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Why all these Belgian beers?
We have already touched on this question. Belgium has countless different types of beer. There are beer styles specific to every region and province, if not every town or valley.
For centuries, Belgium was Europe’s battlefield. We have been invaded and occupied by the Burgundians, the Austrians, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Prussians and the French (several times!). Though forced to submit to the rule of the invaders, the Belgians resisted all foreign authority. In order to survive, they turned inwards, keeping their best assets – such as their brewing arts – to themselves, and never giving in to threats.
It is this ‘Belgian resistance’ which explains how it is that over time, every city and region of Belgium has jealously guarded and maintained its best brewing recipes.
The Belgian mosaic
The Belgians have also sometimes drawn inspiration from (as opposed to being influenced by) their unwelcome visitors, and this has helped to enrich the brewing methods they have used.
For Belgium was not built in a day. You merely have to look at a map of the Belgian region over the centuries to see how our land consisted of a varied mosaic of territories. For example, in the late 18th century, shortly before the French Revolutionary armies invaded us, Belgium was largely Austrian-dominated, with some Dutch enclaves in the north, French ones in the south-west, and Prussian ones in the west; and the whole area was dotted with independent territories such as the cities of Liège, Spa and Malmedy and the region of Bouillon ! This patchwork of regions meant that Belgians drew inspiration and enrichment from many cultures and traditions. As a people, the Belgians have been open to the outside world for a long time.
The imposition of hops
The first brewers of the Middle Ages attempted to improve the insipid taste of their ale by adding a blend of herbs called gruit which they obtained from specialist herbalists. In 1364, however, Emperor Charles IV of Germany put an end to this practice. Henceforth, all beer was to be brewed with hops.
Fast-forward two centuries to 1516, and snap! Duke William IV, the Elector of Bavaria, issued the ‘Decree on the purity of beer’, which likewise imposed the use of hops and prohibited the use of herbs and spices in the brewing of beer. It just so happened that Bavaria was a very big producer of hops…
In the Duchy of Brabant, which was part of the Holy Roman Empire, the use of herbs and spices in beer disappeared. However, as we have seen, the Belgian patchwork of the time meant that, fortunately, many breweries were located in lands not subject to the German decree. They were therefore able to continue freely with the use of herbs and spices to flavour their brews.
Despite these vicissitudes, no country has remained as faithful to the use of herbs, spices and fruit in beer brewing as Belgium, and without a doubt this constitutes one of the glories of Belgian beers today.