On a sparkling morning in late September three years ago, I arrived in Vichte, West Flanders, to tour the wonderful old Verhaeghe family brewery, where they make the classic Flanders roodbruin, Duchesse de Bourgogne. Tour guide Katrien Martin and owner/brewer Peter Verhaeghe showed me the brewery and cellars, and we tasted through a line-up of their beers—all of them, or so I thought. Yet when I was preparing to leave around lunchtime, Martin mentioned a café nearby where I could have a glass of their pils.
Pils? I had just toured the whole brewery, and nowhere did I see any mention of a pilsner.
I found the restaurant and was served a luminous glass of liquid gold with my steak-frites. The glass, of course, was embossed with the brewery’s ornate crest, typical for Belgium. The beer had a curious quality—sweetish malts, zesty hops, a mineral note, and a quick, dry finish. It bore some resemblance to German pilsner, but the malts, the minerality, the finish—they were unusual. It was excellent, and I wondered why they didn’t talk about it.
It wasn’t the first time in Belgium I’d had such an experience. At Brasserie Dupont, co-owner and brewer Olivier Dedeycker was less shy about his lager when I visited there a decade ago. When we tasted through his beers, he brought out the Rédor Pils as a digestif. After pouring us glasses, Dedeycker went to a nearby refrigerator to retrieve some homemade cheese. It’s one of the most characterful pilsners in Belgium, rustic and grainy—a perfect partner for the slightly salty little cheese cubes we munched on. Still, outside the village of Tourpes, it’s not that easy to find.
These experiences have lingered in my memory. The pilsners I recall—add Strubbe and Bockor to the list—were not just excellent, but somehow distinctly Belgian. It doesn’t hurt that they’re served in their own charming glass (with a pleated skirt called a ribbeke) that seems to glow from within as it comes to your table. The glasses usually hold a modest quarter-liter, less than nine ounces. The beers are inexpensive and—as Rédor illustrated—great with food. Culture and ritual help cement experiences in our minds, and in Belgium, the practice of drinking pilsner—they just call it “pils”—is a common one.
It’s made me wonder: In an age when brewers have experimented with American and Italian and even Alsatian variants, why not Belgian pils?
In Jupiler’s Shadow
The bull in the room is the national giant, Jupiler, which tastes pretty much like you’d expect of an AB InBev brand with 40 percent of the market and a major soccer sponsorship—consistent but uninspired. It has created a sharp divide in the Belgian market, exaggerated by the impression that the ales are all made in quirky little family breweries or by silent monks in ornate abbeys. Jupiler is the beer in every corner bar—an everyday beer. It’s not the rich, strong ale exported around the world (in fact, few outside Belgium are even aware of Jupiler). This divide is decades old, and breweries large and small have a keen interest in maintaining the romance around their ales.
There have been lagers in Belgium for almost as long as it’s been a country. Imports from Bavaria and elsewhere began to take hold in the mid-1800s, and by the end of the century, some Belgian brewers were making their own. The contours of brewery consolidation in Belgium are familiar, yet this stubborn little country has always supported its local breweries more than most places. Nevertheless, the 20th century was extremely hard on Belgian breweries, beginning with World War I, when German troops raided brewhouses for metal. There was yet another world war to come, and industrialization, a shift to sweeter flavors, mass advertising, and a preference for shelf-stable beer all had an effect. Pils, eventually, began to displace ale. Little family breweries, less able to make consistent lagers on their creaky systems, closed in droves.
Those who wanted to survive had to adapt. Dupont’s story is typical. “My grandfather Sylva Rosier started to brew our Rédor Pils in 1945,” Dedeycker tells me in an email. “Thanks to this production, our brewery could maintain a correct level of activity when the sales of our top-fermented beer (saison) were more difficult.”
Many of these local and regional breweries remained committed to their traditional ale, while pils helped to keep the lights on—even if importers wanted little to do with it. On the one hand, lagers were an existential threat to these regional ale breweries. On the other, they were often salvation.
The Nature of Belgian Pils
Given the variable quality of these pilsners, trying to arrive at a firm description is challenging. It doesn’t help that Belgians are famously irreverent with regard to style.
