There are literally thousands of Belgian beers out there, in many different flavors, colors and strengths. So, for people who are not totally familiar with Belgian beer, it is not always easy to find what they are looking for. That is why I will give a short overview of the different Belgian beer styles and their names.
Most Belgian beers fall in the category double, blonde or triple. In order to understand those categories, we first need to mention a beer category that no longer exists: the single beers. Centuries ago, when most people couldn’t read or write, there were only two kinds of beer: single and double. Both beers were dark and the only difference between them was their strength and the amount of malt they contained.
Single beer was indicated with a single mark or a single cross on the casks, so that the illiterate labor forces working the brewery would be able to distinguish them from the stronger beers.
Double beer was then marked with a double mark or a double cross, to distinguish it from the less strong, single beer. Contrarily to the single beer, double beer is still brewed today. It has a dark color, it is also referred to as ‘brune’ or ‘dubbel’ and it has an alcohol content of around 6-7%. An example of such a beer is Grimbergen Double.
Triple beer is supposed to contain three times as much malt as a single beer, but that is not to be taken literally. All it means is that it contains more malt and it is stronger than a double. According to the legend, the monks in the abbeys were allowed to drink this stronger beer on Sundays and on religious holidays. The reality is however, that triple beers only started to appear in the second half of the 20th Century when brewers were losing customers who had switched to drinking wine. They then decided that they needed to make a stronger beer to compete with the wine. Triple beers are blonde beers with and alcohol content between 7.5 and 10 %, a famous example is the Westmalle Tripel.
Quadruple beers are even stronger. These are dark beers with an alcohol content between 10 and 12%. Most beers in this category are quite recent, and that is why, at the end of last Century, beers writers took the name of an existing beer in this category, La Trappe Quadrupel, and used it to describe an entire category of beers. In Flemish, these strong beers are also referred to as ‘barley wine’. The most famous beers in this category is Westvleteren 12.
Blonde beers: with the arrival of the pils beers in the early 20th Century, Belgian beer drinkers massively switched from their traditional dark and amber beers to the blonde pils beers. In order to win these customers back, brewers created these blonde beers. They are brewed in a similar way as the double beers, but by using pale malts, the beers get a blonde color and a flavor that is closer to that of a pils beer. These beers have an alcohol content of 6-7%. Most famous beer in this category is Leffe Blonde.
Strong blonde beers have the density and the color of a blonde beer, but the strength of a triple. They are brewed with the same amount of malt as a blonde beer, but by adding sugar at a later stage, the alcohol content of the beers increases by a few percent. These strong blondes or strong pale ales have an alcohol content of 8-9%. The most famous example in this category is Duvel.
Pils beer has its origins in the town of Pilsen (Plzen), in the Czech Republic. This beer style widely spread all over Europe from the end of the 19th Century onwards. This light and blonde beer with and alcohol content of around 5% quickly became the most popular beer style in Belgium and in many other countries all over the world. Belgium’s best-known pils beer is Stella-Artois.
White beer or witbier is a pale beer with an alcohol content of 5-6%. While almost all Belgian beers are mainly brewed with barley, this beer contains a lot of wheat, which gives it its typical pale, hazy color. This style of beer is also very popular in Germany where it is called weissbier. The best known beer in this category is without a doubt the Hoegaarden beer.
Lambic is a only brewed in a particular area in and around Brussels. This is a spontaneous fermentation beer, which means that the beer ferments spontaneously with the wild yeasts that are in the atmosphere. This is the oldest, still existing beer style; it dates back to the 1300’s. This beer has and alcohol content of 4-5% and it can be divided into several subcategories.
- Gueuze is a blend of lambic of different ages;
- Kriek is lambic beer with added cherries
- Framboise is lambic with added raspberries.
These beers from traditional breweries like Cantillon or 3 Fonteinen are very sour, but nowadays there are also a lot of sweet versions. To know which beers are sweet and which ones are sour, check out this post.
Fruit beer is a general term to describe beer to which fruit or fruit extracts have been added during the brewing process. The traditional fruit beers are the lambic beers described above, but nowadays almost every beers style can be mixed with fruit. There are white beers with fruit flavor, there are blonde beers with fruit flavor and even dark beers with fruit flavor.
Flemish Red, sometimes called ‘Flanders Red’ or ‘Oudbruin’ is a very unique sour beer with a red-brownish color. It is a protected regional product and it can only be produced in some areas of West- and East-Flanders. The most famous example of this beer, and also the very first Flemish red ever, is Rodenbach by the brewery with same name. This beer style is currently ‘hot’ and it is becoming very popular abroad.
Champagne beer is the most recent category in this post. It is a combination of a blonde beer with champagne yeasts. There are only a few such beers and they look very much like real champagne: they are only available in 75cl bottles and they have a similar carbonation and alcohol content as champagne.
Saison beer is a typical beer of the Province of Hainaut. That province is well-known for its large farms with a lot of farmland. Saison beer was originally made for the seasonal workers who came to work on those fields in the summer. It is a slightly bitter beer with an orange color and an alcohol content of around 6%. The best known beer in this category is Saison Dupont.
Brewers become more and more creative in the beers they make and not every beer can easily be fitted into a particular category. These days, there are beers with saffron, beers with watercress, beer with pepper…, but I hope this list gives you a rough idea of what each beer stands for.