by Jan Machiel van Bragt Recognized connoisseur and co-author of De Biericonen der Lage Landen (Beer Icons of the Lowlands)
Belgium: Beer country What makes Belgian beer culture so special?
Which country can boast about their age-old brewing traditions, where all fermentation processes are used and where the beer culture has been declared world heritage? There can only be one: Belgium.
The Belgian brewing tradition dates back to the Middle Ages, when every profession had its own guild and its own guildhall. In 1385, the Belgian Brewers guild was recognized. Many buildings on the Grote Markt (also known as the Grand Place) in Brussels are named after these guilds. However, it is only the beautiful building in Baroque style at number 10 that still functions as such.
UNESCO world heritage
The historical, social, cultural and economic position beer has gained in Belgium since the Middle Ages is strong. It’s no wonder Belgium is called “the country of beer”:
- There are more than 250 authentic breweries and more than 150 beer companies. Together they bring 2000 original beers to the market.
- Belgian beer is an important export product. Approximately 65% of production goes abroad, in particular to France, United States of America, China and the Netherlands.
- A typical Belgian takes every opportunity to enjoy their favourite beer. Preferably poured into a nice, matching glass. In Belgium, pouring beer is almost an art form in itself.
- There are different professional and higher education courses on beer on offer in Belgium, such as brewer or zythologist (beer connoisseur). Beer and tap courses can be found in both halves of the country, and in restaurants there is a growing trend towards pairing food with beer.
- Discovering new beers goes hand-in-hand with the special attention that is paid to beer tastings. Many local beer clubs regularly organise these. There are also several beer museums in Belgium that are definitely worth paying a visit.
This is why UNESCO has added Belgian beer culture to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This international recognition of Belgian beer culture places it together with the likes of, for example, Argentinian Tango, Spanish Flamenco and Brazilian Samba.
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The trump in hand
It is only in Belgium that you will find the original four different fermentation processes in use:
- Warm fermented beers, whereby the fermentation process occurs at higher temperatures (up to 25 degrees celsius) and the yeast forms a blanket over the beer.
- Cool fermentation, which happens at lower temperatures (5 to 12 degrees celsius) and the yeast drops to the bottom of the yeast tub.
- Spontaneous, or wild fermentation, whereby the hot lambic wort is cooled in the attic of the brewery for a night. After which it is exposed to the wild yeast in the Brussels air.
- Last but not least there’s mixed fermentation, whereby warm fermented beers are mixed with wild fermented beers, produced with the addition of either lactic acid yeast or wild yeast.
Creativity and innovation
In addition to the more traditional breweries, more and more new breweries are opening. They enjoy experimenting and consciously brew something different to just another dubbel or tripel. They contribute in particular to the sour or bitter segment. These developments are characterised mainly by the use of new raw materials such as unusual varieties of hops, wood aging and atypical ingredients (e.g. elderflower, myrtle, rhubarb, plums, coffee, ginger, yuzu or sea salt). They are looking to give a new twist - or the middle finger - to existing styles.
Awareness, responsibility and promotion
Belgian Brewers, an association which almost all breweries are affiliated to, also fulfills a role with regards to social responsibility. Since 1992, the association has developed a campaign with the slogan ‘Beer brewed with love is drank responsibly’. The purpose of the campaign is to raise awareness about alcohol consumption. They are also partners in the convenant against alcohol abuse and support the Designated Driver campaign to prevent drink-driving on the roads.
It recently launched a new campaign: “Proud of our Beer”. The campaign´s aim is to promote all facets of Belgian beer culture, which has been protected by UNESCO. According to this campaign, Belgian beer is one of the things that connects the people of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. A sincere expression of Belgium´s pride: beer.