The Reinheitsgebot, the German Beer Purity Laws, were enacted in the kingdom of Bavaria in 1516, making them among the world’s oldest known food safety regulations. According to these strict brewing guidelines, German brewers could use only barley, water, and hops in their beers. No wheat, no corn, no fruit, no spices. (Not even yeast, as its discovery was still a few centuries away.)
Their purpose was well meaning—they prevented cheapskate brewers from cutting their product with low-grade and sometimes toxic ingredients—but they put a sudden clamp on beer variety as brewers were forced to conform to only three ingredients. The echoes of this standardization are still heard—or, rather, tasted—today in the world’s collective love affair with clean, unobtrusive Bavarian-style lagers.
But these restrictions didn’t reach the Belgians, who continued to develop new and interesting tastes with their beers using a much broader palette of ingredients and techniques. Today, we can all enjoy the fruits of that medieval freedom with a stunning array of beers made with exotic spices, sweet and sour fruits, and fermented with heirloom yeasts and bacteria, cultivated not in a test tube, but in the very air of generations-old family breweries.
Blondes, Ambers, and Pales
The most commonly exported Belgian beers are the pale ales and the blondes. These are the most approachable styles for international beer drinkers, who appreciate their not-too-big and not-too-exotic taste. Look for blonde brands like Duvel to have a biscuity malt character with orange peel and coriander spice flavors. Pale ales like Le Chouffe are strong on the hops just like English and American pales. Look for the popular Belgian amber Kwak served in its traditional bulb-bottomed glass held upright in a wooden stand.
Dubbels and Tripels
Moving up the flavor scale—and up the price scale—are the big, spicy, high-alcohol dubbels and tripels. Enjoy these special beers in a small tulip glass to buff up their head retention and enhance their delicate aromas. Chimay exports a very well-reviewed dubbel, with the dark fruit flavors and warming spice aroma characteristic to the style. Tripels are even stronger than dubbels, but surprisingly light and refreshing to drink. Look for names like Westmalle Trappist Tripel and savor notes of orange, bread, honey, banana, and spicy cloves.
The most exotic of the Belgian beer styles are the lambics. This family of beers is fermented not by laboratory strains of yeast under controlled conditions, but with wild yeasts and bacteria that colonize the young beer as it cools in large, open-air containers. This fermentation is much slower than most beers, and it produces a variety of sour flavor compounds that some find delicious and some find unpalatable.Once fermented, lambics are aged in old wine barrels, where they mature and their flavors intensify. At bottling, this very sour beer is blended with younger, sweeter, beer to improve its flavor and to kickstart the process of bottle conditioning. Gueuzes are lambics blended with young beer at bottling; krieks are blended with sour cherry juice. Straight-up, strictly traditional gueuzes are recommended for varsity-level drinkers only, but some labels sell sweeter, more approachable blends for the common beer palate.
The best way to enjoy these beers, of course, is to make a sudsy pilgrimage to Belgium. But those without a plane ticket—or with a poor grasp of the Flemish language—can enjoy an ever-growing selection of Belgian imports. Thanks to growing demand, many microbreweries outside of Belgium are now making tasty Belgian-style beers for their local markets, so you can enjoy these fruity, spicy, refreshing beers wherever you are.