Drinks Atlas: Belgian Beers - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Drinks Atlas: Belgian Beers

When bottles from Cantillon, one of Belgium’s historic lambic makers, first made their way to American shelves in the ’90s, the beer wasn’t exactly a hit. Some drinkers even claimed the sour, musty brew was infected and returned it. Now sought after with an Ark of the Covenant–level of fervor, Cantillon is just one of Belgium’s contributions to global beer culture. Because the history of brewing in Belgium is, in large part, the history of beer itself. “It takes time and expertise to produce a perfect beer,” says Erik Verdonck, Belgian beer guide, co-author of The Belgian Beer Book, and editor-in-chief of Belgium’s beertourism.com and accompanying Belgian Beer Culture app. “Time is on our side. Some beers are brewed following recipes nearly 100 years old: Orval, Westmalle Tripel … these are ‘liquid monuments’ and have grown to be world references.”

Dating back to Roman rule and beyond, the brewing practices in the region evolved through both culture and necessity. “The abbeys played an important role in promoting beer,” says Verdonck. “The monks were the intellectuals, and they understood that beer was a sane alternative for the water you could not trust at the time.”

Trappist beers became a marker of high quality, and while the monasteries produce a variety of styles, most of the beers share similar characteristics, such as fruity, spicy profiles from the yeast, and a higher alcohol content, typically between 6 and 11 percent; abbey-style beers are now made at breweries around the world. Likewise, Belgium’s traditional sour beers, such as lambic and Flemish red, evolved from the necessity for preservation but have become equally distinctive, coveted, and copied.

When Brouwerij Artois, just east of Brussels, released a pilsner named Stella in 1926, it ignited a new trend. “[Lagers] became so popular at cafés that it threatened to wipe out the traditional beer styles,” says Verdonck. “It is only since the late ’70s that the Belgian specialty beers regained popularity.”

That popularity gradually spread to the U.S. in the form of breweries like The Lost Abbey, Russian River, and New Belgium. But some craft experimentation aside, the reverse doesn’t hold true in Belgium. “Beer geeks might think that we are too traditional, but why would we copy foreign beer styles if there is no added value, if it does not contribute to our unique heritage?” Verdonck muses. “It makes more sense to be self-critical and get inspired by tradition. Now you see, for instance, saisons brewed with exotic aroma hops, barrel-aged Trappist beers, and spicy lambic beers.”

5 to Try


The only beer brewed within the walls of the Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval since 1931, Orval has become a globally renowned abbey beer. Verdonck recommends tasting both “young” bottlings (less than 6 months old) as well as older versions to see how the dry-hopped, bottle-conditioned pale ale transforms with time. orval.be

Lindemans Oude Gueuze Cuvée

René Lindemans is one of only a handful of breweries making authentic lambics in the Zenne Valley where the style was born, fermented by the region’s native wild yeast. A gueuze is a blend of aged and young lambics, and the Cuvée René is golden and lightly sour, with a Champagne-like fizz. lindemans.be

Rodenbach Caractère Rouge

Established in the West Flanders region in 1821, Rodenbach has become the global archetype of the traditional Flemish red sour beer. A special bottling, the Caractère Rouge ages for two years in oak casks then ferments for an additional six months on a maceration of cherries, raspberries, and cranberries. cheers.rodenbach.be

Saison Dupont

Saisons have become synonymous with lightly tart, spicy, and crisp “farmhouse-style” beers. Brewed by Dupont since 1844, the beer would be made in winter, then barreled until summer to be served to the saisonniers—the field workers. brasserie-dupont.com

Liefmans Goudenband

A Flanders-style oud bruin (old brown), Liefmans Goudenband is a strong dark ale brewed in open vats for mixed fermentation. Well-suited to cellaring, the 8 percent ABV beer carries flavors of stone fruit, malty spice, and cider vinegar. liefmans.be

Enjoy This Article?

Sign up for our newsletter and get biweekly recipes and articles delivered to your inbox.

Send this to a friend