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Fruity, flavoursome and full of character, Belgian beer is rightly renowned the world over. If you’ve never had a generously frothing glass of it before, then you’re in for a treat. But you’re also in for a dilemma. With up to 1000 varieties of Belgian beer out there, it’s difficult to know where to start. Do you go blonde or brown; Trappist or Abbey; dubbel, tripel or quadrupel? Best to take it one beer at a time, one day at a time. Here’s a week’s worth of Belgian beers to get you started.
Leffe Blonde, 6.6 %
This bright, bubbly and fruity blonde beer is one of the most popular Belgian brands in the world. It’s an Abbey beer, but don’t let that fool you. It hasn’t been brewed by monks, but in a huge factory in Leuven, in the style of a traditional abbey beer. Its sister beer is Stella Artois, but you shouldn’t hold that against Leffe - with hints of vanilla, orange and caramel, and a good balance of sweetness and bitterness, it’s a fine way to kick off the week.
Food pairing: Hugely versatile, perfect with firm white fish such as halibut or grouper.
Corsendonk Pater, 6.5%
This abbey beer uses the name of the Corsendonk Priory of Oud-Turnhout, which dates back to 1398. The Pater is a ‘dubbel’ or a strong medium-sweet brown ale, which will happily mature and improve the longer it sits in your beer cellar (or kitchen). Temptation will soon get the better of you, and once poured the deep cherry-brown beer reveals a yeasty bouquet and a slightly smoky flavour with hints of dried fruit, coffee and dark chocolate.
Food pairing: Corsendonk’s bold flavours will capably complement smoked brisket.
Westmalle Tripel, 9.5%
Westmalle is one of six Trappist monastery breweries in Belgium licensed to brew and sell beer, so unlike many of the abbey beers out there, it’s guaranteed to be made by monks. The term ‘tripel’ denotes a strong, slightly sweet blonde beer, and this elegant ale is often regarded as the archetype. It’s fruity and hoppy and slightly creamy, undergoing a secondary fermentation in the bottle, so it gets better with age. Perfect for a bit of quiet contemplation on a humpday.
Food pairing: Salty cold meats like honey glazed ham or Jamón Ibérico.
There’s much competition in Belgium to have the most distinctive beer glass. The Kwak receptacle - a misshapen test-tube with a wide lip and a bulbous base, secured by a wooden clasp - looks like something out of a boozy laboratory. Apparently designed by 18th century brewer Pauwel Kwak, the vessel was traditionally fitted to coaches so the driver could have a taste on the job. He would have enjoyed the malty, rich, strong amber ale, with its hints of nougat, banana and caramel. At 8.4 per cent, however, we strongly advise you refrain from getting behind the wheel of any type of vehicle after coming into contact with Kwak.
Food pairing: Kwak’s sweetness works well with foie gras or a rich lamb stew.
La Chouffe, 8%
When Friday comes around, it’s hard to resist a beer with its very own drinking song. Crack open a bottle of La Chouffe, log onto the Brasserie D’Achouffe website, and dance a merry jig to the chirpy, whistly ditty while you enjoy the coriander and fruit notes of this crisp, strong 8 per cent blonde. It’s a bottom fermenting beer, which means the yeast sinks to the base of the bottle, giving it a mildly hazy golden colour when poured. Look out for the cartoon gnome on the label and get your weekend started for real.
Food pairing: Great with Belgian mussels and green asparagus.
Westvleteren 12, 10.2%
Few Belgian beer lists would be credible without the much venerated Westvleteren 12. It has been voted the world’s best beer in polls too numerous to tally. But there’s a catch. Westvleteren’s home, Sint-Sixtus Abbey, only produces 60,000 crates of beer a year - and it’s in huge demand. The abbey even has a special beer phone for all its orders and the beer must be picked up from the abbey, with a limit of two crates per order. Many are prepared to jump through all the hoops for the malty, fruity bitter-sweet dark brown ale.
Food pairing: Strong Belgian cheese served at In de Vrede cafe, opposite the abbey.
Straffe Hendrik, Quadrupel, 11 %
Under the sign of the half moon of De Halve Maan brewery of Bruges, this full-bodied brew is a shining example of a ‘quadrupel’ ale - very dark, very strong and very flavoursome. At 11 per cent, it’s like being hit in the face with a malt shovel, but to fully appreciate its spicy hints of chocolate, brown sugar and maple syrup, serve it cool instead of cold, and sip slowly.
Food pairing: Barbecued meats, smoked game and slow-cooked oxtail.