You don’t drink beer because you’re thirsty, you drink to enjoy and savor its taste. In Belgium, drinking beer is an art with a long standing tradition. From using the right glass to serving the perfect amount, there’s a lot to be said about Belgian beer customs. Here’s a handy guide that will help you on you beer journey though the country.
Raise your glass, but only the right one. In Belgium, each beer has its own glass and some come in the most curious shapes and sizes. Some beers, like De Koninck, even have more than one. The reason for the incredible amount of necessary drinking glasses is not really clear. Some glasses come with functionality, like the long cylinder glasses for regular pints, which are ribbed on the bottom half so the warmth of your hand won’t ruin the cool temperature of your beer, while some glasses have an interesting story. The curious Kwak glasses were designed for 19th century coach drivers. The coachmen would pass by Pauwel Kwak’s brewery, named De Hoorn, and the special shape of the glass ensured the drivers could drink while driving their carriages, attaching the glass to the coach. (Driving safety didn’t seem to be much of an issue back then.)
Another glass with an interesting backstory are the Keizer Karel mugs, which have three handles. According to legend, a nervous innkeeper served Emperor Charles V a beer, but held it by the handle. Embarrassed, the innkeeper created a mug with two handles. When the emperor came to his inn again and ordered a beer, the innkeeper served it in the mug with two handles, but did not let go of either of them. To make sure he’d never make a mistake like that again, the innkeeper added a third handle to the mug. This kind of mug is known as Pot of Olen.
Belgian beers can be divided by their colors. Blond, brown, amber, red and white. The color of a beer is influenced by the temperature at which the barley is dried. Blond beers are the most common type of beer. They are served cool around 4 to 6 degrees Celsius and the alcohol percentages vary from 4 to 8%. Many of these beers are pils, which are beers with a low fermentation process. In short: pils are always blond, but not all blond beers are pils. Examples of Belgian pils are Jupiler, Maes and Stella Artois.
When the barley is dried at a higher temperature, it results in brown beer. This kind of beer also tends to be a bit sweeter or even charred. Examples of Belgian brown beer include Malheur 12, Kasteel, Gouden Carolus, Dokere Leffe and the darker varieties of Westmalle.
Amber colored beer has a higher fermentation process and the color is the result of a special kind of malt. The taste can vary between spicy, or a caramel-like sweetness. These amber beers include De Koninck, Gouden Carolus Ambrio, Palm, Passendale and Bruegel.
The more special colors are red and white. Red beers are actually a kind or sour ale, with a fermentation process that produces a sour, acidic character. However, these beers tend to have a strong and fruity aroma. Red beer is kept in oak barrels for long periods of time, sometimes even years, before it’s ready for consumption. This special beers includes Rodenbach, Petrus Oud Bruin and Kriek.
White beer is produced with a high fermentation process that includes barley and wheat malt, with oats somtimes added as well. The Belgian white beers are often spiced with coriander, citrus fruit peels and hop. Not really white in color, these wheat beers are fresh and a little bitter. The most popular white beer in Belgium is Hoegaarden.
Lambik and Geuze are famous beers from Brussels. Lambik or Lambic is made by spontaneous fermentation. It is brewed in oak barrels with malted barley, unmalted wheat, yeast and old hop.
Geuze or Gueuze is a kind of Lambik beer with a special story. In the 19th century, one of the Lambik breweries sold its beers in old champagne bottles. Imagine their surprise when the beer suddenly had more foam and a much clearer color. Today, Geuze is made by blending different kinds of Lambik beers, causing it to ferment for a second time.
The name Geuze has nothing to do with the historical rebels from the Netherlands, by the way. Rather, the beer most likely refers to the Geuzen street in Brussels, where the Lambik brewery was located.
Some beers can only be bought on special occasions, like Bush de Noël and Gouden Carolus Christmas, which are only available at Christmas time.
Looking for a religious experience? The Trappist beers are brewed by monasteries that are situated in various areas throughout Belgium. The most famous arguably is Westvleteren, which has been dubbed one of the best beers in the world.
If you are used to the pints from the UK, ordering one in Belgium might lead to disappointment. Not because the Belgian pints aren’t delicious, but because of the amount. A UK pint is almost half a liter, while the Belgian kind is 25 centiliters.
Belgium’s small beers are named tafelbier or bière de table, which literally translate to ‘table beer’, beer you drink at the table during dinner.
In Belgium, all beers are served with a thick layer of foam. This protects the beer from oxygen, which can change the taste of your drink.