Belgium: A Brew Melting Pot

by: HorstDornbusch on 10-27-2004
In the world of beer, Belgium has a unique position. Like Germany and Great Britain, it ranks among the traditional beer giants. But unlike these two, it is a small country, roughly the size of Maryland, with a population only about twice that of Maryland. Several other small beer nations have made large contributions to international brewing, but usually by concentrating on just one or two beers styles - the Czech Republic with its Pilsner and Ireland with its stout and red ale come to mind. The Belgians, on the other hand, have taken the opposite approach. They have excelled in maximum indigenous beer diversity.

Today, the Belgians not only make British-style ales and German style lagers but also a sheer endless array of unique, often artisanal and eccentric, brews. Perhaps the beers most commonly identified with Belgium are the tart, wheat-based, sour-fermented lambics; the spice-flavored wits; and the Trappist ales brewed by the religious order of the same name. Because of the diversity of Belgian beers, some brew historians have even suggested that Belgium has no beer styles at all, but merely hundreds of beer brands, each so distinct that it is a style in itself. Surely, this is an exaggeration, but it contains a smattering of truth - a truth that cuts to the very core of what makes Belgium's beer culture so unique.

Belgian Beer - A Problem of Definition
Situated at the confluence of rich and powerful cultures - France to the south, Germany to the east, the Netherlands to the North, and Great Britain across the Channel to the west - Belgium (like Luxembourg, with which it shares a short border) has always been strongly influenced by all of them. The country does not even have its own "Belgian" language. Most Belgians (again, like Luxembourgers) speak either Dutch or French, or both. In a few counties along the eastern border, the majority even speaks German.

Today, the city of Brussels is not only the capital of Belgium, but also the effective capital of Europe. It is a city from which some three hundred million people are ruled, which makes it a rival to Washington D.C. In Brussels and environs, bureaucracy is probably now the biggest industry, and a simultaneous translator who can fix a diplomat's consequential misunderstandings is probably more valuable than, say, a physician, who can fix that diplomat's liver after too much protocol, vitriol, and alcohol.

One important element of modern Belgian life that seems to illustrate the cosmopolitan nature of Belgian society perhaps as well as anything is Belgian brewing. Over the centuries, Belgian beer culture has absorbed methods and practices from all its neighbors and has integrated them into its own indigenous brewing traditions. Though Belgium grows its own hops and produces its own malt, for instance, Belgian beers nowadays often contain hops from Kent in England, the Hallertau in Bavaria, and Bohemia in the Czech Republic as well as malt from Normandy in France, Bavaria in Germany, and Moravia in the Czech Republic.

Belgian brewing techniques are probably the most varied in the world, they may include:

* single- or mixed-grain mashing
* German decoction or British infusion mashing
* brewing with fresh or aged hops
* brewing with indigenous and exotic herbs and spices - even citrus peel and flowers
* brewing with fruit
* brewing with sugar
* British-style dry-hopping
* British warm or German cold fermentation
* fermentation in open or closed tanks
* fermentation by pure brewers yeast, wild yeast, bacteria, or a combination of the three
* fermentation and lagering in oak casks
* multiple fermentation by the French méthode champenoise - replete with prise de mousse, remuage, dégorgement, champagne-cork stoppering, and wire-caging
* filtration or bottle conditioning sur lie
* even blending of aged and fresh beer before bottling

This variety of modern Belgian brewing seems to me to rest on three pillars:

First, there are the straight copies of other countries' signature brews, perhaps best typified by such brands as John Martin's Special (a British-style pale ale) and Interbrew's Stella Artois (a generic Pils).

Second, there are the individualistic adaptations of other countries' signature brews, perhaps best typified by such British-inspried adaptations as the De Koninck ale of Antwerp or the Palm Speciale ale of Brabant.

Third, there are the indigenous brews that are based almost exclusively on ancient brewing materials and techniques that date, for the most part, from before the industrial and scientific revolutions of the late 19th century, such as the sour lambics and spiced wits. To beer aficionados, of course, this third category of indigenous brews is what sets Belgian most apart from the rest of the world.

