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Belgium: Home of Abbey Ales, Lambic, Wit, & Diverse, Distinctive Ales

Whoever serves beer or wine watered down, he himself deserves in them to drown. - Medieval exhortation for pure beverages

Belgium is a unique beer-producing country where beer, culture, and religion coexist in greater harmony than any other place in the world. The history of beer in this flat, culturally divided part of Europe dates back more than two millennia. When Julius Caesar led his conquering Roman legions through the land of the Belgae in the first century b.c., he found that the natives were already producing a variety of simple beers. Brewing continued through the Middle Ages when self-sufficient monasteries established their own breweries. Six of these monastic breweries are still in operation in Belgium and Holland. In the 15th and 16th centuries, as part of the cultural empire of Burgundy, this corner of Europe spread brewing technology and tradition to the whole of northern Europe. Unsurprisingly, more than a few Belgian breweries can trace their foundation back further than 300 years. For example, Liefmans of Oudenaarde in East Flanders was founded in 1679.

A small country (about the size of Maryland), Belgium presents to the connoisseur a treasure trove of exotic ales. This range of flavors can send beer critics spiraling off into the wilder reaches of inflated winespeak in an effort to capture on paper the sheer complexity of Belgium’s finest beers. Such diversity is not achieved by German adherence to purity laws that proscribe any ingredients other than yeast, malted barley, water, and hops. In addition to these ingredients, such exotica as barley sugar, herbs, fruits, and spices are all part of an ancient Belgian brewing tradition that would make a Bavarian brewer run for his Reinheitsgebot parchment.

Fewer than 100 breweries are currently active in Belgium, compared to approximately 3,000 at the beginning of the 20th century. Industrialization, mergers, takeovers, and the post-World War II trend to pilsner-style beers have had their effects. Nonetheless, Belgium remains a country of strikingly diverse beer styles. It must be remembered that Belgium is a relatively modern contrivance of two principal cultures, Dutch-speaking Flemish to the north and French-speaking Walloons to the south. Flems and Walloons are a touch chauvinistic about drinking their own beers, a fact that only serves to enhance diversity.

The great monastic brewing tradition survives in six Trappist monasteries-five located in Belgium and one in Holland. In all, Trappist breweries produce about 15 labels. The Trappists are part of the Benedictine order of Catholic monks. European Union law has reserved the use of the words "Trappist Ale" only for these beers. This double trinity of holy beers, the Grand Cru Classés of the beer world, upholds the tradition of "nutritional" beverages whose original purpose was largely to nourish monks with "liquid bread." Modern-day monks continue this tradition. Brother Theodore, the octogenarian guiding figure behind the Chimay Trappist brewery, still takes a bottle of sustenance after morning prayer.

It may prove difficult tracking down many of these beers in the United States, especially outside large urban areas, although beers from Chimay are widely distributed.

From this select group of Trappist beers, a separate category of "abbey" beers has developed. These beers are brewed in commercial secular breweries. Some are produced under license and in accordance with original recipes from abbeys that have ceased their brewing operations. Others are fanciful creations, or named after local ruins. The law offers little guidance in the naming of abbey beers, or the printing of the actual brewer in an obvious manner on labels. This label proliferation is a source of minor frustration in correlating brands to actual breweries in Belgium.

Lambic beers are esoteric and quite distinctive in the world of brewing. They are rare, even in and around their home city of Brussels, where the local airborne wild yeasts allow this tart specialty style to spontaneously ferment. Modern tastes have veered away from tart, acidic flavors. A handful of producers persevere with the artisanal, slow, and inefficient methods that yield the most striking examples of geueze lambic beer. With negligible exceptions, lambic beer in Brussels and throughout Belgium has become synonymous with the Bellevue range from the giant Interbrew company. Although very drinkable, these beers have a rather mild lambic affectation. Short of a sharp upturn of interest in these beers in Belgium or abroad, artisanal lambics will not be truly known and appreciated outside a relatively small but devout group of enthusiasts. Do not hold back-a good selection of lambics may be found in the United States, albeit in small quantities.

Another noteworthy style of Belgian beer is wit (white) beer, a cloudy wheat ale spiced with coriander and orange peel. A classic example is Hoegaarden, which has resurfaced on the U.S. market. Despite its increasing sales volume domestically and abroad, it is tasting as good as ever. Interbrew’s considerable investment in the De Kluis brewery, founded by Pierre Celis (who later went on to found yet another wit brewery in Austin, Texas, of all places), is yielding beers worthy of the historic name of Hoegaarden, a town famous for its wit beers in centuries past. Hoegaarden and other Belgian wit beers should prove increasingly popular with U.S. beer consumers who have become accustomed to drinking cloudy wheat ales during summer months.

Despite its beer culture, Belgium has not proven to be an easy environment for young artisan brewers to start a new venture. Distribution is difficult to achieve without the acquiescence of the country’s dominant brewing conglomerates, who control distribution to bars and cafés in a subtle and not so subtle manner. Shining successes such as Brasserie d’Achouffe, founded in 1982, looked at the outset to the export market to build sales volumes for their strong, spicy ales. Sixty percent of their production is now exported, and other breweries are taking note and casting a hungry look at the difficult to penetrate, but rewarding, North American market.

From the U.S. consumers’ viewpoint, Belgian beers generally represent styles that the domestic craft-brewing industry has not yet addressed in a convincing manner, with a few notable exceptions. Strong Belgian Ales represent a step up the sophistication ladder and often are priced accordingly. They invite contemplative, less hurried drinking (if only because of the alcohol content), and can bridge the gap between the proletarian perception of beer and the more cerebral one of wine.

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