Belgian beer offers an excellent opportunity for those interested in developing their knowledge and expertise in the beer world. Its exceptional diversity sets it apart, providing a wide range of styles from Trappist ales to sour beers, catering to the preferences of any beer enthusiast.
Furthermore, the rich history of Belgian beer adds another layer of fascination. With a heritage that spans centuries, Belgian beer has evolved and thrived throughout the ages, contributing to its unique and esteemed position in the global beer landscape.
Additionally, the availability and accessibility of Belgian beer are noteworthy. Belgian beers are widely distributed worldwide thanks to their popularity and widespread recognition. Therefore, you'll find locating and appreciating these exceptional brews convenient once you delve into Belgian beer through this guide.
This comprehensive article aims to delve into the depths of Belgian beer history, tracing its origins from the Middle Ages and its evolution, including the emergence of microbreweries over the past two decades. By exploring the historical and contemporary aspects, you'll gain a comprehensive understanding of the captivating world of Belgian beer.
The origins of beer in Belgium are closely intertwined with the presence of abbeys and monastic communities. As early as the 6th Century, the rule of Saint Benedict mandated abbeys to provide hospitality and sustenance to travellers, leading them to engage in beer production.
Given the limited availability of suitable land for vineyards in Belgium, it was only natural for the monks to embrace beer production as an alternative. In the 9th Century, Charlemagne also played a significant role in compelling the abbeys to produce beer. This directive spurred the professionalization of breweries and even led to the creation of written recipes, marking an important milestone in developing beer-making techniques.
During this period, breweries predominantly crafted a beer style known as Gruit. Unlike hops in modern beer production, Gruit beers were brewed using a blend of aromatic herbs, contributing to their distinctive flavours and aromas.
Historical records indicate the presence of a brewery in the Mosan region of Belgium as far back as 805 AD.
The brewery of the Abbey of Affligem, which is now under the ownership of the Heineken Group, was founded in 1074, making it one of the oldest breweries in Belgium. The brewery experienced significant growth in its early years, as beer was believed to protect against the spread of the plague.
Interestingly, beer was considered of higher quality then than water in Belgium. This was because the brewing process involved heating the water, effectively eliminating bacteria and making it safer to consume. Consequently, it was common for children and pregnant women to drink table beer with a lower alcohol content.
In the 13th Century, a brewery was established in Villiers-la-Ville, where monks had settled in 1146. Unfortunately, this brewery was destroyed during the Wars of Religion in the 16th Century, marking a significant setback in its history.
During the 14th Century, Belgium experienced economic growth, significantly expanding beer consumption beyond religious contexts. This shift can be attributed to various factors that facilitated the economic development of the brewing industry.
In their essay "Beer and Wine Drinking Nation," Eline Poelmans and Johan F.M. Swinnen provide a plausible explanation. They argue that increased purchasing power was crucial in establishing commercial breweries. Before this period, beer was primarily consumed within monasteries where it was freely available.
As purchasing power grew in the 14th Century, taverns (similar to pubs) emerged. The rise in trade and travel created new demands, including the need for accommodations and catering services, which further fueled the demand for beer.
Competition among breweries intensified during this time, resulting in an overall improvement in the quality of beer. Consumers were presented with choices, allowing them to select their preferred beer.
Regarding the use of hops, evidence suggests that German breweries had been incorporating them as early as the 800s. In Belgium, the widespread use of hops gained traction during the 14th and 15th centuries. Hops imparted a distinct flavour to beer and contributed to its improved preservation.
As an interesting anecdote, in 1364, Emperor Charles IV issued a decree mandating brewers to use hops. However, it is essential to note that this decree did not apply to present-day Belgium.
During the 14th Century, the formation of brewers' guilds began. It was in the brewers' best interest to establish these guilds, as it allowed them to professionalize their trade and negotiate with the authorities, particularly in matters related to tax increases.
The first guild was established in Bruges in 1308, followed by the city of Liège in 1357 and Brussels in 1365. These guilds provided a platform for brewers to collaborate, share knowledge, and collectively advocate for their interests.
As the demand for beer continued to grow, brewers prospered, accumulating wealth. In the 16th Century, they even acquired the House of the Golden Tree, an impressive building located on the main square of Brussels. The opulence of this house served as a testament to the prosperity and affluence of the brewers' guild during that era.
In 1515, the first tavern appeared in Flanders, providing brewers with dedicated spaces to distribute their beers. This further facilitated the development of drinking customs and preferences among beer enthusiasts.
For the brewers, the Renaissance marked a golden age characterized by success, advancements, and recognition of their craft.
While the brewing industry had experienced a prosperous period, the 18th Century posed challenges for Belgian breweries due to several significant factors. These factors contributed to a decline in the industry during this era.
The disappearance of the guilds
One of the immediate consequences of the French Revolution was the abolition of guilds. This directly impacted the brewers, as they lost the influential status and support they had previously enjoyed.
Destruction of breweries
Furthermore, the French Revolution destroyed numerous abbeys and monasteries, home to breweries. These establishments were severely affected, leading to a decline in brewing activities. It was only during Napoleon's time that some breweries could reestablish themselves.
