For such a geographically small country, Belgium sports quite an impressive number of beer styles - and delicious ones at that! Belgian beers are primarily ales (as opposed to lagers) with a heavy emphasis on malts and a lot of fruity yeast flavors. What's your favorite style?
• Belgian White or Witbier - These cloudy pale beers are brewed with some unmalted wheat along with the regular malted barley, giving this beer its characteristic wheaty flavor and thick creamy texture. They are traditionally flavored with coriander and orange peel and have a very low bitterness. Try the Allagash White from Allagash Brewing, Blue Moon Belgian White, or Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue Brewing.
• Lambics - Bring on the funk! This style of beer is "spontaneously fermented," meaning that the wort is open to the air, allowing any local yeasts and bacterias to take up residence in the beer (like sourdough bread). The result is a range of flavors ranging from very sour to candy-sweet to barnyard-like. But don't knock it until you try it! There are three main kinds of lambics that you'll actually see outside of Belgium (there are some American brewers starting to experiment with these styles, but we'll talk about them more when we get to the American beer guide):
Straight Lambic - This is the real stuff, straight from the barrel! Try Cantillon Iris.
Fruit Lambic - For this style, a healthy amount of whole fruit gets added to the brew. Cherry, peach, and raspberry are most common. Try Lindemans Framboise or Kriek.
Gueuze - This combines some young and some old (aged) lambic to achieve a more balanced and controlled flavor, and then the beer is usually aged for another year. Try Lindemans Gueuze and Cantillon Gueuze.
• Saisons or Farmhouse Ales - This beer has a distinctive fruity character with a slight tang similar to lambics, but no where near as pervasive. Many breweries also add herbs and spices to compliment the flavors. Try Hennepin from Brewery Ommegang, Bam Biere from Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, and Smuttynose Farmhouse Ale from Smuttynose Brewing.
• Dubbels - These are dark amber-brown beers with a lot of rich, roasted malt flavors. They can be somewhat spicy and with fruity characteristics. Try Ommegang Abbey Ale from Brewery Ommegang, Chimay Premiere (Red) from Chimay, and Abbey Belgian Style Ale from New Belgium Brewing.
• Tripels - Brewed with triple the typical malts, these are big dense beers. They're usually golden in color with notes of spice, fruit, and honey, and are often a bit more bitter than typical of Belgian ales to balance out all the malts. Try La Fin du Monde from Unibroue, Golden Monkey from Victory Brewing, and Curieux from Allagash Brewing.
• Quadrupel - Inspired by the dubbel and tripel styles, quads are an emerging style in the US. They're usually deep reddish-brown in color with a robust malty flavor profile and upwards of 10% alcohol by volume. Try Three Philosophers from Brewery Ommegang, Blasphemy from Weyerbacher Brewing, and The Reverend from Avery Brewing.
Any Belgian beers to recommend?
Related: The Real Truth About Skunked Beer
(Image: Flickr member Bernt Rostad licensed under Creative Commons)