I’m a snob about a lot of things – bourbon, coffee, Mexican food (get out of here with that Tex-Mex garbage), etc. – but beer has never been one of them. I’m the kind of person who has a few beers they like, and those are my go-tos. So when we decided visit Belgium, I thought “Oh great! I’m going to eat so much chocolate, fries, and waffles! Oh, right, and beer too. We’ll have a bunch of Stella and Hoegaarden, I guess.” Feel free to judge me, hard. If my basic AF beer choices weren’t evidence enough, I was not knowledgeable of the Belgian beer scene. I’m happy to report that after 2 weeks in Belgium, including two Belgian food tours (one of which focused solely on beer & chocolate), I am officially knowledgeable enough about Belgian beer to be somewhat of a snob. So I wrote up a beginner’s guide to Belgian beers & where to drink beer in Belgium.
What You’ll Find in this Beginner’s Guide to Belgian Beer
Like any good beginner’s guide, this is a long and detailed post. (In fact, the estimated reading time is 18 minutes.) Here’s what you’ll find below.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents
Well, let’s get started!
Trappist Beer: the Classic Belgian Beer
Trappist beers are brewed in a traditional method developed by Monks. A brief history of Trappist beer in Belgium: many, many years ago, Monks fled to Belgium along with other refugees persecuted in their homelands, all searching for religious freedom. The difference was that the Monks were literate, and brought their beer recipes with them. Beer brewing flourished in Belgium because the water was unsafe to drink, and beer was both safe and cheaper than water. Low alcohol content beer was even drank by Belgian children (you can tell that to the next person you see drinking a Miller Lite). Unsurprisingly, many ancient Belgians made the link between Monks, the safety of drinking beer vs. water, and divinity. Beer really IS holy!
There are 11 Trappist breweries in operation in the entire world; Belgium has six of them. Trappist rule #1 is that a beer is not a Trappist beer unless it is brewed INSIDE a working monastery. Sorry hipsters. No pop up bars serving small batch Tripels fermented in re-purposed materials and served in Mason jars while some dude with an accordion talks about his preferred mustache wax.
Rules #2-4 about Trappist beers are very specific that Monks must be the ones actually brewing the beer, and furthermore, any profits must be used within the monastery or donated to charity. Beer and social responsibility, our favorite combination!
Trappist beer all started with the monks’ first beer type: the Trappist Blonde, which is a relatively weak beer (3-4% ABV usually, so like, for kids). Later on, they invented the Dubbel (which is double the ABV), the Tripel (you guessed it…triple the ABV), and the Quadrupel. There are some people who say those names are because there’s three times the hops, or three times the aging, or whatever. It’s not. It is simply a naming convention the monks came up with. It is, however, a good indicator of the color of the beer.
Lambic Beer: Traditional Belgian Fruit Beer
Lambics by definition have to come from Belgium. Think champagne to France. Lambics use spontaneous fermentation. Essentially what that means is they’re fermented in open air vats. And I mean open air! The brewery throws open their windows and doors and lets nature do her thing. Even when they’re in the barrels, they cut a big hole at the top and leave the windows open. The result is a sour and earthy taste with a bit of skunky smell, but compex notes. Breweries will also make Kriek or Framboise Lambics by throwing cherries or raspberries (respectively) into the barrels. Depending on the quality of maker, this can be anything from a slight fruity sourness to basically cough syrup (if they add syrup to punch up the fruit flavor). If anyone has had Lindeman’s Kriek or Framboise, you know what I mean about the beers being pretty much juice.
How to Drink Belgian Beer in Belgium
Belgium takes its beer very seriously. There is actually a 9-step pouring process, called The Belgian Pouring Ritual, that occurs from the moment you order your desired beer until the moment it is placed in front of you. The least you can do, after all that, is to drink your beer properly. And that’s not the easiest task: just about everything you’ve ever learned about drinking beer is wrong when it comes to Belgian beers. Here are some guidelines for how to drink Belgian beer in Belgium without making yourself look like an idiot.