Classifying Belgium's Indigenous Brews
Because Belgium's indigenous beers represent such contradictory brewing traditions and influences, grouping them into styles is, of course, much more difficult than, for instance, categorizing German or British beers. Any such classification is by its very nature subjective, and even experts rarely use the same set of terms. Very broad categories tend to be too meaningless to add anything of value to our understanding, while more differentiated ones tend to be too complex to be useful. In other words, only the daring or the foolhardy would try ... so here we go: For the sake of conceptual clarity and practical discourse, I propose to group Belgian indigenous brews into seven simple (and inevitably controversial) sub-categories.

* Belgian Golden Ales (both strong and not, with Duvel from Moortgat being perhaps a signature brand)
* Belgian Brown/Oud Bruin/Red/Dark Ales (such as Liefmans)
* Trappist and Abbey Ales (both religious and secular)
* The Lambic Group (including kriek, frambois, gueuze, faro, and mars)
* Wit/Bière blanche (of the Hoegaarden style)
* Bière de saison (of southern Belgium)
* The Belgian "One-Off" Group

The "one-off" group is my cop-out category, into which I put all beers that do not seem to fit into the other six categories. Some authors use the terms "Specialties" or "Extreme Beers" to lump the really unusual Belgian brews together. For me, this residual category offers a home for such dissimilar brews as DeuS, Karmeliet, Kwak, Bush, Rodenbach, Martens Sesoens, and La Chouffe, to name just a few.

The Interplay Between Belgian Civic and Brewing Cultures
A country's beverage culture is always an outgrowth of its overall culture. Just think of Russia and frozen vodka, Portugal and port, Spain and sherry, France and cognac, Mexico and tequila, or Bavaria and Oktoberfestbier. Likewise, if we want to understand Belgian beers, their roots and their evolution, we must first understand the Belgians' peculiar political and social history.

Politically, few countries (perhaps none) can claim as great an inverse correlation between its size and its importance as can Belgium. People with a smidgen of historical knowledge will have read about the weighty deeds perpetrated at one point or another during the past three thousand years by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, Ottomans, Incas, Chinese, British, Austrians, French, and Germans. Even the Swedes once ransacked Europe as far south as Bavaria, during the Thirty Years War (1618 - 1648), and, under their King Charles XII, threatened the vast Russian empire until they were finally beaten by Czar Peter the Great at the Battle of Poltava, in present-day Ukraine, in 1709.

Every European country, no matter how small, seems to have had its epoch of greatness in history ... except for Belgium. The reason may come as a surprise: Until about two hundred years ago - until 1831, to be precise - the country of Belgium didn't even exist! At one time or another, the lands now called Belgium belonged to the Romans, Burgundians, Spanish, Austrians, Germans, French, and Dutch. Modern Belgium's cultural identity, therefore, is just as difficult to pin down as the identity of its beers.

The brewing variety we find in Belgium today, I would argue, could have flourished only in happy Belgium, because, for better or for worse, that country's unique political evolution prevented it from ever developing the institutional mechanisms required to articulate and enforce, directly or indirectly, a narrowly defined set of brewing methods as a national dogma - as did the Germans, for instance, overtly with their Reinheitsgebot (Beer Purity Law) and the Brits indirectly with their centuries-long string of malt tax legislation.

While other countries were struggling to legislate beer ingredients and processes into a particular direction, Belgium's society, unlike its official government, blossomed in surreptitious freedom allowing its brewers to evolve their own, thoroughly idiosyncratic beer culture - a brewing tradition that permitted the use of just about anything in beer, as long as it tasted great. In an odd sense, the lack of control over their own destiny and the topsy-turvy inconsistency of their political institutions was probably a key reasons why brewing could flourish - almost inadvertently - in greater diversity in what is now Belgium than in any other part of the universe, especially during the long centuries of feudalism and absolute monarchs. This is not to postulate a causal determinism between multiculturalism and diversity in any field, but rather to point to social circumstances that engendered possibilities that were perhaps not present elsewhere.

