Monks with mash paddles, geezers in flat caps sipping lambic from the cask, farmers brewing for migrant peasants who were long ago replaced by machines … if Belgian beers don’t conjure these quasi-mythical images in your mind, don’t worry: Their labels and websites will remind you. Among Old Europe’s old bastions of old beer, Belgium wears its age comfortably. Its beer culture carries its pedigree with pride, even if the nation itself is only 185 years old.
It’s notable, then, that most of the country’s better breweries have only come along in the past couple of decades.
Don’t believe me? That’s OK. It’s an outright statement of opinion and you need not agree. But let me start to make the case by naming what I think there are several all-stars, all founded in the past 20 years.
Achel, Alvinne, Anders, Bastogne, Bellevaux, De Cam, De Leite, De Ranke, Dochter van de Korenaar, Géants, Glazen Toren, Hof ten Dormaal, Jandrain-Jandrenouille, Malheur, Oud Beersel, De Proef, Rulles, Sainte-Hélène, Senne, Struise, Tilquin and Trois Fourquets.
If not exactly household names, they make the sort of beers around which informed opinions tend to coalesce. Some of them—like Achel Extra Bruin, De Ranke XX Bitter, Rulles Estivale, Senne Taras Boulba, Struise Pannepot or the gueuzes from De Cam, Oud Beersel or Tilquin—are widely considered to be elite beers, ranking frequently alongside world classics.
There are more than 170 independent breweries and lambic blenders active in Belgium. By my count, at least 90 of them have opened since the year 1995. A solid majority.
Those numbers seem small compared to the 4,000 or so that we now count in the United States, but Belgium is a small country and is still ahead per capita. The U.S. now has about one brewery per 80,000 people. In Belgium there is one per 66,000—and as in America, the number of breweries ticks ever upward.
Belgium’s reputation outweighs its size, and—to be fair—the longer-established breweries deserve much of the credit for that. To note that newer breweries are making some of the country’s best beer is not to dismiss the old guard.
But what I would like to dismiss is the idea that the longer-established breweries have some kind of monopoly on authenticity or greatness.
The Belgian Family Brewers association makes “authenticity” claims explicit on their website and promotional materials. Formed in 2007, the association includes 22 family-run breweries that have been around for at least 50 years. A few of them have existed for centuries. They boast of “more than 3,500 years of experience in traditional beer brewing”—collectively, we must assume.
Beyond their age, members run the gamut from respected, rustic Dupont to Roman—which is the country’s oldest family brewery, established in 1545. Larger multibrewery firms like Duvel and Palm are in the club too. Members all get to use a special logo said to represent “an unprecedented level of authenticity and craftsmanship.”
That air of superiority rankles some of the newer independents.
“If I have the chance to inherit a business, it only means I should be grateful to my ancestors who made the risky investments,” one brewer tells me privately. “It doesn’t mean I’m good at what I do.”
Many of those old breweries, it must be said, are very good at what they do. But it would be absurd to think that lasting at least 50 years unlocks excellence and authenticity. There are plenty of both among the newer breweries.
In the Gaume region of Belgium’s far southwest, Gregory Verhelst founded Rulles brewery in 2000. On an afternoon in his tasting room, he discusses the similarities he sees in many of the breweries from his own generation.
“We want to create beers for our own taste, and not for the traditional ‘brand’ of Belgium,” Verhelst says. “It’s like, [we’re] the pioneers of the new traditional beer of Belgium. … It’s a new wave of brewers, but it’s not a new wave of taste, I think.”
Those beers run the gamut. Sometimes they’re made in ways that are arguably more traditional than products from the larger, older family brewers. Sometimes they’re more recognizable as American-style craft, like IPAs. And at other times they’re hardly recognizable at all; smaller breweries can more easily afford to take risks—namely, the risk of making exactly what you want to drink and hoping that others like it too.
“I think it’s guys who wanted simply to create their own type of beers.”
Want to taste the latest and greatest of what Belgium has to offer? These are a selection of Belgian breweries founded in the past decade, with a recommended beer for each.
Bastogne (2009) If Orval and Saison Dupont are among your favorites, consider the Ardenne Saison. Bone-dry and refreshing at 5.5% strength, its compelling aroma comes from floral dry hopping and the mingling of Brettanomyces yeast added at bottling. Brewers harvested the Brett strain from the skins of local apples.
De Leite (2008) Among a solid lineup that is Belgium’s most underrated, the Cuvée Soeur´ise is a fascinating Frankenstein of a beer that begins its life as the Enfant Terriple, De Leite’s bittersweet tripel. It then goes into a wine barrel dosed with lactic bacteria to sit for about six months on macerated cherries.
Dilewyns (2011) The brewery’s Vicaris beers are all worth trying, but the blended Tripel/Gueuze is far too easy to drink at 7% ABV, taking acidity from filtered Pajottenland lambic and heft from Dilewyns’ own Tripel.
Dochter van de Korenaar (2007) Brewer Ronald Mengerink is known among geeks for his ongoing experiments in barrel-aging, but I’m partial to one of his earliest and simplest beers: the Noblesse, an elegant blond showcase of spicy-herbal hopping and drinkability at 5.5%.
Hof ten Dormaal (2009) A proper farmhouse that first made its name on a beer brewed with chicory, it has since branched into many lines of inquiry. The oak-aged ones are fun, but the one that deserves more attention is the Saison (5%), brewed with the farm’s own unmalted grains and drawing light acidity from an unusual overnight mash.
Jandrain-Jandrenouille (2007) Specializing in American-hopped farmhouse ales with Belgian panache not far from Hoegaarden, the farmhouse brewery’s take on a witbier is the VI Wheat (6%), bright gold and with a nose full of tropical fruit.
Nieuwhuys (2006) This brewery is based in Hoegaarden, where the town’s best beer is the dark and rich Alpaïde, a tripel that is ideal as a contemplative nightcap at 10% strength.
Plukker (2012) The name means “picker,” based in the hop-growing town of Poperinge. The hard-to-find-so-please-call-us-if-you-do Single Green Hop (5.8%) benefits from fresh cones at harvest time each year.
Senne (2011) What is arguably Belgium’s finest session beer comes from a plant opened just five years ago in northwest Brussels. Taras Boulba is dry, bitter and addictive at 4.5%, getting an intriguing mix of spice, citrus and herb flavor only from its hops and yeast.
De Struise (2012) Like Senne, Struise brewed with others’ equipment for years before recently buying its own brewhouse. The brewery’s deep, dark, sweet and spicy Pannepot gets a vinous, fruity acidic balance from oak-aging to become the absurdly complex eye-opener Pannepot Reserva (10%), one for sharing and sipping and comparing descriptors.
Tilquin (2010) Belgium’s newest lambic blender—and the only one in Wallonia—has made superb and original fruited lambics with purple plums and blackberries, but Pierre Tilquin’s masterpiece is his traditional Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l’Ancienne, which belongs alongside the classics of Brussels and Pajottenland.
Trois Fourquets (2007) Brewer Pierre Gobron—who co-founded Achouffe in 1982—has steadily improved his flagship Lupulus which balances ample, spicy hopping with malty strength at 8.5%, made perilously easy to drink by what the Belgians call digestibilité.