Belgian beer is probably the ideal introduction for anyone who wants to become a beer expert.
First of all, Belgian beer has a diversity that is rare in the world. From Trappist beers to sour beers any beer lover should find something to his liking.
Secondly, Belgian beer also has a history that has seen it through the ages.
Finally, Belgian beer is also particularly well distributed throughout the world. Indeed, it will be very easy to find Belgian beers after reading this guide.
In this article we will explain in details the history of belgian beers from the middle age to the apparition of micro-breweries in the last 20 years.
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The history of Belgian beer
The appearance of the first beers (the Middle Ages)
The origin of beer in Belgium is closely linked to the existence of abbeys and monastic communities. In fact, according to the rule of Saint-Benoit, which dates from the 6th century, abbeys have the duty to offer food and lodging to travellers.
At the time, Belgium had very little wine-growing land and it was therefore logical that the monks turned to beer production.
Moreover, it was Charlemagne who in the 9th century forced the abbeys to produce beer. This allowed the breweries to become more professional, notably creating the first written recipes.
At that time, breweries mainly brewed a type of beer called Gruit, which was not brewed with hops but with a mixture of aromatic herbs.
Traces of the first Belgian breweries
In the Mosan region of Belgium there are written records of a brewery in 805 AD.
As early as 1074, the brewery of the Abbey of Affligem, now owned by the Heineken Group, was established. The brewery developed particularly well in its early years, as beer was recommended as a protection against the plague.
Anecdote: At the time, beer was considered to be of better quality than water in Belgium. In fact, the production of beer required the water to be heated, which eliminated the bacteria.
It was therefore very common for children and pregnant women to drink a table beer with a low alcohol content.
In the 13th century a brewery was established in Villiers-la-Ville where monks first settled in 1146. Unfortunately, this brewery was destroyed in the 16th century during the Wars of Religion.
The development of demand and the first golden age of breweries (14th – 15th century)
From the 14th century onwards, Belgium experienced a period of economic prosperity. As a result, beer left the religious sphere and was consumed by more and more people.
But what happened to allow such an economic development?
In their essay “Beer and Wine Drinking Nation” Eline Poelmans and Johan F.M. Swinnen give a very plausible explanation.
According to them, it was above all the increase in purchasing power that made it possible to set up commercial breweries. Until then, beer was mainly drunk in monasteries because it was free!
This is why from the 14th century onwards, with the increase in purchasing power, the first taverns (equivalent to a pub) appeared. Indeed, with the increase in trade and travel, new needs emerged (accommodation, catering).
La concurrence et la généralisation du houblon dans la bière belge
In the 14th century, competition between breweries became stronger, which increased the overall quality of the product. Indeed, consumers finally had the choice to choose one beer over another.
As far as hops are concerned, there is evidence of German breweries using them as early as the 800s. In Belgium the use of hops became widespread around the 14th and 15th centuries.
In addition to giving a particular flavour to beer, hops also make it possible to obtain better conservation.
Anecdote: As early as 1364 Emperor Charles IV issued a decree obliging brewers to use hops. The decree was not, however, valid in the whole of present-day Belgium.
The creation of the first brewers’ guilds
The first brewers’ guilds were also founded in the 14th century. It was in fact in the brewers’ interest to form a guild in order to professionalise their trade but also to negotiate with the state in the event of a tax increase.
The first guild appeared in Bruges in 1308. The city of Liège followed in 1357, while Brussels was created in 1365.
With the development of demand, the brewers became richer and in the 16th century they bought the House of the Golden Tree located on the main square in Brussels. The beauty of the house was proof of the wealth of the brewers’ guild at the time.
In 1515 the first tavern appeared in Flanders. This gave brewers places to distribute their beers. It also developed drinking habits for the beer lovers of the time.
For the brewers, the Renaissance period was a golden age.
The French revolution and its consequences (18th century) on beer in Belgium
While breweries were enjoying a golden age, the 18th century was a more complicated period for Belgian breweries. There are 3 particular reasons for this decline.