The result in Belgium today is a historically grown variety of beer styles and brands that is unparalleled in the world, and the modern Belgian government wisely seeks to encourage and protect rather than to restrict that diversity, even in the face of growing regulatory pressure towards uniformity in food processing rules from European bureaucrats. In fact, the health regulators in Brussels have taken the position lately that the old-fashioned open fermentation methods and cask conditioning used by some traditional lambic producers violate modern European sanitation standards - a view that could threaten the future of many classic brands in that beer style. At the end of 2004, the outcome of that controversy is still uncertain.

Belgium in the First Millennium
Even the name "Belgium" does not appear to be of Belgian origin! The first important mention of "the Belgians" occurs in the first line of Julius Caesar's account of his Gallic Wars: "Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam ... Galli." (All of Gaul is divided into three parts, one inhabited by the Belgians, another by the Aquitaines, the third ... by the Gauls.) To Caesar, everybody who lived north the river Seine and west of the river Rhine, was a Belgian. Thus we must blame a Roman conqueror for the prefix of the many beer styles that the Belgae have since spawned.

In the Dark Ages, as the Roman Empire was being replaced by the Germanic medieval feudal system, Caesar's land of the Belgae, disappeared completely from the map, both in name and in fact, and for about a thousand years, it was known as Brabant and occupied, almost without interruptions, by foreign powers.

Under Emperor Charlemagne, who ruled from Aachen, only a few miles from the modern Belgian border with Germany, the land of the Belgae was just a tiny portion of the Emperor's huge European domain, and most of it was administered locally by the dukes of Brabant. Upon Charlemagne's death in 814, his sons divided Europe into a western empire (now roughly France), a middle empire (composed of present-day Burgundy, Alsace, Lorraine, Luxembourg, and parts of northern Italy), and an eastern empire (mostly present-day Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, as well as the lands of the dukes of Brabant).

Centuries of Foreign Occupation
Over the centuries, the eastern and western heirs to Charlemagne's vast empire gradually gobbled up the long strip of land, the middle empire, which separated Germany and France. In the process, Burgundy came firmly under French control and, by the 15th century, all the Low Countries, including Brabant, had passed from German hands to those of the dukes of Burgundy.

In 1477, when a lady called Mary was the sitting ruler of Burgundy and thus also of Brabant, King Louis XI of France tried to make his control over Burgundy official by annexing it outright - a move that did not sit too well with his rival, Maximillian I, the Habsburg ruler of Austria as well as of Germany and Spain. Max quickly rushed his army into Burgundy to save the maiden Mary from the French grasp, and, in gratitude, Mary married her Austrian benefactor. She thus brought Burgundy and its assorted Low Countries possessions as a nifty dowry into Max's alpine realm, which meant that Caesar's erstwhile land of the Belgae became part of distant Austria, and it acquired the handle of the "Austrian Netherlands." But worse was yet to come: In 1555, Max' successor Charles V turned the Low Countries over to his son, Philip II of Spain - an act, which ushered in about a century of rebellion in the land now called the "Spanish Netherlands."

During the Reformation and the religious wars that engulfed Europe in the 17th century, most of the Dutch-speaking Flemings and the French-speaking Walloons of Brabant remained staunchly Catholic, while most Hollanders to the north became Calvinist Protestants. The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War between the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe, solved the thorny issue of the religiously divided Low Countries by creating an independent Protestant kingdom of the Netherlands in the north, while keeping Catholic Brabant in the south under the Spanish yoke, where it remained until the rise of French might under Napoleon Bonaparte near the end of the 18th century. Napoleon, however, quickly dashed the Brabanters' hopes for independence when, in 1797, in the Treaty of Campo Formio, he turned the last remnants of the "Spanish Netherlands" into a province of France.

Before its current ascent as a European center, perhaps Belgian's most memorable contribution to the world was the Battle of Waterloo, fought on June 18, 1815, which spelled the end of Emperor Napoleon, the conqueror of countries, champion of civil laws, and commander of his mighty grande armée. Waterloo ushered in a new order in Europe that was marked by a tenuous balance among all the big powers - an equilibrium that would ultimately explode into the First World War. But few people nowadays can find Waterloo on a map ... Well, it's barely 10 miles south of Brussels, and, in typical Belgian fashion, a quarter of Waterloo's 30,000 modern inhabitants are non-Belgians working for European institutions in the nearby capital.

After Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, the big powers of Europe punished France not by giving the Belgae their own country, but by incorporating their lands into the Netherlands. This was the last straw for the Brabanters, and, in 1830, they took matters into their own hands. Fed up with waiting for handouts from the big powers, they staged an uprising against their Dutch King William I in the streets of Brussels and then issued their own declaration of independence.

Because royals were still the official heads of states in Europe in those days, the bourgeois Belgae revolutionaries now had to find themselves a king in a hurry. Strangely, they picked a German blue-blood, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, for the job. With Belgian statehood formalities thus taken care of, the European powers - fearing a deadly conflagration between England, France and Germany over little Brabant - finally gave their blessing to the formation of the new state at the London Conference of 1831. Thus was created, between the Netherlands and France, the current country of Belgium, under a name that dates back to antiquity, to a Roman chronicler, general, and emperor, to Julius Caesar.

After more than a millennium as a political football among nations, the Belgians could finally take their place on the world stage and affix the name of their country to their beers. Even though the country of Belgium had been in suspended animation, the beers that we now know as Belgian had taken firm roots during the long wait. With a multinational historical lineage that included even Spain and Austria, Belgium had finally emerged as a society of cosmopolitan openness and diversity, where competing traditions could flourish ... a diversity that manifested itself importantly in the beers of the new nation.

The Origins of Belgian Beers
In Caesar's time, when beer making was mostly a private household activity, the Belgae, like all tribes in northern Europe, made standard Germanic ales brewed from mixed grains - mostly wheat and barley - flavored with herbs and spices, and often fortified with honey. In later centuries, these beers became known as gruit beers. The word gruit is medieval German/Dutch for "herb" and is, incidentally, related to the modern German word Kraut (which means cabbage).

In the early Middle Ages, brewing in the Low Countries, as in much of Europe, gradually changed from being a home-maker's chore to becoming a professional occupation, plied first by brew monks and brew nuns, and later, as gruit beer-making evolved as a business for profit, by secular brewers, too. To protect their interests against the monopoly-minded clergy and the taxation-happy feudal lords, the secular brewers of Belgium, as well as those in the neighboring Rhineland of Germany, were among the first tradesmen to organize their profession into a guild. In fact, one of the stateliest buildings at the Grand Place, Brussels' main square, used to be the headquarters of the Belgian Brewers Guild, on organization that dates back to the 13th century. The building is next to Brussels' City Hall and now houses the museum of the Confederation of Belgian Breweries.

In the high Middle Ages, during the transition of ownership of the Low Countries from Germany to Burgundy, hops arrived in Brabant. The first-ever documentary evidence of hop cultivation comes from the medieval Benedictine brew monks of Weihenstephan outside Munich, in Bavaria. These friars made explicit mention of their hop gardens as early as 736. This makes them probably the world's first hop users. We also have a reference of hop growing in Bohemia (part of the present-day Czech Republic) dating from 859. In the Rhineland, the legendary abbess, brew-nun, botanist, and physician Hildegard von Bingen elaborated on the healthful properties of hops in beer-making in her book Physica Sacra (Sacred World), in 1079. Then, in 1268, King Louis IX of France passed a law stipulating that only malt and hops may be used in beer-making.

Obviously under French influence, hops had invaded beer-making in the Low Countries by the 1300s. Flemish-speaking hop farmers from Brabant, unhappy with their domination by the French, migrated to Kent in England in the early 1400s, which is how hops were introduced to the British Isles. All this suggests that the use of hops instead of gruit as a beer flavoring slowly spread from eastern to western Europe over centuries and that the brewers of Brabant were among the early adopters of the new brew ingredient.

