Belgian beer is tricky to define. Styles run the gauntlet (or goblet) from zesty pilsners to lip-puckering sours, hurdling over hoppy IPAs, ruby ales and wheat beers along the way.
If anything unites the overwhelming array of ales, it’s their almost unrelenting excellence – and barrel loads of history. There are the famous Trappist beers, brewed for centuries by monks within the walls of Benedictine abbeys and regularly ranked among the world’s best.
Then there are distinctly sour, complex lambic ales, spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts – like the beer equivalent of sourdough bread – and only brewed in Brussels and Pajottenland, a region just south of the capital.
For Richard Croasdale, editor of craft beer club Beer52’s magazine, Ferment, this history – with a generous glug of experimentation and eclecticism – makes Belgium’s brews endlessly fascinating. “I think of all the great national beer traditions, Belgium’s is one of the most interesting and varied,” he says. “It’s certainly the most weird, in many ways. They’ve always used a huge range of techniques and ingredients, from unusual grains to fruit.”
Belgian beers are often made without “hard and fast rules”, he adds – and the sheer variety means there’s pretty much something for everyone. “Some Belgian beers are definitely at the more challenging end of the spectrum, but some styles are much more accessible. In fact, because they’re often low in bitterness, many people who say they don’t enjoy beer find they love Belgian styles.”
We spent weeks sipping our way through a range of Belgian beers before narrowing it down to the best across a variety of styles and prices.
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Liefmans kriek brut, 6%, 330ml
Liefmans Brewery is known for its wonderfully complex, sour and toasty lambic ales, so this ruby-hued cherry beer is something of a departure. It’s a very delicious one, though. Kriek brut is a blend of beers from different vintages that’s matured on Belgian cherries for up to two years. The taste is as rich and rounded as the colour suggests, yet it swerves the cloying sweetness of some fruit beers. Instead, it’s a beautifully balanced dance through complementary flavours, from sour, slightly smoky maraschino cherries to a whisper of marzipan. A special, velvety smooth beer, and in our opinion a bargain for the price.
Buy now £2.89, Beersniffers.co.uk
Duvel tripel hop citra, 9.5%, 330ml
This packs a serious punch for the price. An upgrade on the classic Duvel blond ale – itself a pretty solid bet – this ale uses aromatic citra hops and a dry-hopping process that pushes them to the forefront. They’re certainly discernible, bringing notes of grapefruit, lemon and pineapple to the party. But there’s so much more to this. The beer gets more complex as you sip, doing a joyful jig through lemon and toffee, moving to unexpected notes of coffee and toasted nuts. It rounds off with honey, coating the mouth and softening what could otherwise be too much citric hoppiness for some.
Buy now £2.50, Morrisons.com
Westmalle Trappist tripel, 9.5%, 330ml
This blond Trappist ale, brewed in a monastery just outside Antwerp, performs an impressive balancing act between heartiness and freshness. It’s rich– with malty, biscuity flavours that fill the mouth – yet refreshing, with citrusy notes that slice through like lemon-infused caramel. We found it tasted a bit like banoffee pie, especially with the velvety, creamy texture, though again it’s zestier, and herbier aromas, from coriander and clove to grapefruit, prevent it from getting anything close to cloying. Delicious paired with food, from a bowl of fish pie to a cheeseboard, and easygoing enough to sip on its own.
Buy now £4.39, Honestbrew.co.uk
Boon oude geuze lambic, 6.5%, 375ml
Some lambic ales deliver a salty smack on the lips. This one sidles up slowly. Imagine the finest marmalade spread on wholemeal toast and you might have a hint of what this beer tastes like. Boon Brewery is based in Lembeek, where the lambic beer style got its name, and this stays true to tradition with a blend of beers aged for one, two and three years in oak. The raw, earthy, almost hay-like notes of sours might not be to everyone’s taste, but this is a smoother, less salty example than some. It’s far mellower, with hints of hazelnuts, toast, banana chips and toffee adding warmth.
Buy now £4.59, Honestbrew.co.uk
Kazematten the wipers times blond ale, 6.2%, 330ml
This is a blond, easy-drinking ale, but don’t let that fool you: it takes a lot of love and work to achieve such a delicate balance between rich and refreshing. The Wipers Times is brewed in Ypres where, during the First World War, British soldiers produced the “trench gazette” the beer is named after. Four grains, four herbs and locally sourced hops go into making it, which is why it’s so joyous to sip. The nose is citrusy and zesty, the first sip has hints of white grape juice and then the flavours mature into toasted brioche, candied coriander, a little honey and rosewater. It’s a bit like Turkish delight smashed into toast, though far more appealing than that might sound.
