The History of Belgian Beer

25 August 2019

To the origins of beer

Beer is an old story. Recent research has determined the presence of the "first beer" (fermented cereal base) on the site of Raqefet (Israel), in the 13th millennium BC.

The production and consumption of beer has extended well beyond, in space and time; its trade is documented since the 4th millennium BC, thanks to the cylinder seals in Mesopotamia. The documents (iconographic, written) that have come down to us attest that the brewing was a domestic activity, and therefore dedicated to women. It will be so in many civilizations (Egypt, Gaul ...), for several centuries. It is still a domestic and female activity in some countries today.


Beer, spiritual drink

Let's jump back in time and come back to Belgium.
In the 9th century, Charlemagne promoted the development of beer in the abbey by ordering that each monastery have a brewery, in line with the rule of Saint-Benoit (6th century ) and the self-sufficiency of the monks.

The first corporations are born, and the technical advances with them. The recipes are written, the proportions are precise. This is how beer, produced in abbeys, develops.

From the middle of the 14th century , the use of hops in beer began to spread from Flanders, and to supplement and/or supplant that of the plants mixture previously used (gruit). Indeed, the "discovery" of the antiseptic virtues of beer is attributed to Hildegarde of Bingen in the 12th century - she actually makes mention of it in one of her works, Physica Sacra. The most accurate would be to say that she is the author of the earliest written source mentioning the use of hops in beer (and other beverages).

Belgium is a country that has experienced many foreign occupations, and these occupations have greatly affected the production of beer.
While in 1600 the production of Belgian beer is dynamic and no longer reserved only for monks, the situation tends to deteriorate from the 18th century . During the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, the monasteries are forced to close their doors. The knowledge gained on beer is no longer transmitted, and the tradition is lost. It will be so until the beginning of the 20th century , even if some monasteries reopened between 1830 and 1840. A fairly exhaustive inventory of Belgian beer is given by Georges Lacambre in his Complete Treaty of Beer Making in 1851; he highlights in particular the diversity of styles and tastes of beers specific to Belgium. The particularity of Belgian production is also due to the diversity of cereals used, which are not limited to barley. Oats and wheat are regularly added to the recipe.

Another later written source, dating back to 1895, referes to more of a poor quality beer market; the breweries, small and poorly equipped, brewed weak and light beers, with an acid tendency, sold directly to the locals. At the beginning of the 20th century , beers imported from England, Scotland and Germany dominated the Belgian market at unbeatable prices.

Despite the hardships of the First World War, Belgian breweries are recovering in the 1920s, improving their products and concentrating on exporting their beers. While old historical styles survive (witbiers, lambics), many disappear and make way for new types of beer.
It is actually at this moment that most of the styles we know today are created: Belgian pale ale, Triple, Season ... Trappist beer is no exception. Even if it is brewed since the 19th century , it is during the Interwar period that it becomes more precise and generalized. 

We have the tendency to believe that these beers (Trappist, or abbey) are secular and of an ancient tradition; but the beer drunk by the monks and pilgrims in the Middle Ages probably was not much like today's abbey beer, and was more like the lambics - safe and spontaneously fermented beers. Wheat beer also has its roots in the Middle Ages, but was probably a little more funky than the witbier we consume today.

The lambics: witnesses of the tradition

Lambic is a Brussels style, recognized by all beer lovers for its complexity. Its manufacturing method is perhaps the closest to the historical method.

Some authors, including for example Marcel Franssens in Le Lambic, a living historical witness, make a connection between today's actual Lambic recipe and that adopted in the 16th century , which we have traced in the accounts of the city of Halle: high percentage of wheat, absence of hop taste, spontaneous fermentation, seasonal brewing and the use of wooden barrels.

Until the end of the 19th century , it was accepted that wild yeasts peculiar to the fermentation of lambic were found only in the Senne valley; this is how we still find lambic breweries in this area today. This idea has since been widely questioned since the beginning of the 20th century ; the fact remains that this region, the Senne valley, remains the cradle of lambic.

In short, Belgium has seen the birth of many styles, where beer and craftsmanship often went hand in hand; the brewer was an artist, dependent on nature (as the lambic producers are still), without any obligation to conform to a pre-existing style. All this combined with the diversity of foreign occupations suffered by Belgium has certainly contributed to the great plurality of beer today.

There is an immense palette in terms of colors, brewing methods, yeasts and other microorganisms, malted cereals or not, use of spices, fruits. Belgium, unlike Germany, has never been subject to a "purity law" for beer; it is for this reason that we still find, in certain styles, a freedom of use of spices and herbs other than hops (like coriander and bitter orange peel, the winning duo) . Added to all this culture is that of cooking with beer - what would Belgium be  without the carbonade?





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