Home CULTURE Belgian beer: epitomising the art of brewing for 9 centuries

Belgian beer: epitomising the art of brewing for 9 centuries

by EUToday Correspondents
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Belgian Beer

Belgian beer traces its roots back to the 12th Century.

The history of brewing beer in Belgium is a rich tapestry that weaves together ancient traditions, innovative techniques, and a deep cultural appreciation for the art of brewing.

Belgium stands out as a unique and influential player in the global beer landscape, with a diverse array of beer styles that have captivated connoisseurs around the world. The roots of Belgian brewing can be traced back centuries, with a fascinating journey through monastic traditions, regional specialties, and a relentless pursuit of flavour.

Belgium’s brewing legacy can be partially attributed to its geographical location, nestled between brewing powerhouses like Germany and England.

The country’s brewing history began to take shape in the early Middle Ages when monasteries played a pivotal role in brewing beer.

Monks, seeking a self-sustaining lifestyle, cultivated their own ingredients and developed brewing techniques to create a source of sustenance within the confines of their cloisters.

One of the earliest recorded mentions of Belgian beer dates back to the 12th century when St. Norbert of Xanten founded the Premonstratensian order in Grimbergen.

Grimbergen Abbey Church: By Maarten from Netherlands – DSC_0060, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11082645

The Grimbergen Abbey became renowned for its brewing prowess, producing ales that not only sustained the monks but also garnered a reputation for quality.

Over time, other abbeys across Belgium followed suit, each developing its unique brewing traditions.

In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation led to the closure of many monasteries, disrupting the brewing practices of the religious orders.

However, some abbeys managed to continue brewing by leasing their facilities to secular brewers, who often retained the traditional recipes and methods. This transition marked the beginning of commercial brewing in Belgium, with secular brewers adopting and adapting the monastic brewing heritage.

The Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of Trappist beers.

The 18th century witnessed a surge in brewing activity as technological advancements, such as the introduction of the thermometer and the hydrometer, enhanced the precision of brewing processes.

The Industrial Revolution brought about changes in production methods, including the use of steam engines for milling grain and the development of refrigeration, allowing for greater control over fermentation temperatures.

Belgium’s brewing landscape further evolved with the emergence of Trappist breweries.

The Trappist order, known for its commitment to self-sufficiency, began brewing beer as a means of financial support for their monasteries.

The first Trappist brewery, Chimay, was established in 1862, followed by others like Westmalle and Rochefort. These Trappist beers gained international acclaim for their complexity, depth of flavor, and adherence to traditional brewing methods.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the rise of the Belgian farmhouse ale, known as Saison.

Brewed in farmsteads during the winter months and consumed by farmworkers in the summer, Saison was a refreshing and versatile beer that showcased the agricultural diversity of the region.

The yeast strains used in Saison fermentation contributed unique flavours, making it a distinct and cherished style.

Belgium’s brewing scene faced challenges during the two World Wars, with occupation and rationing affecting the availability of ingredients. However, the resilience of Belgian brewers prevailed, and the post-war period witnessed a resurgence of brewing activity.

New and popular styles appear in the 20th Century.

The 20th century also saw the emergence of lambic beers, a traditional Belgian style brewed through spontaneous fermentation.

Kriek Beer. Photo by By Adrian Scottow from London, England – Kriek Beer, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2949374

Lambics, which include varieties like Gueuze and Kriek, are fermented with wild yeast and bacteria native to the environment, often in open vessels exposed to the air.

This ancient method imparts a complex and sour character to the beers, creating a taste experience that sets them apart from other styles. Cantillon Brewery, founded in 1900, remains a prominent and revered producer of lambic beers.

In the latter half of the 20th century, Belgium experienced a beer renaissance marked by a renewed interest in traditional brewing methods and a rediscovery of regional beer styles.

The movement was characterized by a growing number of small, independent breweries experimenting with innovative ingredients and brewing techniques. This period also saw the birth of the Belgian Beer Weekend, an annual event celebrating the country’s brewing heritage.

The 21st century has seen Belgian beer continue to thrive, with a global audience appreciating the diversity and quality of its offerings.

Belgian brewers are known for their willingness to push boundaries, resulting in unique and experimental beers that challenge conventional norms. Craft breweries have multiplied, contributing to the evolution of styles and the preservation of traditional brewing practices.

UNESCO listing for Belgian Beer.

Belgium’s beer culture is further recognized by UNESCO, which added Belgian beer to its list of intangible cultural heritage in 2016.

The designation acknowledges the country’s exceptional brewing traditions, highlighting the significance of beer in Belgian social life and its integral role in culinary heritage.

Today, Belgian beer stands as a testament to centuries of craftsmanship, innovation, and a deep-seated cultural passion for brewing.

Whether enjoying a Trappist ale, a lambic, or a contemporary craft creation, sipping a Belgian beer is an exploration of history, tradition, and the boundless possibilities of fermentation.

The legacy of Belgian brewing continues to unfold, inviting enthusiasts worldwide to savour the unique flavours and stories behind each glass.

Main image: By Kiban – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7814228




Read also: Bathing in beer – now available in Belgium!





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