First of all, a well-poured Belgian beer is all about the head: a good pour has a solid 2 fingers of foam on top. This protects the beer from the air and keeps it from going flat and stale. If you don’t want a beer with a foamy head, you’re probably in the wrong country. Have you tried wine? France is nearby…
At some point in my life, I was told beer is always better from the tap. That is not the case with Belgian beers. Belgian beers (Lambics and wheats especially) utilize on the beer in its entirety for the best and most complex flavor. As such, they are unfiltered when they’re in the bottle. Draft beers get slightly filtered, so you sacrifice taste. Many Belgian beers are actually still fermenting in the bottle, and are greatly improved from a bit of shelf life in a cool dark place (it also makes them EXTRA bubbly!) And don’t forget that tap rooms don’t clean the pipes as often as they should, and stuff gets built up in them, ruining your appetite and the taste of your beer. Gross! What this means is that most Belgian beers are best served from the bottle. There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, and any good bar in Belgium will know what those exceptions are.
The other startling difference between the beer you’re used to and the proper way to drink Belgian beer is the temperature. You’re probably used to beers served cold. “Beer” and “Ice Cold” seem to go together like “cooler full of Coronas” and “some chick in a bikini on an island somewhere.” Throw that entire image away. You’re not on an island, you’re in
freezing cold, probably raining Belgium, and that kind of marketing is for American schlubs. Good beer flavor is complex, and it’s actually best to enjoy a Belgian beer only slightly below room temperature. When in doubt, check the bottle: Belgian beer bottles contain specific temperature instructions.
What’s With the Belgian Beer Glasses?
One of the first things I noticed when I entered my first Belgian bar was the variety of glassware. Maybe you’ve noticed Hoegaarden has their hexagonal glass, or the Chimay chalice. Belgian breweries do this for a few reasons. The first is aeration; each Belgian beer has its own traditional glass shape that is supposed to best air out the beer as you sip it. Chalice shaped glasses are fairly popular for Trappist beers for this reason. There’s also a tradition associated with the correct Belgian beer glass. Lambics, for instance, traditionally use a range of champagne flute to wine glass shaped glasses.
Finally, and most interestingly, it is for advertisement. Outside of the usual signage at a bar, you won’t see Belgian beers advertised on billboards like you do in the USA. Belgian beers are seen on the glasses they’re being drunk from. Two of the best examples we saw were Corne and Kwak beer. Corne is served in a big glass horn (the rhyming is cute). Kwak beer, on the other hand, is served in a super weird almost chemistry lab looking glass. Turns out, the Kwak beer glass was invented so that the brewer could drive his carriage drunk without spilling his beer. Oh, Belgium.
With both Corne and Kwak beer, the glasses are served in a big wooden frame so they can be set down easily. So imagine you walk into a bar and you see someone drinking out of a horn attached to a giant wooden structure. Are you NOT going to want to have what they’re having? (I wanted to make a “When Harry Met Sally” joke here but gave up.)
Where to Drink Beer in Belgium
We went to so many bars in Belgium, plus a few breweries and beer shops. We unfortunately didn’t get to travel to Ghent, but we did make it to Antwerp and Brugges. After 2 weeks of
drinking a lot of beer in Belgium feverish researching, here are our top picks for where to drink beer in Belgium!
Where to Drink Beer in Bruges
- Cambrinus: A cozy Belgian pub located slightly off of the Markt. They have an impressive beer list and serve classic Belgian food. Can’t decide? They have a few styles of beer flight.
- Website: Link | Address: Philipstockstraat 19, 8000 Bruges
- De Haalve Mann Brewery: This is home to Straffe Hendik and Brugse Zot beers. Take the tour and find out all about one of the most popular beers in Belgium. Then finish it off with a beer and Flemish stew in the Brasserie.
- Website: Link | Address: Walplein 26, 8000 Bruges
Where to Drink Beer in Antwerp
- Billie’s Bier Kafétaria: My biggest regret in
lifeBelgium is that we only went here once. First of all, the bar is apparently owned by a French Bulldog, which is a huge selling point for me. Secondly, we had three of our favorite beers here – and all we did was ask our waitress to randomly pick a flight for us. Thirdly, we enjoyed one of the best meals we have had in ALL of Europe at Billie’s Bier Kafétaria. Belgian Food Tip: Get the meatball and cherry casserole and the Flemish Stew. Just do it, you’ll thank us later.
