The Belgian Story

The Belgian Story main

History, Heritage, Culture

TrappistBeer Café Culture
Almost impossible to replicate due to their intangible ‘Belgian’ atmosphere, known locally as ‘brown cafés’ partly due to their oak panelling, and partly due to decades of customers drinking beautiful Belgian beer and enjoying a smoke (pre 2011 smoking ban). Old tin signs advertising breweries adorn the walls, and above the bar are racks of glassware in an array of shapes and sizes. The beer menu enormous, and probably entirely Belgian, with a clientele that could be similarly described.

Protected appellations
As a long established centre of government and administration it’s unsurprising to see that Belgian protection for beer is built into their own laws and European regulations, with laws governing the production and naming of Trappist and lambic beers.

Belgian Hops
Belgium is not globally recognised as a hop growing nation, but there is a fiercely proud scene of independent hop farmers in the country. There are currently 23 hop farms in Belgium, all of which are independently family owned, growing around 181 hectares of hops, the majority of which is grown in the vicinity of Poperinge in West Flanders.

UNESCO listing
The importance of beer culture in Belgium has been globally recognised by its addition to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This list recognises the tradition, and living practices of global cultures, in order to safeguard them and pass them on to future generations to enhance worldwide cultural diversity.

Knighthood of the Brewer’s Mash Staff
The Union of Belgian Brewers is one of the oldest trade guilds in the world, dating back to the 14th century. In an annual ceremony the Union welcomes new members to the Knighthood, recognising those who have done important work to further the message of Belgian beer in the country or abroad. Our very own Ian Clay and Nigel Stevenson are both proud members of the Knighthood, recognised for their work promoting Belgian beer in the UK.

Trappist Beer

One of the world’s most widely respected and ancient brewing cultures.

The International Trappist Association represents 20 monasteries from the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance and choose to live their lives by the motto of Saint Benedict “Ora et Labor” (Prayer and Work). As a result of this these monasteries work to produce goods in order to cover the expenses of their day to day running and upkeep, and are strictly not for profit with any additional profit being reinvested into the community or monastery. There are 13 Trappist monasteries producing beer worldwide (6 in Belgium, 2 in the Netherlands, 1 in Italy, 1 in Austria, 1 in Spain, 1 in the USA, and 1 in the UK), 11 of which are allowed to carry the official Authentic Trappist Product logo on their label. In order to qualify for this label a Trappist brewery must adhere to the following regulations:

The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.

The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.

The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.

Despite many Trappist monasteries producing beers in similar styles, there is no stylistic qualification to being a Trappist brewery. In 2018 the Mount Saint Bernard monastery in Leicestershire began producing beer, combining English brewing tradition with the Trappist approach.


Belgian brands produce some of the most iconic glassware in the beer world and are absolutely insistent that their specific glass is the only option for serving their beer in. At James Clay we take this as seriously as the brands themselves do and have an enormous range of glassware available to make sure you can properly serve these special beers. ask your account manager for availability.

The chalice glass is the go to shape for Trappist brewers, synonymous with the chalice used to share communion wine during mass. The wide mouth of the chalice shape allows the drinker to get their nose as close as possible while drinking and make the most of the incredible aromas within the beer. The shape of the glass will also allow a stable fluffy head to be maintained throughout the drink, protecting the beer underneath. Contrary to the subdued nature of Trappist monastery life, these glasses are often adorned with golden detailing, particularly around the rim.

Similar to the shape used for Champagne, the flute design is ideal for highly carbonated beers such as gueuze, with the shape maintaining the fine carbonation for longer. The sight of the bubbles cascading up the glass sets the mouth watering immediately.

Named after its resemblance to the flower, with a big balloon body tapering up to the neck before opening back up again. Particularly well suited to sweeter Belgian styles with plenty of yeasty aromatics.

There are some Belgian glasses that completely defy any attempt at classification, partly functional specialist glass, partly marketing gimmick. Some have such irregular shapes that they require little wooden stands to avoid making a dreadful mess all over the bar. With glasses like these it’s not uncommon to be asked to leave a deposit, and in some cases one of your shoes will be taken as security to stop you running off with your fancy glassware.

In Belgium they take the care of glassware extremely seriously to ensure every serve is perfect. Almost all Belgian beer bars will wash glassware by hand, rather than with a machine. Each glass is rinsed in cold water after cleaning, and then dried off by hand to make sure the pour is perfect and there isn’t any leftover detergent or nucleation points that would spoil the head formation.

Unique Styles

Known colloquially by the monks at Westmalle Abbey as ‘liquid sandwiches’ because the monks were served two glasses of beer alongside breakfast. A thoroughly nourishing beer style, dubbel is satisfyingly rich and bready, with notes of banana and roasted coffee, backed up with a light elegant sweetness.

An immensely aromatic beer style, crammed full of peppery, earthy spice notes and fruity esters. Due to their glorious aroma, dry finish, and sizeable ABV, tripels are the perfect partner to Belgium’s culinary landscape, typically served alongside cheese, or even moules frites. Suspiciously easy drinking, tripel can easily sneak up on you despite an ABV of around 9%.

A style so luxurious it almost doesn’t seem possible that it could come from Belgium’s monastic brewing tradition. Deep rich flavours of molasses, rum, raisins, and licorice, all achieved through the mastery of fermentation. Dark candi sugar is used alongside an expansive malt bill, and fermented with a high ester producing yeast to build these intense flavours without any shortcuts. Considerably punchy, generally weighing in around 8-12% ABV, quadrupels make for an exceptional nightcap.

The unique speciality of the Pajottenland region surrounding Brussels. An incredibly complex style involving a baffling mash schedule that creates cloudy protein rich wort, boiling with aged hops, and cooling in an open coolship to allow inoculation with wild yeasts and bacteria that will eventually develop complex sour flavours in the beer. The wort continues to ferment in barrels for a number of years, eventually being blended to create gueuze, or macerated with fruits. These beers are so special to the Belgians that they applied to the EU to have a protected ‘Traditional Status Guaranteed’ given to the style to protect the geographical origin of lambic.

Belgian Golden Strong Ale
These beers are closely related to tripels in terms of recipe and ingredients, but favour the expression of fruit fermentation aromas to spicy ones. With this style we see a crossover between Belgian and British brewing heritage, as the yeast strain used to create duvel (the benchmark of the style), was originally propagated from McEwan’s Scotch Ale shortly after the First World War. Extremely dry in the finish due to the addition of dextrose and other sugars during fermentation.

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