varieties in total, the number is still contested.
The term “Belgian beer” is synonym with great taste and is very often a benchmark for other non-Belgian breweries. The secret behind this unique taste is the yeast they use, some of the strains being developed over decades and kept under lock and key.
Among the multitude of beer types (amber, pils, stout, lambic,strong ale, pale ale, kriek, blond, brown, etc) my favorite one is the TRAPPIST.
You may wander what is a Trappist beer?
The word “Trappist” comes from a Catholic religious order that broke away from the Cistercian order at the end of 19th century. The monks from the Order of Cistercians were referred to as Trappists. They had to be self-sufficient, and they would accomplish that by selling various types of home-made food as well as alcoholic beverages. As early as 17th century, the monasteries belonging to this order were allowed to brew beer in small quantities in order to sustain the life in the monastery or for a good cause.
Today, there are 11 active Trappist breweries in the world:
- 6 in Belgium – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westsleteren, Achel
- 2 in the Netherlands – Koningshoeven and Kievit
- 1 in Austria – Engelszell
- 1 in the USA – Spencer Brewery / St. Joseph’s Abbey
- 1 in Italy – Tre Fontane
A beer that carries the ”Authentic Trappist Product” logo has to follow some strict production criteria:
- The beer must be produced by the monks themselves within the walls of the monastery
- The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery
- The income obtained by selling the beer should only cover the cost of living for the monks and the maintenance of the abbey
- The breweries must assure outstanding quality of their beers
Most Trappist beers are Blond, Dubbel/Double and Tripel/Triple, indicating approximately the alcohol strength, the monks were using double or triple ingredients in order to produce stronger beer. In the old days, the bottles weren’t labeled, so the only way to tell what kind of beer and what strength was by using a distinct bottle or by the color of the cap. Usually Trappist beer is not filtered and some of them even have some yeast added to the bottle, which help the beer improve with time.
Even today, Westvleteren (good luck pronouncing that), considered by many (businessinsider or ratebeer) the best beer in the world, has no label. Instead it uses green, blue and yellow caps to indicate the strength, yellow being the strongest (10.2%). I personally prefer the green cap (5.8%) which accompanied by some good quality cheese makes a unique authentic Belgium experience.
Despite a huge demand, the monks at Saint-Sixtus Abbey only produce 400.000 liter/year of Westvleteren beer which is enough to support the abbey. You can only buy Westvleteren from the monastery, by appointment and no more than two crates. At the abbey, you buy a crate (24 bottles) for about 35€. I paid 10€ for a bottle which I hardly found in a cheese shop after a day of trying and asking everywhere. And that was in Ghent, I wasn’t able to find any in Brussels.
Chimay, on the other hand, produces around 25 million liters per-year, in addition to their own cheese and has the biggest contribution to Trappist beer export. It is widely available in most beer shops or cafes. Chimay, especially the Red or the newest Doree, would be a perfect introduction to Belgian beer.
So you see, in Belgium beer is more like a culture, with a very old tradition, and Belgians take it seriously. Many of the beers have personalized glasses, with a distinct shape designed to enhance the flavor.
The best way to taste and to learn about different kinds of beer would be to go to a bar that has a large selection and knowledgeable staff. We went to Delirium on Impasse de la Fidélité, in Brussels.
Another good option is Bier Circus on rue de l’Enseignement, with more than 200 types of beer. Ask the waiters to help you… if you’re trying Belgian beers for the first time, start with the classics: Chimay (rouge) and Orval, Leffe, Duvel, a kriek, a white beer (Hoegaarden)… I don’t particularly like the brown ones, but I gave them a try nevertheless.
THE HALVE MAAN BREWERY
If you visit Bruges, make sure you make the time to visit De Halve Maan Brewery. About 20 years ago, the brewery was renovated and started producing Brugse Zot (The Fool of Bruges) following the exact original recipe. We took a tour which lasted about 45min and was 7€, and by the end of it, apart from the free beer tasting, you leave with a little bit of knowledge about Belgian brewing history.
They produce 4 types of beer:
- Brugse Zot 6% – blond with a nice balance of malt and hops; my favorite
- Brugse Zot Dubbel 7.5% – is the darker version which combines different malts
- Straffe Hendrik Tripel 9% – originally brewed in 1981 and returned to the brewery in 2008, is a higher alcohol, ABV, tripel of excellent character and depth with a nice hop character to balance it out.
- Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel 11% – is dark, rich and the highest alcohol content
A prime destination for beer fans in Bruges is De Garre. Located on a small street in the heart of Bruges, they have an amazing bottle list as well as draft. Of course this includes the local beer De Halve Maan.