There's no one uniting characteristic for Belgian beers – which can be fruity, sour, funky, or strong – other than the fact that they are brewed in Belgium. But even that that commonality is fast disappearing as American brewers create their own takes on the country's iconic beers – such as Orval Trappist Ale, Chimay, Saison Dupont, Duvel and Lindemans Kriek.
"It's opened up a box for brewers to create beers that are more interesting than the German and English beers we initially copied," says Peter Bouckaert, brewmaster at New Belgium Brewing, a pioneer in domestic Belgian-style brewing. Bouckaert, who is originally from Belgium where he worked at Rodenbach Brewery, says Belgian yeasts are one of the main uniting ingredients for this style of beer, since tend to make beers fruity and aromatic.
Bouckaert recommends navigating the huge array of Belgian-style beers by putting them into three categories: funk and sour; fruit and spice; and high-alcohol. Here's a cheat sheet to the three.
Funk and Sour
Tart lambic-inspired brews and some beers fermented with Brettanomyces yeasts, which add a musty barnyard funk make up this category, which has recently been growing in popularity. For some funk, try the Boulevard Saison-Brett, while the Cascade Apricot Ale and the New Belgium Snapshot fall on the tart end of the spectrum.
Fruit and Spice
Belgian ales are usually yeast-forward, which can produce fruity and spicy notes, but many beers are actually brewed with herbs, spices and fruit to add layers of flavor (coriander and clove are common). Try Spencer Trappist Ales or a domestic classic Witbier: Allagash White, a wheat beer brewed with coriander and Curaco orange peel.
Dubbels, tripels, and quadrupels are more robust and malty beers, punctuated with a different range of spicy and fruity notes, such as fig, raisin and cherry. Try the belly-warming quadrupels Brewery Ommegang Three Philosophers and The Lost Abbey Judgment Day. Or sip a raisiny Sierra Nevada Ovila Abbey Dubbel.