Buy now £2.70, Realalestore.co.uk
Heverlee belgian pilsner lager, 4.8%, 660ml
Finding a Belgian beer with an ABV under 5 per cent is no mean feat, and finding one as happily harmonious as Heverlee is pretty much a miracle. This pilsner, named after an abbey in Leuven and produced in Belgium for Scottish brewer Tennent Caledonian, isn’t quite as complex as many of the country’s other brews. But its subdued, lightly floral hoppiness, citrusy notes and soft mousse (as opposed to the gassiness of some lagers) make it refreshing without being wishy-washy. Its pale honey tone is mirrored by a subtle sweetness of the flavour too. Gorgeous as a gateway beer – or for when the stronger ales just seem a little too much.
Buy now £2.00, Tesco.com
3 Fonteinen oude geuze blended lambic, 6.7%, 375ml
This might not be an everyday buy but the complexity, depth and deliciousness of this bottle puts in the same league as a fine wine or champagne. Fans of natural and organic wines should adore the raw earthiness of this oude geuze, which is a blend of unfiltered and wild-fermented lambic beers aged one, two and three years. It’s also aged in the bottle for at least a year after the vintages are blended and matures beautifully after purchase. Flavour-wise, it’s a mass of contradictions that somehow complement each other: saline yet spritzily refreshing, sweet yet sour, tart yet toasty. There are notes of grapefruit, citrus blossom, marmalade, nuts and honey – like a fancy breakfast buffet. It can be tricky to get hold of so lambic lovers should snap it up when they can.
Buy now £9.99, Honestbrew.co.uk
Orval wild trappist ale, 6.2%, 330ml
We found this one a bit of a grower. It’s almost worth buying for the bottle alone, which is beautifully curved and features a trout bearing a wedding ring, a reference to the legend of Matilda of Canossa. The contents is pretty special, too. Made in a monastery in the Gaume region since 1931, the ale pours a beautiful bronze colour with aromas of nutty caramel lifted by fresh, floral undertones. So you know it’s going to be unusual even before you sip it. Our first impression was of a funky bitterness that was soon joined by citrus peel, before mellowing out into the softer, sweeter, malty notes and finishing with a crisp, dry zip. It’s fascinating, and one that might divide opinion – though we loved it.
Buy now £3.49, Honestbrew.co.uk
La Chouffe blond ale, 8%, 330ml
This cheeky beer from the Ardennes region packs a punch for a blond ale, which seems to be a bit of a theme for Belgian brews. Yet, while La Chouffe – whose yellow cans and bottle labels feature a red-nosed gnome – is heavy on the alcohol and flavour, it’s thirst-quenching and refreshing, too. The ale is infused with coriander during the brewing process, resulting in a bright, peppery, lively taste. Its herby notes, and a hint of something like a grapefruit stuck with cloves, are reminiscent of German wheat beers.
Buy now £3.56, Masterofmalt.com
De Halve Maan Brugse zot blond, 6%, 330ml
The name “Brugse zot” comes from the townsfolk or “Bruges Fools” who imprisoned their king in the 13th century and were punished with a ban on festivities. It’s a cheeky reference by the Bruges-based family brewery, De Halve Maan, and one that suits this easygoing ale, whose bottle features a jester. It’s a well-balanced blond with just a hint of bitterness and appealing aromas of peanut brittle, candied peel, apricots and honeysuckle. A rich, lightly honeyed mouthfeel is balanced by hints of cloves and coriander, while the hops bring flavours of ripe banana and plum. Robust, lively bubbles keep it on the right side of refreshing.
Buy now £2.60, Masterofmalt.com
The verdict: Belgian beers
Weak beer isn’t really a thing in Belgium – in quality or alcohol content. If that means the array of ales can be a little overwhelming, it also means there’s pretty much something for everyone. For its sheer complexity, value for money and balancing act between sweet and sour, rich and refreshing, we’ve cherry-picked Liefmans kriek brut as the best. Traditionalists might prefer Westmalle Trappist tripel, in our opinion one of the finest monastery-brewed ales, while Duvel tripel hops citra is a stellar example of a similar style with a lower price tag.
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