Facts & History
Belgium, a country in Western Europe, is known for its medieval old towns, Flemish Renaissance architecture and international headquarters of the European Union and NATO. The country is divided into 3 distinctive multilingual regions: Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north and French-speaking Wallonia to the south. Brussels is the third region and Capital of Belgium.
Administrative Divisions: 3 Regions, 10 Provinces
Population: 11.3 Million (as of July 2015)
Ethnic Groups: Flmeish (58%) Wallonian (32%)
Language: French, Dutch, German
Source: Wikepedia/The World Pocket Atlas
When people think of Belgium they primarily think of three things – Diamonds, Chocolate & Waffles but what are you missing?
When you think of France you think Wine, Scotland – Scotch and Belgium is synonymous with Beer and here’s why:
Well, Belgium has been producing Beer for over 1,000 years and has a diverse range of styles of Beer no where to be found in the rest of the world. Compared to the rest of Europe this nation that has been invaded and occupied by several settlers with its high quality water, rich soil perfect for growing barley and hops has produced diverse styles of beer that are rich in complexity and quality. You can thank the land and the invaders for making Belgium the Mecca for Beer lovers.
There are over a thousand (yes a 1,000!!!) different brands of beers offering a dozen or more styles of Beer. We’ll dive into these styles a little later but first let’s get some numbers out of the way!
Don’t forget AB InBev, the world’s largest brewer is from Belgium. AB InBev (Anheuser Bush InBev) has popular brands such as Budweiser, Stella Artois, Leffe and Hoegaarden amongst several others under its belt.
Unit: Hectolitres – 1 Hectoliter = 100 Litres
Production: 18.2 Million hl
Consumption: 8.1 Million hl
Which gives you ~11.2 Million hl exported and here’s where it goes:
E.U – 7.9 Million hl
Interesting Note: France imports the maximum amount (3.2 Million hl)of Belgian Beer in the E.U.
Non E.U – 3.3 Million hl
Interesting Note: USA imports the maximum amount (1.5 Million hl) of Belgian Beer amongst the Non E.U. countries.
Number of Breweries in Belgium: 168
Source: Belgian Brewers Association – Annual Report
Belgian Brewing History (Abridged)
Beer has been around for a very long time around ten to twelve thousand years. The Sumerians & Egyptians were early pioneers. You can read about this journey here
The Egyptians taught the Greeks how to brew, the Romans then followed suit and hence the art of brewing spread in Europe. Around 2,000 years ago brewing began in Belgium. The Roman empire had dissolved and the churches had taken over brewing duties by first owning land then monasteries where breweries were set up.
Finding clean drinking water was a challenge and Beer provided a safe, clean alternative instead. The Benedictine monks fasted often but when they did they did drink and brewed beer -“liquid bread” (on account of all the nutrients) to give them sustenance. They shared their beers with travelers and eventually started selling their Beer. Early beers were made using barley, water and naturally occurring yeast. Herbs were used to flavor Beers. These brews did not keep for very long.
Hops were slowly introduced and the German monks started using it to make there beer as far back as 1030. This tradition slowly spread to Belgium with the region of Barbant adopting hops for brewing.
The Germans, in 1516 came up with the Reiheintsgebot – The Purity Law which stated that only water, barley and hops could be used to make Beer. They controlled parts of Belgium and forced brewers to adopt the purity law.
In other parts of Belgium such as Flanders, there was resistance to the use of hops, some monasteries considered the hops to be evil! Many brewers used traditional French methods instead – coriander, ginger, cherries and raspberries were used to flavor their beers. Alternative methods such as acidification were used to preserve beers. We shall discuss these when we talk about Beer Styles in Part II.
After the French Revolution in 1789, expelled French trappist monks set up Trappist Monasteries began in Belgium with the first one brewery commencing operations in 1836.
Belgium has been occupied by several countries and each occupier had an impact on brewing – new styles and flavors hence emerged.
Low taxes meant Beer was cheaper to produce than wine and the breweries in Belgium flourished. By 1907 Belgium had over 3,400 breweries.
The rise in popularity of Pilsners (Lagers from Czechoslovakia introduced in 1839) ,the First World War, the economic crisis in the 1930’s and the Second World War caused the number of Belgian breweries to shrink to 775 at the end of 1946. Decades of rising costs, stiff competition and consolidation/acquisitions lead to this number shrinking even further to the 170 odd breweries in existence today.
Despite the reduced number of breweries, it is important to note that age old traditions, attention to detail, high standards and diversity are still maintained today making Belgian Beers some of the best in the World. Beer in Belgium is not just another beverage – it is a social lubricant and well respected. That level of respect is evident when you consider that each Beer has its own glass, special bottle, pouring and serving techniques. Take at look at this perfectly poured Belgian Blond Ale and you’ll understand what I mean:
In our next post, we shall look into the various styles of Belgian Beers and consumption habits.
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