Burgers and Beer

The History of Beer in Belgium

Beer is one of the popular alcoholic beverages in Belgium and comes in several types.  It has shaped the country’s economic, social, and cultural viability. Beer has been so embedded in the everyday lives of the Belgians and their culture that UNESCO has inscribed Belgian beer on the “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list.

Early history

Beer is the third widely-consumed beverage in Belgium, next to water and tea. Although the first beer in Belgium sold was recorded during the 19th century, beer-making in Belgium started way back as early as the 12th century.

Under the Catholic Church’s permission, French and Flemish monks began to brew and distribute beer as a way to raise money for their abbeys. The beer they made had low alcohol content and was preferred to the available drinking water for sanitary reasons. Their traditional and artisanal brewing methods slowly evolved into what they are now.

Although monks may have already been selling beers to raise funds, the first recorded sale of beer (brown beer, specifically) was on June 1, 1861.

Trappist beers

The Trappist monasteries in Belgium were occupied by monks who escaped the French Revolution (1789-1799). But it wasn’t until 1836 when the Trappist brewery in the village of Westmalle started their production. The monks made alcoholic beverages exclusively for their consumption and described their brew as “dark and sweet.”

Trappist breweries impose specific rules that will qualify a beverage as a Trappist beer:

  • The beer must be made by a Trappist monastery;
  • The monks should take part in the beer production;
  • The profits from the sales of beer should fund the monastery or any other social activities or programs outside of it.

Currently, there are only fourteen monasteries in the world that produce Trappist beers, as officially recognized by the International Trappist Association. Six of these monasteries are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, England, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States.

Abbey beers

Abbey beers, on the other hand, are defined as alcoholic beverages brewed in monasteries which are not Trappist. After the International Trappist Association introduced the official Trappist beer designation in 1997, the word “Abbey” came to define as any monastic beer. However, Abbey beers may be described as any of the following:

  • Not produced by a Trappist monastery (e.g., Benedictine, Cisterian, etc.);
  • Produced by a local brewery under an arrangement with an existing monastery;
  • Branded with a label of a non-existent or “made-up” abbey by a commercial brewer;
  • Given a dubious and vague monastic branding, without a specific mention of a monastery, by a commercial brewer.

The Union of Belgian Brewers introduced a “Certified Belgian Abbey Beer” in 1999 to demonstrate that the beers were brewed under license to either an existing or defunct abbey. This designation was made in opposition to abbey-branded beers, in which the trade markets used religion-based allusions, such as a local saint.

Beers produced in Ghent

Crabbelaer is one of the oldest types of beer in Belgium. During the 16th to 17th centuries, it became quite popular in Ghent. In the first half of the 16th century alone, Crabbelaer became the best-selling beer in the country, amounting to 40,000 tons sold per year. It was only in 2014 when Crabbelaer was brought back to the market by “De 6 Helmen Brewery,” a local brewery in Ghent. The current Crabbelaer beer is slightly cloudy, similar to Saison (a beer produced in the province of Hainaut, in Wallonia region), with an ABV of 7.5%.

Other types of beer produced in Ghent include dubble bier, clauwaert, dubbele clauwaert, klein bier, and dusselaer.

Types of beer in Belgium

If you are a certified beer connoisseur (and yes, there is such a thing as “beer sommelier”), Belgium is one of the places you should not miss. There are over 200 active breweries in the country that range from the big international companies (such as AB InBev) to traditional monastic breweries.

The following lists the most popular beers brewed in Belgium

  • Pils or pale lager –  it is the most widely produced and consumed beer in Belgium..
  • Bock – it is a strong lager of German origin. It is also a typical beer in the Netherlands.
  • White or wheat beer – it is originated from the Flemish section during the Middle Ages. Traditionally, it was made of wheat, barley, and gruit (before hops were introduced).
  • Blonde or golden ale – the lighter version of pale ale, usually with pilsner malt.
  • Lambic – a beer produced from wheat. It is brewed in the Pajottenland region, southwest of the capital Brussels. It is also brewed in Brussels itself.
  • Amber ales – this is similar to the traditional English ales, only less bitterly hopped.
  • Tripel – it is a strong pale ale brewed in the style of Westmalle Tripel.
  • Dubbel – the name “dubbel” (“double”) refers to any classic brown beer brewed by the Trappist and Abbey monasteries.
  • Flemish Red – it is also known as Flanders red ale or Flemish red-brown, a type of sour ale brewed in West Flanders.
  • Oud bruin – also known as Flemish sour brown ale, it originated in the Flemish region of Belgium. It is stored and aged in wooden casks.
  • Hop-accentuated beers and India Pale Ale – they are strongly-hopped beers.
  • Scotch ales – originated in Britain, Scotch ales are characterized by their heavy body and sweet flavor.
  • Stout – there are many varieties of stouts in Belgium, including sweeter and drier ones, as well as stronger and weaker variants.
  • Champagne beers – champagne-style beers start with a Belgian ale base and finish with “à la méthode originale” for champagne. Like true champagnes, champagne-style beers undergo a second fermentation, then are stored for several months. It causes them to form small and soft bubbles that we see in true champagne, yet the flavor is still that of a real beer.
  • Quadrupel – it is a strong seasonal beer whose ABV ranges from 9.1% to 14.2%. In Belgium, it is more known as “Grand Cru.”
  • Saison – they are refreshing low-alcohol seasonal pale ales, brewed at farmhouses in the French-speaking region of Wallonia, traditionally served as a refreshment to the farmers during the harvest season. “Saison” means “season” in French.
  • Winter or Christmas beers – these beers are drunk during the month of December. They are usually strong and flavored with spice.
  • Fruit beers – beers added with fruit juice or fruit aroma as an adjunct or flavoring. Traditionally, stone fruits such as cherries and peaches are added. However, other different types of fruit, such as strawberries and bananas, are also incorporated.

The Belgian beer glassware

What makes Belgian beer culture unique and noteworthy compared to that of other countries is the use of glassware.

Most Belgians prefer to drink their beers from the bottle, instead of cans. But when you go to any local pub in Belgium, you may notice that only bottled and special beers are served along with elaborately-designed glasses.

The tulip-shaped glass is probably the most popular. The shape is not only for aesthetic reasons; it also helps to give the beer a distinctive aroma by trapping it inside. The tulip glass also helps in maintaining the beer’s frothy head.

The champagne flute is also popular. Lambic and fruit beers are usually served in this type of glass. The narrow shape of the flute maintains the beer’s carbonation while giving it a strong aromatic whiff.

On the other hand, Trappist and Abbey beers are served in either goblets or chalices, which are large, bowl-shaped and stemmed glasses. The difference between a chalice and a goblet is usually the thickness. Chalices tend to be heavier and thick-walled, while goblets are usually thin-walled and delicate.

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