What’s so special about Belgian brewing?


Belgian brewing has a long and varied history, influenced greatly by the history and culture of the country. Belgium is young, having gained independence in 1831. It is also very divided, with some saying that just two things unite the country – beer and football.

Some say that just two things unite Belgium – beer and football

Before its independence, Belgium had been invaded and possessed by the Duchy of Burgundy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Spanish Empire, The Dutch Empire and France. It was also variously conquered, levelled and occupied during the First and Second World Wars.  This may explain the retention of the many styles and varieties of beer that you find in Belgian – reflecting a desire to retain a sense of national identity through beer. 

The country is divided into three regions, and then there is Brussels which has a culture all of its own. Flanders in the north is home to the independently-minded Flemish, who speak a Dutch-influenced dialect. In the south, Wallonia’s Walloons speak French and are less in support of independence. The Wallonian economy is not as strong as that of Flanders which means that there are fewer commercial breweries. Less than 1% of the Belgian population is German-speaking and lives within the province of Liege on the Eastern boarder. 

The history of Belgian brewing mirrors that of the rest of Northern Europe. Caesar mentions a Gaulish tribe ‘the Belgae’ who loved beer and there is evidence of beer culture many centuries before his time. As in England, brewing was carried out by monks, domestically at home and also at nobles’ estates. As elsewhere, beer was not hopped, but flavoured with gruit, a mixture of herbs and spices, administered by the Gruithuis. King Gambrinus, the King of Beer, is also believed to have originated in Belgium – Jan Primus and John the Fearless are some of those legendary characters on whom the King is thought to have been based.

Caesar mentions a Gaulish tribe ‘the Belgae’ who loved beer and there is evidence of beer culture many centuries before

Hops were introduced to Belgium by the Hanseatic League in the fourteenth century. Many grains were used to make beer in addition to barley: spelt, rye, oats and particularly wheat. Wheat beer was extremely popular in the north of the country. By the seventeenth century public breweries were springing up everywhere. Also, communal brewhouses were set up by the bourgeoisie, where different individuals took turns to brew for their households. In Bruges in 1718 there were 621 of these communal breweries.      

The monasteries were closed in 1797 during the French Revolution and remained shut for 40 years. When they re-opened in the 1830s and 40s, the previous brewing culture was lost. Today’s Trappist beers are modern recipes and are not related to these old beers.

Other factors influenced Belgian brewing – in particular, legislation. A tax on the size of a mash tun encouraged brewers to use a secondary vessel, which encouraged the production of Witbier and Lambic through turbid mashing. By the end of the nineteenth century the quality of beer in Belgium was poor – small, ill-equipped breweries producing mainly weak and quickly-souring beer. Imported beers began to dominate. The Belgian Brewers Guild tried to address this with a Contest for the Improvement of Belgian Beer in 1902 and 1904, which yielded positive results, but the same issues remained across the board.

The First World War was devastating to Belgium and breweries also suffered. The majority of breweries had their equipment requisitioned by the German Army. After the war, in 1919, the government banned the sale of gin in bars and cafes through the Vandervelde Act. This opened up the market to stronger beers and beer quality began to improve in the 1920s. Duvel was originally named Victory Ale when launched in 1923 (as a dark beer) with influence from Britain in the form of the yeast used.

Belgian brewers prefer to be able to create beer as an art form, and to express themselves with use of multiple grains, spices and herbs

It was at this time the beers that we now know as Trappist began to emerge, although Scourmont (Chimay) had been brewing since the 1860s. Old beer varieties, Lambics and Witbiers, were still around and new styles were being developed – for instance Saisons and Tripels. Pilsner inevitably influenced the market and the first Pilsner was brewed in 1928. The Second World War was another disaster for Belgium, but the breweries were better prepared and managed to carry on as before. This is when Belgian beers gained a foothold in the export market and the amazing range of beer styles that we know today became firmly established.

Belgian brewers are not keen on beer styles and prefer to be free to create beer as an art form. They are not beholden to a purity law (as in Germany) and are able to express themselves with the use of multiple grains, and adding spices, herbs and fermentable sugars. Their beers are very expressive and that can be down to the use of Belgian yeast, which when brewed at high temperatures encourages the esters and phenols that give the beers their distinct fruity and spicy aromas.

They employ high fermentation, low fermentation, spontaneous fermentation and mixed fermentation techniques and produce some of the most expressive, individualistic beers in the world.  

Photo courtesy of Stadsbrouwerij Oostende 't Koelschip.