While the American craft-beer scene has changed the face of brewing worldwide with its sheer gumption and ingenuity, it's important to remember the centuries-old traditions that laid the foundation for our own hops-cowboys to do their thing.
The Germans gave us lager and showed us the magic of brewing at its most pure, using nothing but barley, hops, water, and yeast to create a remarkable range of flavors. From the English, we learned subtly, the art of the session beer, and the beauty of cask-conditioning. But more than anyone else, it's the Belgians who ignited the imagination that defines American craft. As Don Feinberg, who began importing Belgian beers into the U.S. in 1982, has told us in the past, "[Belgian beer] showed home brewers, craft brewers, and big brewers that it’s what’s in the bottle that counts, not some absurd adherence to an approved ingredient list or narrow stylistic guidelines." Many of the tricks that our brewers have pushed to extremes—barrel-aging, bottle-fermenting, cranking up the alcohol content, flavoring with fruit, and so on—have their roots in the small, artisanal breweries of Belgium.
Looking through the best beers in the country, as well as the most exciting up-and-coming breweries right now, it's impossible to miss the emphasis on Belgian styles, not to mention the trail of Belgian yeasts that threads through many of our most celebrated beers. And what's especially cool is that the game is coming full circle, with American experimentation shaking things up back in Belgium and producing hybrids like Hop-Ruiter, a strong golden ale amped up with hops to appeal to the U.S. palate.
In short, exploring the Belgian classics is an essential part of being a beer nerd—to know where we're at, you've got to know where we started. But with so many options, what to drink? To help you narrow the field, we gathered our panel of beer pros, including bar owners and writers, to pick their favorite Belgians that are available stateside.
- Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course and First We Feast contributor
- Mike Lovullo, specialty brands manager for Union Beer Distributors
- David Brodrick, founder of Blind Tiger Ale House
- Ale Sharpton, beer journalist and author of Cruisin' for a Brewsin'
- Julian Kurland, Beer Director, The Cannibal Beer & Butcher
- Anthony Finley, beer server at Proletariat
- Niko Krommydas, beer writer
- John Holl, beer journalist and author of The American Craft Beer Cookbook
From Trappist ales to saisons that set the blueprint, these are the Belgian beers you need to try before you kick the bucket.
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