Navigating the unique world of Belgian beer can be difficult, but those who take the time to explore will be rewarded with a world of distinct aroma, flavour and texture.
Trappist and Abbey Beers
Beer that carries an "Authentic Trappist Product" stamp have to be brewed within the walls of a Trappist Monastery and by, or under the direction of, Trappist monks. Of the 10 Trappist-designated beers in the world, six are in Belgium.
Australia enjoys relatively good distribution of true-Belgian Trappist beers with Chimay, Westmalle, Achel, and Rochefort all readily available on local shelves. Beers from these four breweries range from around 7% to 11% abv, and appear in colour from light gold to almost black. Usually with flavours of clove, peppery spice, dark fruit or green bananas, they are perfect for sharing and go great with almost any food.
The most sought-after Trappist beer is undeniably Westvleteren, out of the Abbey St Sixtus. The monks only permit sale by pre-arranged pickup from the brewery or in small quantities at the cafe across the road, and drinkers will pay a premium to get their hands on just one bottle. However, the Abbey beers from St Bernardus Brewery, readily-available in Australia, are often said to be a close second in quality. Prior to the strict Trappist requirements, Westvleteren beers were brewed under licence by St Bernardus. Abbey beers are made with similar intent to the Trappists, either at a non-Trappist monastery, under licence for a monastery, or even just made to mimic the classic monastic styles.
Lambic and Gueuze
To talk lambic beer in any depth would require lessons in history, historical language and geography; with a lot of microbiology thrown in. We’ll spare you the intricacies. Lambic is an intensely sour beer naturally fermented with wild yeast and bacteria, and sometimes has fruit added to create styles such as kriek (cherry) and framboise (raspberry).
Gueuze is a blend of 1, 2 and 3 year old lambic. Blending itself takes a lot of skill and there are commercial "blenderies" out there that use other breweries’ lambics to blend or add fruit to create their own products.
While a number of traditional producers now make sugar-sweetened versions, there is increasingly high demand for classic non-sweetened versions and Australian drinkers can enjoy great examples from producers such as Tilquin, Lindemans and Oud Beersel, amongst others.
Traditionally low in alcohol and brewed in cooler months for summertime farm-work refreshment, modern versions have evolved to a style higher in alcohol. Saison Dupont, often seen as the benchmark for the modern style, is 6.5% and would likely be unsuited as a lunchtime refresher before heading back out to the field.
A Saison should be vibrant with crisp carbonation, have spicy hop and estery-yeast aromas, and will often have spices or herbs added for extra dimension. Historic versions would have often had some wild or unique yeast component, but most drinkers would expect a somewhat clean profile from most commercial versions. However, some breweries do use wild bacteria or brettanomyces yeast to add more unique character.
While Australian breweries concoct a great range of local versions, those wanting to find Belgian examples should look for Saison Dupont, De Glazen Toren Saison D'Erpe Mere, Fantome Saison, or De Ranke Saison De Dottignies.
Flemish and Flanders
Flemish and Flanders styles are made with similar methods and bacteria to lambic beer, but the end product is usually darker with more vinegary acidity and bold berry fruit flavours.
Also like lambic, they often have fruit added, and notable versions available to Australian drinkers are Liefman's Cuvee Brut (cherries) and Rodenbach Caractere Rouge (cranberries, cherries and raspberries).
Other non-fruited versions available in Australia are Rodenbach Classic and Grand Cru, Duchesse De Bourgogne and Liefmans Oud Bruin.
While all of these beers have strong roots in the Belgian beer tradition, modern craft beer is certainly not passing the country by, and brewers there are applying centuries of knowledge to modern styles, giving us unique beers straddling both the old and new worlds.
Examples of this are the American-style barrel aged imperial stouts from De Struise, the bold hop-forward and bracingly bitter De Ranke - XX and The Musketeers - Troubadour Magma, an imperial IPA using American hops.
As modern thirst clashes (or melds?) with tradition, the lines between new and old in Belgium are increasingly blurred, and good beer just becomes good beer, regardless of who is brewing. Yet drinkers should not forget what Belgium still has to offer our palates.