Generally, when people become interested in world-class beer, they turn to a country known for its rich beer heritage and reputation for outstanding quality: Belgium. Given their light appearance, lively effervescence, moderate alcohol and mellow yet spicy aroma and flavor profiles, the most popular intro into Belgian-style beers is witbiers (wheat beers).
From there, folks typically move on to other complex selections, from Belgian-style pale ales to saisons, dubbels to tripels and lambics and oud bruins. The options are many and the results are almost always tasty.
There’s no denying the influence that these historic beers have had on the brewing world. From superb traditional offerings to domestic interpretations with a unique twist, there’s something for everyone available today.
Belgian-style strong dark ales are big and bold, essentially the brutes of the beer world. Traditionally bottle-conditioned, they are complex, rich and malty, with significant esters, spicy phenols and low to moderate bitterness. Alcohol typically ranges from 8–11% abv, though they can go as high as 15%, making easy-drinking examples a bit dangerous. Given their density, weight and structure, they are usually excellent cellar candidates for aging.
Dubbels are also rich and malty, but exhibit less fruitiness and alcoholic strength than their strong dark ale cousins. Tripels are known for their well-masked strength (traditional average abv between 7.5–9.5%) and complex spice profile. They’re also usually very dry and bottle-conditioned (or refermented in the bottle). Quadrupels (or quads, for short) are even bigger and bolder than their dubbel and tripel sibling styles, a true strong dark ale indeed. Full bodied and mildly bitter, they are intense selections, with assertive rich malty sweetness and noticeable alcohol.
With all of the choices available, there’s never been a better time to start your Belgian-inspired beer education.
Orval Trappist Ale (Belgian Pale Ale; Brasserie d’Orval, Belgium); $7/330 ml, 96 points. One of the most iconic Trappist beers, this pours a gorgeous golden-orange color, with a large, frothy off-white head that lingers. Bottled with brettanomyces, you can immediately pick up on the wonderfully complex, dry, funky earth and barnyard notes, with additional aromas of orange peel, green apple, gingered white tea, yeasty spice and freshly baked bread. The medium-bodied mouthfeel boasts bright, fizzy carbonation and refreshing acidity, making the palate seem light and approachable. It finishes dry and spicy, with flavors of citrus pith, lemongrass, white pepper and farm hay. It’s delicious upon release, but additional time in the cellar will allow this to harmonize, mellow and mature into an even more complex and nuanced brew; try after 3 years from release (refer to product label). Merchant du Vin.
Trappistes Rochefort 8 (Belgian Dark Strong Ale; Trappistes Rochefort, Belgium); $8/330 ml, 96 points. This classic brew pours a medium burnt-sienna color, with a substantial beige head that shows excellent retention. Yeasty, spicy aromas are front and center, with immediate wafts of caramel-drizzled baked apple, dark plum and toasted malt that mingle with an apparent vinous-like raisin note. Full bodied, the mouthfeel is flavorful and complex, as the palate offers flavors of Demerara sugar, apple pie, caramelized figs and light toffee. Medium carbonation helps to keep the rich profile from feeling too heavy or slick, while the finish boasts subtle hints of sweet wood and leather. Overall, this is a well-balanced and robust brew that’s sure to age well for the next 3–5 years from bottling (refer to product label). Merchant du Vin.
Lost Abbey Track #8 (Quadrupel; The Lost Abbey, CA); $15/375 ml, 95 points. Part of the brewery’s Ultimate Box set (12 “tracks”), this special selection is actually one of only two tracks (the other being #10) that is produced every year, meaning you actually have a chance at finding some! Made from aging the brewery’s Judgment Day ale (a Belgian-style quad brewed with raisins) in first-fill Bourbon barrels with cinnamon sticks and dried chilies, this is like a sweet and spicy dessert in a glass. The aromas are bold and boozy, with oodles of warm, spicy dark fruit and berry notes of cherry, fig, prune and, of course, raisin. Black pepper, charred oak, sweet smoke and toasted cinnamon-raisin bread abound on the palate, which is full yet balanced by medium carbonation and textured by soft, woody tannins. A long, dry, baking spice and pepper infused finish seals the deal nicely. A gorgeous gem to share over the holidays, or to lay down for a few more years.
Westmalle Trappist Ale Dubbel (Dubbel; Trappist Monastery of Westmalle, Belgium); $7/330 ml, 94 points. A classic Belgian dubbel, this is a world-class, balanced brew that offers loads of rich, malty characteristics—brown bread, caramel, roasted grain—framed by attractive notes of raisin, dried fig, cinnamon, light toffee and burnt sugar. Those notes continue through to the full, creamy palate, along with hints of bananas foster, malted milk balls and dried black cherry. Medium carbonation helps to lift the palate and lend snap to the close, while a pleasant warmth unfolds alongside lingering hints of bittersweet cocoa powder and clove. Delicious now, but this can also age well for 2–3 years from bottling (refer to product label). Merchant du Vin.
Tallgrass Velvet Rooster Belgian-Style Tripel (Belgian-style tripel; Tallgrass Brewing Co., KS); $9/16 oz 4 pack, 88 points. This aptly-named, smooth brew offers upfront aromas of lemongrass, honeysuckle, white pepper, raw dough and yeasty spice. The palate is crisp yet sweet, with flavors of cracker malt, firm peach and candied, gingered citrus peel. The brisk carbonation lifts any hints of sweetness, while the finish is dry and kissed with hints of toasted grain and pepper.