Unlike brewers in other counties, however, the Belgians took to hops not as a replacement, but as an addition to their existing brewing ways. While the use of gruit in beer became strictly verboten in Bavaria by the Beer Purity Law of 1516, for instance, the Belgians continued their tradition of flavoring many of their beers with herbs and spices. The benefits of this tradition has come to us in the form of such brews as the Hoegaarden Wit, the incomparable flower-flavored Cantillon Iris Gueuze, the hoppy-spicy crossover Duvel Strong Pale Ale from Moortgat, or the sublime, champagne-like DeuS from Bosteels in Bruggenhout. Likewise, while the Germans declared the use of sugar in beer-making a virtual crime, the Belgians steadfastly continued to put their rock candy sugar into many of their vats.

While the British insisted on fresh hops for their ales, the Belgians were just as happy to flavor theirs with two- or three-year old hops, a custom still practiced today in lambic brewing. Likewise, while most ale brewers started to make beer just from barley - unless they made Hefeweizen - the Belgians have always felt free to mix different grains in the same brew, as evidenced by a decree issued in the town of Halle in the Pajottenland (the lambic-brewing region in the Senne Valley to the south-west of Brussels). This decree dates from 1559, during the Spanish occupation, and stipulates that the local beer "must be made from 16 parts grain: that is, from 6 parts wheat and 10 parts oats and barley, as is the ancient custom." That 1559 decree is the reason why even today the ratio between wheat and barley in lambics is always 37.5%/67.5%.

The Special Tale of the Trappists
It was also during the Spanish occupation of Brabant that - at least according to one rather fanciful theory - the two Belgian signature brews of gueuze and lambic got their names. According to this tale, the well-provisioned Spanish soldiers used to march into battle with partitioned leather flask dangling from their belts. One half of such a flask was filled with water, the other, with wine. Because of its dual function, the flask was called el ambiguo (Spanish for "double meaning"). The poor local gueux, on the other hand, (gueux is French for "beggars" or "good-for-nothings"), who opposed the worldly Spaniards, merely carried a flask of indigenous sour beer on their marches. The Spanish apparently derided the unpartitioned and thus obviously inferior drinking vessel of the bedraggled locals as a ... gueuze el ambiguo or a gueuze-lambic.

While the Spanish were having their ways with the Brabanters, a Cistercian monk by the name of Rancé de la Trappe founded an abbey in Normandy, in 1664. He named the house after himself, the Abbaye de la Grande Trappe. This abbey was one of about five hundred houses the Cistercians owned all over central Europe. Though the Trappists are known today known as Belgian ale makers, the original Trappist ales, a designation that is protected by Belgian and European law, were not Belgian or Brabantian at all. Rather, the Trappist order of monks - formally known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, because they take a vow of silence - was an outgrowth of the Cistercian monastic movement of Burgundy in the eleventh century. In 1098, a few Benedictine monks founded a new monastery for an offshoot of the order of St. Benedict in Citeaux, near Dijon, in Burgundy. The Latin name for this place is Cistercium, hence the name of the new monastic group, the Cistercians. Eventually, Père Rancé's Abbaye de la Grande Trappe became the Cistercian headquarters, and it remained so until 1898 when the monks moved back to the original abbey site in Citeaux.

The Cistercian movement arose in reaction against the often-opulent lifestyle and secular power hunger of many of the monastic orders of the time. The Cistercians took their vows of poverty and obedience seriously. They tried to live like the feudal serfs rather than the feudal lords around them. They rigidly adhered to the original rules of monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict in 510. One of these rules stipulates that it is the monk's first duty to listen, not to speak. According to St. Benedict, a life of silence, seclusion, and plenty of manual labor is the monk's way: "Ora et labora" (pray and work). Rancé de la Trappe made it clear in his writings that he considered beer an essential part of such a working monk's diet, and it is from this friar and his grand abbey that the designation "Trappist" derives - both for the taciturn Cistercians and for their nourishing brews. After the French Revolution in 1789, the pères trappistes were briefly expelled from France, so they moved north to Brabant, where they set up several new monastery-breweries, in both the Flemish and French speaking regions (Vlaams-Brabant and Brabant-Walloon). At one time Trappist ales were even made by the Bierbrouwerij 'De Konigshoeven, a Trappist monastery brewery in Tilburg in the Netherlands.