Belgian-born Joran Van Ginderachter cofounded Atlanta’s Halfway Crooks Beer in 2019, but he moved to the United States as an adult. “I grew up drinking the local pils,” he says. “We had never really thought much about it. If you live in this part of Belgium, you [drink] that kind of pils.” The experience stuck in his mind. When he and partner Shawn Bainbridge opened Halfway Crooks, they made a crisp, hoppy version that, for Van Ginderachter, evokes Flemish countryside cafés.
When I ask why they vary so much, he says, “We have a saying: ‘We make it work.’” He points out that the regional ale breweries weren’t configured to make lager. “When Belgians started brewing pilsner, they figured out how to do it their own way. They probably all have their own yeasts—and they make sure to filter it out, so you don’t get it! They all have their own fermentation and lagering processes for sure.”
Two things seem to be common: Belgian malt and Saaz hops. Although Belgium has historic hop-growing areas, the acreage today is relatively miniscule. A tradition seems to have formed around the peppery snap of Saaz—which adds zip even to a low-bitterness pils. While few breweries divulge much about their process or ingredients, those that do often cite Saaz. Verhaeghe and Bavik use Saaz in their pilsners, as does Moortgat in its Bel Pils.
At the Brasserie de la Senne in Brussels, cofounder and brewmaster Yvan De Baets spent a long time thinking about Belgian pils before releasing Zenne Pils in 2020. He agrees that malt is one key to the distinctiveness. “The malt will also play a big role, indeed,” he says. “There is something that seems to be common. They are less hoppy and bitter than the Northern German pilsners, and less malty than the Southern ones.” De Baets also notes the routine use of corn, though that’s more typical in the mass-market versions.
De Baets uses organic Dingemans pilsner in his all-malt, German-style pils. Halfway Crooks also uses Dingemans, which Ginderachter describes as “more robust than German malts—more golden.” To my palate, the Belgian malts are slightly sweeter and less grainy than German counterparts—but in a pils, that may also owe something to corn in the grist.
What else? The yeast are important, even if the fermentation profiles vary. Dupont, of course, is one of those outfits with an older brewery not designed for lager. After boiling it on their direct-flame system, Dupont ferments the wort in the same squat, square fermentors that help make their saison so distinctive. Dedeycker’s grandfather Rosier selected the lager strain in the 1940s, and it’s the same one they use today. After fermentation, it spends six weeks lagering.
On the other hand, in Atlanta, Halfway Crooks ferments theirs for only three weeks—but they also kräusen their Pintje Pils. It’s dry and assertively bitter at 44 IBUs—about the same as Zenne Pils, in fact. Both those examples are considerably more bitter than a typical Belgian pils, which usually hovers closer to 25 IBUs.
To put it all together, one might suggest these elements if you’re looking for one of the more characterful examples:
- Start with Belgian pilsner malt and, optionally, include some corn in the grist.
- Use classic spicy, herbal hops, probably including some Saaz.
- Find an assertive lager yeast and consider primary fermentation in a wider vessel with headspace, or not otherwise under pressure, to encourage the yeast to express themselves.
- My sense is that water hardness is a characteristic of some of these beers—that minerality—though De Baets says most breweries now adjust their hard water.
- Almost all Belgian pils is between 5 and 5.2 percent ABV, and typically below 30 IBUs. However, the light body and dry finish accentuate the bitterness.
- Belgian pils tends to be highly attenuated and—typical for Belgian beer—relatively highly carbonated with impressive, sturdy foam.
Until I sat down last fall with a glass of Halfway Crooks’ Pintje, I wondered if I’d fallen prey to the romance of these hidden-in-plain-sight Belgian pilsners. Perhaps the distinctiveness came from me, not the beer. Pintje quickly dispelled such doubts. There, in the American South, in a condensation-covered mug rather than the ribbeke, was the flavor I’d fixed in my mind: light sweetness, zesty hops, a quick, dry finish—it was all there. I couldn’t quite explain how it was different from the other lagers on tap, but it was.
It tasted Belgian.