The birth of a tradition

Belgium: a grain-growing region

Belgium’s geographical situation is the first factor explaining why we have become the land of beer. Brewing beer is a typical activity in countries with colder climates where the vine does not grow, but where maize or cereals are easily cultivated. The grape is a fragile fruit which requires lands which receive sunlight under very specific conditions, unlike barley, a more robust crop which can be grown over larger areas and tolerates temperate climates and moderate sunshine of the kind found in Belgium.

 

The legend of Bishop Arnold

It was an eleventh-century Flemish bishop, Arnold, who first advocated the drinking of beer. Legend has it that he turned tainted water into beer by plunging his bishop’s crook into it, thus saving the people from pestilence. It is certainly true that during this period people began to realise that drinking beer was better for their health because beer is boiled, leaving little chance for polluting bacteria and germs to flourish.

Charlemagne’s interest in beer – he advocated its use in an administrative document called the Capitulare de villis and granted a monopoly on its manufacture to the monks – also helped promote the art of brewing throughout Belgium.

 

Beer for all

The abbeys played an important role in the development of the production processes still used today. The rule of St Benedict stated that monks must produce their own food and drink. However, they might consume the local drink in moderation if the water was not safe. Thus, the monks could drink wine every day in Mediterranean countries, where they practised viticulture. In this part of the world, following various unsuccessful attempts to introduce vineyards, they turned to the cultivation of grains and chose beer as the regional drink.

In the 13th century, Count John I of Brabant authorised cities to grant licences for brewing and selling beer. The abbey had brewed exclusively for their monks, for pilgrims, and for the poor and the sick (selling their surplus production to cover the costs of maintaining their buildings), but the commercial breweries that now emerged produced beer on a large scale and turned it into a thriving business that developed over the centuries.

 

The ups and downs of the Belgian beer industry

The French Revolution dealt a fatal blow to the breweries run by monks. In 1799, the French Revolutionary armies invaded Belgium and put an end to Austrian rule. As the revolutionaries had no great fondness for the Catholic religion, they prohibited it. The monasteries were devastated, their property confiscated and their privileges abolished, and many monks fled.

With the age of free enterprise and the emerging capitalism of the 19th century, the brewing business developed rapidly in Belgium. Thanks to the industrial revolution and advances in scientific knowledge and technology, beers of higher quality could now be brewed in ever greater volumes.

In 1910, 3,349 farm breweries were officially counted in Belgium. For a population at that time of 7.5 million people, that represents one brewery for every 2,200 people!

 

Beer or guns

It was not until the two world wars that the growth of the Belgian brewing industry was really checked. The German army requisitioned the brewing equipment. The copper vats in particular were regarded as valuable prizes: they were melted down to make weapons. The effect on the breweries was catastrophic: their numbers fell from more than 3,000 in 1909 to 2,109 after the First World War and barely 700 after 1945.

 

The modern era

During the decades following 1945, more and more small breweries disappeared due to growing competition and the often high capital outlay required for new facilities.

During the 1970s, however, Belgium’s ‘distinctive’ beers received significant media coverage: the British beer guru Michael Jackson (the equivalent of Robert Parker for wine) introduced the public to the riches of Belgian beer in his television programmes and books.

The period from 1985 to 2000 was mainly characterised by a wave of consolidation in the Belgian brewing sector, followed by worldwide promotion and strong export growth.