Sorry England and Germany — if the American craft beer revolution owes its adventurous and hoppy spirit to any country's brewing tradition, it's Belgium's.
While brewers next door in Germany were stuck abiding by a beer purity law, Belgians were free to experiment with yeast, herbaceous plants and the sour flavors from airborne bacteria, resulting in a varied beer repertoire that includes everything from light and sweet Belgian wits to dark and boozy quadruples.
One of our favorite Belgian styles, however, is one that the Belgians didn't even know they invented: the Belgian IPA.
For nearly a century, Belgian breweries have been combining old-world sweetness with an extra dose of fresh European hops to give certain traditional golden ales a bitter tinge. Only in the wake of the West Coast's reinvention of gratuitously hop-forward beers, however, has this style been given its own designation.
Light in body, (sometimes) medium in alcohol and heavy on the crisp hoppiness, Belgian IPAs are a perfect summer beer. And while American homages to the style — such as Flying Dog's Raging Bitch, New Belgium's Belgo and Stone's Cali-Belgique — are well-crafted, some of the most interesting brews are still coming out of the country that unknowingly invented it.
The only trouble finding Belgian-brewed IPAs, though, is that Belgian brewers don't call them that. So to help you out, we've checked all the foreign labels with hop drawings on them, drunk through everything with the syllable “hop” in the name and come up with a list of the five best Belgium-brewed Belgian IPAs that you can find in your local bar or bottle shop.
5. Gouden Carolus Hopsinjoor:
Though not the most common Gouden Carolus beer to be found in the U.S., Hopsinjoor is definitely the most interesting. Unlike the brewery's signature dark and boozy brews — such as Gouden Carolus Classic and Gouden Carolus Van De Keizer Blau — Hopsinjoor is light and dry but with a full, sweet aroma. First brewed in 2008, Hopsinjoor is made with five different kinds of hops and gets its name from the mascot of the small town where the brewery is located (Op Sinjoor). Spotted more often on draft at specialty Belgian beer bars around town, there are also bottles on the loose for keen eyes that know where to look.
4. Brouwerij Van Eecke Poperings Hommel Bier:
When the Van Eecke Brewery in Watou, Belgium, first released its Hommel Bier (“hop beer” in the Dutch dialect) in 1981, there wasn't much else like it in Belgium. More bitter than any of the brewery's other year-round production beers but retaining the unfiltered thickness of a Belgian golden ale, Van Eecke's Hommel Bier is an homage to the famous hop-growing region of Poperinge, in which the brewery resides. With no other local style for reference, the brewery merely calls it a “special ale,” but its hand-drawn label of hop vines and greenery can be found alongside other hop-forward beers in specialty bottle shops citywide.
3. Duvel Triple Hop:
Duvel Moortgat is one of the larger breweries in Belgium, and its flagship line of Duvel golden ales has defined the style since it was first produced in 1920. Two types of Duvel beers are common in the States: Duvel Special, a bottle-conditioned, strong golden that earned the brewery its name (“devil” in Dutch, for its 8.5% alcohol content); and Duvel Single, the lighter, more sessionable draft-only version of Duvel Special. In 2007, the brewery created yet another variation — Duvel Tripel Hop, a stronger and hoppier (and, somehow, more Champagne-like) version of Duvel Special, made by adding the American hop Amarillo to its homegrown hop bill. This past March, it was announced that the sometimes-brewed Tripel Hop would become an annual release, changing the extra American hop used each year.
2. Brasserie D'Achouffe Houblon Chouffe:
It's hard to resist a cute little elf-gnome luring you to drink his adorable beers — especially when he's harvesting hops in a cartoon pictoral on the label — but Achouffe Brewery's Houblon Chouffe (“houblon” is the French word for “hop”) delivers beyond the gimmick. As a Belgian triple (think: Chimay White) with loads of American hops, this beer is a great way to introduce new drinkers to what Belgian IPAs are all about. It delivers the perfect balance between fruity sweetness and subtle bitterness with a 9% ABV kick that's not too shabby, either. Get one at Wurstküche, where it is a consistent tap handle.
1. De Ranke XX Bitter:
A lot of superlative claims are just marketing tools, but XX Bitter just might live up to its brewery's claim as “The Hoppiest Beer in the World.” But before everyone stops worshiping Pliny the Younger and Stone's Double Dry Hopped series, let us clarify: This beer is hoppy in all the wonderful ways that American beers aren't. XX Bitter contains none of the citrusy, floral or grapefruity goodness we associate with locally made versions of the IPA style. Instead, it's a very light blond ale bombarded with a spicy, herbaceous and earthy load of European hops that knocks out unprepared palates like a stiff cup of organic tea. This beer is bitter in the way textbooks describe it and, though not for the faint of heart, its unforgettable blend of mellow and aggressive flavors has become the foundation on which the future of hoppy Belgian ales is being built.
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