By the beginning of 19th century, Trappist brewing, was in full bloom, but initially just for the monks' own consumption. By the end of the century, the Trappists had started to make beer for secular civilians as well. The monks of Westvleteren, for instance, who had made their first cask of ale in 1839, sold their brews for profit for the first time in 1877. One once the commercial genie was let out of the Trappist ale bottle it could not be put back. Especially after the Second World War, sales of Trappist beer took off, and in 1962, a Belgian court accorded the Trappist monasteries legal protection for their brews, thus legitimizing what had essentially become a marketing cartel. Today only six monastic breweries - Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren - may call their beers Trappistenbier in Flemish or Bière des pères trappistes in French. This court decision notwithstanding, Trappist ales have been imitated by several secular breweries - Affligem, Corsendonk, Duinen, Leffe, and Maredsous among them - but these breweries are barred from using the Trappist name on their labels. Instead, these beers must be labeled as Abdijbier in Flemish or Bière d'abbaye in French.

Belgian Trappist ales and their secular Abbey counterparts are styles that show both "foreign" and indigenous traditional influences. Nowadays, these beers are all made with well-modified grains and fermented with laboratory-controlled yeast strains, usually in closed, stainless-steel tanks. Historically, however, Trappist ales have much more in common with the old-style, heavy, open-fermented ales made in the Middle Ages in all regions along the lower Rhine, including in what is now known as Frisia, the Rhineland, the Netherlands, and even parts of Normandy in France.

Belgian Beers in Modern Times
Scientific discoveries and technological innovations in the 19th century had dramatic impacts on the international brew industry. However, while the Brits, Germans, and Scandinavians - even the French - became obsessed with searching for clean, pure-bred yeast strains, the Belgians took a more relaxed view. After Louis Pasteur had published his work on yeast fermentation, Etudes sur la bière, in 1876 and Emil Christian Hansen had isolated the first pure yeast strain in the Carlsberg Laboratories in Copenhagen in 1881, brewers could start to combat lactobacilli, the bacteria that are considered an infection in most beers. In several Belgian beer styles, however, these pests were considered not a defect but a necessary ingredient. In many artisanal Belgian operations, therefore, open fermenters, the only vessels suitable for spontaneous, air-born fermentation, still hold sway today, even though they are abhorrent to most modern brewers.

As the wave of pure blond lager-making engulfed Europe, the Belgian brewers, like their Altbier and Kölsch confreres in the nearby Rhineland, held fast to their traditions. Though most big Belgian brew concerns followed the international trend towards bottom fermentation and started making mass Pilsners, many small and mid-size Belgian breweries, as well as the Trappists, stuck largely with their old top-fermenting ways. Independently-spirited Belgian consumers, too, made the survival of many of these traditional brews possible. It is always evidence of the health and vibrancy of a beer culture, if the general public, through its purchasing decisions, keeps its local brew industry viable.

Through their reverence for their indigenous brewing diversity, both Belgian brewers and consumers have preserved a rich beer treasure trove for the rest of the world, and today the Belgian brewing tradition is perhaps livelier than ever. Belgian-style beers are now brewed authentically and with skill not just on their home turf, but also in many places outside Belgium, most notably by craft brewers in the United States and in the Canadian province of Quebec. Belgian beers, therefore, in their endless complexity and variety serve as important bulwarks against the growing homogeneity and uniformity of the world's beers. To have Belgian beers still kicking today is indeed a good thing!
©, Inc. All rights reserved.
  • About Us

    Your go-to website for beer (since 1996), publishers of BeerAdvocate magazine (since 2006) and hosts of world-class beer events (since 2003). Respect Beer.
  • BeerAdvocate Microbrew Invitational

    Join us June 2-3, 2017 in Boston, Mass. for beer, cider, mead, kombucha and sake from over 70 small producers.

    Learn More
  • Subscribe to BeerAdvocate Magazine

    Support uncompromising beer advocacy and award-winning, independent journalism with a print subscription to BeerAdvocate magazine.