Historical quirks, local preference, and individual creativity all have a say in the diversity of Belgium’s brown ales. Here are some of our favorites.
If Westmalle Dubbel is the reliable suburban archetype, this is its rustic, well-to-do, libertine cousin living away down south, opting for rare steak over cold sausage and telling stories right through dessert before disappearing with your date. It’s lively, with dark fruits in the nose and flavor, well-rounded, sweetish but dry and warming, with slightly more body and richness than little brother 6 or big sister 10.
Loc: Rochefort, Namur
This Ardennes brewery’s well-hopped, tripel-like Blonde is better known, but both beers deserve more fame. This darker brown ale gets an extra helping of floral hops plus a light touch of orange peel that accentuates the spicy yeast, which evolved over the years from a version of Rochefort’s strain. Many Wallonian breweries make brunes as well as blondes as if it were obligatory. These are different. Sadly not (yet) exported to the United States.
Loc: Courtil, Luxembourg
La Rulles Brune
This contemporary take on the Wallonian brune has a porter-ish streak. It is unspiced but well-hopped. Moderate in strength for its type, bitterish, and well attenuated, its fruity yeast expression and aromatic hopping complement rather than clash with roasted-malt edges.
Loc: Rulles, Luxembourg
Put edgy American craft attitude into European wine geeks, then turn them loose on a local style of Belgian ale remembered from Granddad’s tall tales. This one is on the darker and heftier end of the scale, sweet but far from simple, with ponderous complexity coming from roast malts and a spice mix that really ought to be too much, and maybe it is too much, but somehow, it’s hard to complain.
Loc: Oostvleteren, West Flanders
De Dolle Oerbier
An early entrant in Belgium’s artisanal revival (brewed since 1980), this strong dark ale has never been subtle. It’s raucous and complex with a surprising bitterness, touches of roast, caramelized sugar, and sour-cherry notes from a Lacto-tinged yeast blend. It cellars exceptionally well, evolving with time.
Loc: Esen, West Flanders
The Grand Cru has more prestige. But downing a few mugs of this simpler, lighter flagship in a coastal café (ideally with shrimp croquettes) can change one’s view on which is more fun to drink. Light caramel sweetness meets punchy tartness, a balance they have been honing for, oh, only about 140 years.
Loc: Roselare, West Flanders
Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne
This is for your friends who think they don’t like beer, to show them a whole new-old world. It’s lively and bright ruby-brown, just caramel-sweet enough for mass appeal but tart enough to intrigue. Its vinous-balsamic acidity evokes cherries. None of the imitators have made as many converts.
Loc: Vichte, West Flanders
You’ll probably have to travel for this one—sorry about that. Kept alive in the village of Eine by a few people (and the Roman brewery) who thought it ought to be preserved, this is an heirloom brown ale of the Oudenaardse style. It’s a pleasant, unpretentious, fairly dry quaffer with a lactic-tart edge, still enjoyed in quantity in a few local cafés.
Loc: Eine, East Flanders