Various types of beer have been made in Belgium for centuries, so they have had plenty of time to perfect the different production methods. Today the brewing of beer is still very regional, reflecting the role that rural monasteries played in developing the various blends. Some breweries are still attached to monasteries and others are not, although this is of little importance to the taste of the beers concerned. Belgian beers are unusual in that they are mainly sold in bottles, as opposed to the draft beer preferred in most other European countries. This is a guide to some of the more outstanding beers of Belgium in no particular order.
Leffe was for centuries brewed by monks until it gradually became more and more commercialised. This was not necessarily a bad thing as the various varieties of Leffe continue to be popular domestically and with connoisseurs abroad. Leffe can be drunk almost everywhere in Belgium so there is no need to travel far to find some, unless of course you want to, in which case there is a museum in the charming town of Dinant dedicated to the history and development of the brand.
Affligem is today part of the Heineken group although, like Leffe, Affligem has its roots in a medieval Monastery. A range of beers are produced under the Affligem name, although I would recommend Affligem Blonde, the pale ale, as the best. The adventurous may like to try the Affligem Tripel, although at above nine percent it very easily leads to a sore head.
3. St Bernardus
St Bernardus has a long and complicated history that has no real bearing on the taste of today’s product. The St Bernardus Witbier is my favourite, with a pleasant flavour that is not too strong. The other varieties of the brand tend to be richer and full bodied so if that is your taste then you may prefer them.
4. De Koninck
De Koninck is very closely associated with the city of Antwerp, so if you are in town you should make a special effort to try a bolleke (glass) or two. Again there is a choice, mainly between the De Koninck classic and the Blond, although the Winterkoninck is comforting when the wind and rain are beating against the window panes. The De Koninck brewery is open for visitors each day, although unless you are in a group you must go on Saturdays at three. Groups get more choice about the time but must give at least a months notice.
Duvel is a great example of the strong ales produced in Belgium although it doesn’t have the same history as many other brands. Duvel has a finely balanced taste that reflects the care that goes into the selection of its ingredients. Duvel is also available outside Belgium so the curious should be able to sample it before even leaving home as an introduction to the delights waiting in Belgium.
Photo of a glass of Leffe beer by josef.stuefer.