The emergence of new competitors
In the 18th Century, we also witnessed the emergence of new beverage alternatives that posed competition to beer. Cocoa, for instance, gained popularity, and the first soft drinks appeared during this time. In 1767, the discovery of carbon dioxide enabled its incorporation into water, giving rise to carbonated beverages.
These three factors collectively contributed to a challenging period for Belgian breweries in the 18th Century. The loss of guilds, the destruction of brewing establishments, and the rise of new competing beverages posed significant obstacles to the brewing sector. However, the industry would eventually adapt and evolve to overcome these challenges in the years to come.
Scientific research conducted by a renowned scientist achieved significant progress for brewers. Louis Pasteur's fermentation investigations were pivotal in bringing about substantial scientific improvements for brewers during the 19th Century.
Publications on beer increased during this period. In 1851, the "Complete Treatise on Beer Making and Grain Distillation" publication marked a significant milestone. Before this book, brewing knowledge was primarily transmitted through the apprenticeship system, from master to apprentice.
Another significant development occurred in 1887 when the first brewing school was established at the Catholic University of Leuven. This institution provided a formal education for aspiring brewers, expanding the pool of trained professionals in the field.
Concurrently, advancements in bottling techniques contributed to improved beer preservation, enhancing the quality and shelf life of the beverage.
By the onset of the First World War, Belgium boasted around 3000 breweries. Some breweries had grown significantly, such as the Koelkeberg Brewery, founded in 1886 and specialized in producing pilsner-style beers.
Furthermore, even then, there was already a notable diversity in Belgian beers that still exists today. This diversity encompassed abbey beers, white beers, spontaneously fermented beers like Gueuze, and the popular pilsner-style beers of the era.
As in most European countries, the two world wars had terrible consequences for the Belgian brewing industry. In short, different figures depend on the website you visit, but it seems that the first world war reduced the number of breweries to about 2000 (vs 3000 before the war). The workforce was absent during the war because it was at the front. In addition, the world war logically damaged the brewing equipment because it was unused and maintained for several years. The copper vats were also requisitioned by industry to manufacture weapons. The Second World War reduced the breweries to less than 1000 (around 800). To conclude, the consequences of the two world wars were disastrous for the European brewing sector."
Fortunately, the period following the war witnessed a revival in beer consumption, coinciding with the renowned "thirty glorious years" of economic growth experienced across Europe. This era saw a surge in demand for beer, leading to the emergence of breweries that achieved recognition and catered to the age of mass consumption.
One notable development during this time was establishing of the well-known Leffe brand in 1954. This marked a significant shift as the focus shifted from individual beers or breweries to brand recognition and marketing.
Additionally, in 1966, the first white Hoegaarden beer was brewed, further contributing to the diversification of Belgian beer offerings.
The post-war period they brought renewed enthusiasm for beer consumption, leading to the rise of prominent brands and new beer styles, such as the white Hoegaarden and the establishment of Leffe as a notable beer brand.
During the 1950s, a significant shift occurred in the landscape of Belgian abbey breweries, instigated by Affligem Abbey. This fundamental change involved the brewing of Affligem beer by laymen rather than monks, marking a departure from the traditional practice.
As part of this transformation, the brewing operations of Affligem Abbey were relocated, and the brewing of the abbey's beers was entrusted to the De Hertog brewery. This collaboration between the abbey and the commercial brewery allowed for the continuation of the production of Affligem beer, albeit with a different set of individuals overseeing the brewing process.
This change in the brewing arrangement at Affligem Abbey marked a notable evolution in the history of Belgian abbey breweries, as it deviated from the long-standing tradition of monks directly engaging in brewing activities.
A significant turning point in the Belgian beer industry occurred in 1988. It was marked when the Artois Brewery, known for brewing the renowned Stella Artois beer, merged with the Piedboeuf Brewery. This merger established the Interbrew group, which later became part of the AB-InBev group, now recognized as the largest brewing group worldwide.
Simultaneously, the same year, the Belgian breweries Van Alken and Maes joined forces, forming the Alken-Maes group.
It is worth mentioning that the Artois Brewery has a long-standing history as one of Belgium's oldest breweries. It was initially founded by Sébastien Artois in 1708 in Leuven.
These developments in 1988 signified a significant consolidation of breweries in Belgium, leading to the creation of major brewery groups that have played a prominent role in the Belgian and global beer industry.
The inception of the first Belgian microbrewery can be traced back to 1979, when the Eloir brewery was established. Interestingly, this happened seven years before establishing the first microbrewery in France, the Coreff Brewery, in 1986.
Since then, the Belgian craft beer scene has witnessed the addition of numerous breweries. Notable mentions include the Brussels Beer Project, which opened a bar in Paris, and the Senne Brewery and En Stoemeling. For more detailed information on these breweries and others, please refer to our article in the Brussels beer guide.
These descriptions provide a glimpse into the diverse world of Belgian beers. Exploring different Belgian beer styles can be an enjoyable journey of discovering unique flavours and traditions. Remember to drink responsibly and savour the experience! You have now completed the maximum level of expertise about Belgian beers!
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