The disappearance of the guilds
The first consequence of the French revolution was to ban the existence of guilds. The brewers therefore no longer had the same clout as they had before.
The destruction of some breweries
Secondly, the French Revolution also destroyed many abbeys and monasteries that were previously breweries.
It was not until the time of Napoleon that some breweries were redeveloped.
The appearance of new competitors to beer
Finally, the 18th century also saw the appearance of new competitors that would also harm the brewing sector. New beverages appeared in everyday life.
Cocoa, for example, but also the first soft drinks appeared at this time. In 1767, the existence of carbon dioxide was discovered and it was possible to add it to water.
A century of scientific improvement (19th century)
First of all, it was the research of a well-known scientist that led to major advances for brewers. Indeed, it was Louis Pasteur and his research on fermentation that led to major scientific advances for brewers.
The 19th century also saw the appearance of numerous publications on beer. In 1851 the Complete Treatise on Beer Making and Grain Distillation appeared. Before this book, brewing knowledge was only passed on from master to apprentice.
Then in 1887 the first brewing school was established at the Catholic University of Leuven. Once again, this enabled new people to train and become brewers.
At the same time, bottling techniques also progressed, making it possible to preserve beer better.
Finally, at the dawn of the First World War, Belgium has about 3000 breweries. Some breweries were already quite large, such as the Koelkeberg brewery, which was founded in 1886 and produced pilsner-type beers.
Moreover, there was already a certain diversity in Belgian beers which is still present today. There are abbey beers, white beers, spontaneously fermented beers such as gueuze and of course pilsner beers, which were already very fashionable at the time.
The impact of the two world wars on Belgian beer
As in most European countries, the two world wars had terrible consequences for the Belgian brewing industry.
In short, there are different figures depending 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 present at the front.
In addition, the brewing equipment was logically damaged by the world war because it was little used and maintained for several years. The copper vats were also requisitioned by industry to manufacture weapons.
The Second World War reduced the number of breweries to less than 1000 (around 800).
To conclude, the consequences of the two world wars were disastrous for the European brewing sector.
The post-war period and the concentration of breweries
The revival of Belgian beer consumption
Fortunately, the post-war period saw a revival in consumption. It was the time of the famous “thirty glorious years” and the whole of Europe experienced a boom. Some breweries made a name for themselves and approached the era of mass consumption.
In 1954, the well-known Leffe brand was created. As you will have noticed, this is a big change. We are talking less and less about beer or breweries and more and more about brands.
The first white Hoegaarden was also brewed in 1966.
The evolution of Belgian abbey breweries
A huge change took place in the 1950s and was initiated by Affligem Abbey. Affligem beer became the first abbey beer brewed by laymen and not by monks.
The Affligem monks relocated their brewing and the beers were brewed by the De Hertog brewery.
The concentration of breweries and the creation of large Belgian brewery groups
The year 1988 was a turning point for Belgian beer. The Artois brewery, which brews the famous Stella Artois, merged with the Piedboeuf brewery. This was the birth of the Interbrew group, which later became part of the AB-InBev group and the largest brewing group in the world.
In the same year, the Belgian breweries Van Alken and Maes merge to form the Alken-Maes group.
Anecdote: The Artois brewery is actually a very old Belgian brewery created by Sébastien Artois in 1708 in Leuven.
The apparition of Belgian microbreweries
The first Belgian microbrewery was created in 1979 with the Eloir brewery. This happened 7 years before the first French microbrewery (Coreff brewery in 1986).
Since then, many breweries have joined the Belgian craft beer scene. One thinks in particular of Brussels Beer Project (which opened a bar in Paris), the Senne brewery or En Stoemeling. More information in our article on the Brussels beer guide.
This is it ! You have know completed the maximum level of expertise about belgian beers !
Thank you for reading this article.
We will write an other article very soon about the best belgian beers and the best styles of Belgian beer. We will keep you posted!