- Cafe Kulminator: “I’d like a (insert obscure beer) from (whatever year you want).” They’ll have it. The owner has a stockpile of beers from all over time and space down in the basement. So if the Bible thick beer list isn’t enough for you, try getting weird with it.
- Beer Advocate: Link | Address: Vleminckveld 32, 2000 Antwerpen
Where to Drink Beer in Brussels
- Toone: Interesting historical fact about Brussels: long ago, some insecure king forbade theater during his reign because actors used it to criticize him. “But think of the children!” “Okay fine, the kids can have puppet theater!” So puppet theaters became the new political forum in Brussels. Toone is the last remaining active puppet theater, and they serve up some great beers. You don’t have to go here just for shows, either. This is where you can find a cheap(ish) glass of Westvleteren…more on that later.
- Website: Link | Address: Rue du Marché aux Herbes 66, 1000 Brussels
- Au Bon Vieux Temps: The oldest bar in Brussels, complete with chandeliers, stained glass windows, ancient wood benches, and a crowd of locals. But hey, if it’s packed with locals, you know it’s worth a visit. It looks like you have to risk your life to enter, because it’s down a sketchy alley, but fear not, a lot of Brussels bars are like this. In fact, the sketchier the alley, the better the bar: this was another way that Brussels historically hid their drinking from the lame, restrictive monarchies.
- Beer Advocate: Link | Address: Impasse Saint-Nicolas 4, 1000 Brussels
- Delirium Cafe: This is another incredibly packed house, but it’s mostly due to tourists. This is where that group of pink elephants you’ve seen at bars come from. They boast a beer list of almost 3000 beers. Upstairs is the taproom. Outside is one of the 3 peeing statues in Brussels (er, the slightly less famous female one).
- Website: Link | Address: Impasse de la Fidélité 4, 1000 Brussels
- Moedic Lambic: A casual, modern bar that offers a ton of Lambic options at great prices. Unlike the cozy historic bars in Brussels, Moedic Lambic has plenty of space and seating. Come with your Brussels Card and get a free plate of charcuterie with the purchase of two beers!
- Website: Link | Address: 68 rue de Savoie 1060 and also 8 place Fontainas 1000 Brussels
- Der Biertemple: This isn’t a bar, it’s a beer market. And calling it a temple is right. Holy crap, this store is STOCKED. This is your one stop shop to grab all of those beers you loved and wanted to take home. And guess what? You get a 25% discount with a Brussels Card! Note: there is also a location in Bruges.
- Website: Link | Address: Grasmarkt 56b, 1000 Brussels
You can find some more helpful suggestions for where to drink beer in Brussels at The Ale in Kaleigh!
The Best Belgian Beers to Drink in Belgium
There are over 3000 kind of Belgian beers, spread out over 200 breweries. We drank only 17 of them. This was not for lack of trying. There are just so many. Here are our top 5 picks: the 5 best Belgian beers we strongly encourage you to drink in Belgium.
This unlabeled Trappist Quadrupel beer is a legend in the beer world. It has been rated as the best beer in the world since 1996! (RateBeer page here.) To get your hands on a Westvleteren, you need to pay big OR make a reservation at the monastery months in advance and get either two cases or none (read more at the Westvleteren website). We chose the easier option. And you know what? It absolutely deserves the hype! It’s a dark beer that smells like fig and raisins. It tastes like wine soaked figs, wood, and earthy yeast, with a marshmallow finish. And you don’t have to be well versed in tasting to enjoy its complex flavors: it’s bold! The very last sip I could have sworn tasted like bourbon. You’ll usually find Westvletern for around 20 Euro in Brussels, but it’s only 12 at Toone. We also found a bottle for 14 euro at Der Bier Temple, and minus the 25% discount you’ll get with your Brussels Card, it’s a bargain. Make sure to buy the unlabeled bottle with the YELLOW cap.
Rodenbach Vintage 2014
An absolutely heavenly sour beer. This one was so good we went on a hunt to find it again! If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were drinking Kombucha. Tastes like fruit, vinegar, and honey.
This is a fruit beer, but it’s not a Lambic. Its smell and taste are the same: sour cherries up front then a cinnamon and spice finish. Not too sweet but definitely a fruit beer.
Straff Hendrik Tripel
This is a Tripel that drinks like a Dubbel. It quickly became my standard for how Tripels were supposed to be. It has the hop and malt taste you’d expect with some nice notes of pear, honey, and spice.
Oud Beersel Oude Kriek Lambic
This is THE Lambic to have, if you were only to have one. It’s not too sour, but it isn’t sweet either. It has had no added sugar added so the sweetness is from the cherries, which are native to Belgium. Smells of cherry, vinegar, and oak. Taste is fairly similar, but less vinegar. If you want a true Kriek Lambic, this is it.
Here are even more Belgian beers we drank in Belgium. Some were hits, a few weren’t our personal favorite. But hey, if you’re in Belgium, why not drink everything you can? After all, everyone has different preferences!
- Gouden Carolus Tripel – 9% ABV; Bitter side of Tripel; Really enjoyed this one.
- Val-Dieu Tripel – 9% ABV; Tastes much lighter and spicier than most Tripels
- Brugse Zot Blonde – 4% ABV; Our lightest option for a trappist; smooth and not too sweet
- Brugse Zot Dubbel – 7.5% ABV; More body than it’s blonde counterpart, but still smooth
- Delirium Noel (Christmas Ale) – 10% ABV; The most forgettable one we tried honestly; lacked any of that spiciness you expect from holiday beers. Plus you can probably find it outside of Belgium.
- Tripel d’Anvers – 8% ABV; Very light for a Tripel; On the sweet side.
- Avec Les Bon Veux – 9.5% ABV; Very light and sour.
- Monk’s Stout DuPont – 5.2% ABV; Typical chocolate and coffee stout taste, but lacks the strength associated with Belgian beers; Good option for the less adventurous & those with lower tolerances.
- Lindeman’s Kriek – 2.5% ABV; We stepped away from cherry and tried the raspberry Lambic. This one is mass produced and artificially sweetened and tasted more like cough syrup than beer.
- Cantillon Kriek – 5% ABV; Another cherry Lambic done without sugar added; Very strong, funky vinegar and cherry taste, but as we drank on, the cherry overpowered the vinegar and it got easier to drink. It’s an acquired taste for sure, but Cantillon is one of the greats for Lambic.
- Cantillon Lambic – 5% ABV; Similar to its Kriek counterpart, this is a really funky vinegary beer, but this time with notes of citrus peel. This one also calmed down after some time.
Why Drink Belgian Beer in Belgium?
Belgian Beer just tastes better in Belgium. First of all, you’re going to get better beer in general – the selection of excellent beer in Belgium cannot be beat and is difficult to find elsewhere in the country. Secondly, you’ll be treated to the Belgian beer pouring method which we talked about earlier: the way of pouring the beer, the foam, the temperature, and even the glass it’s served in all make your beer drinking experiencing better when visiting Belgium. Even Lia (who straight up does not like beer) still daydreams about some of the great beers we drank there. But it isn’t just the beer we fell in love with in Belgium!
As all of our readers probably know, Lia and I often base our trips around the food and drink. Before the trip, most of what I knew about Belgium was that they were famous for chocolate, beer, fries, and waffles, and one of my favorite movies, In Bruges, takes place there. Oh, and something about a statue of a peeing boy? But Belgium has quickly become one of my favorite countries in our entire time abroad. The food is truly fantastic, and not just the well-known food, either. We also added Flemish Stew and Speculoos to our favorite foods list thanks to Belgium. Even if amazing food, chocolate, and beer can’t convince you to visit Belgium (but like … why not?) the country has plenty of other allure. From charming medieval towns, fascinating history, a plethora of cultural influences (4 languages, y’all. 4!!), incredibly kind and well-humored people, and gorgeous architecture in every style imaginable, Belgium is chock full of fantastic experiences to offer travelers. Don’t skip out on visiting Belgium the next time you’re traveling in Europe!
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Disclaimer: We recieved complimentary Brussels Cards thanks to the Visit Brussels tourism office. All opinions and recommendations are entirely our own.