The world of Belgian beer offers those interested in learning more about the beverage a wide array of styles to choose from. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of it, though, is the rich history beer has in Belgium. Since then, a few select breweries have stuck to the original standards of production while others have expanded and transformed the drink to appeal to other tastes. Learning about the history of Belgian beer will make trying these selections much more interesting for you.
The Beginnings of Beer in Belgium
Small businesses didn’t produce the first beers in Belgium. Instead, they were recipes created by monks who wanted to make a special drink to provide to guests of their abbeys. Belgium didn’t have land that worked well for growing grapes and producing wine, so instead, the monks turned to beer. For several centuries, laws were enacted that required monasteries to make beer, and that helped the production facilities become more professional.
At the same time, another condition in Belgium helped propel beer’s popularity: water wasn’t very safe to drink. Drinking water was filled with bacteria. The beer-making process purified the water. If you had visited Belgium during this time, you would likely have seen children and pregnant women all consuming beer–in moderation, of course.
The popularity of beer continued to grow, and brewers expanded their recipes to produce a variety of beverages for consumers to choose from. Unfortunately, the French Revolution put a damper on beer production. Brewery guilds were deemed illegal, and war efforts destroyed many monasteries and the beer-making facilities they contained. Yet, the history of Belgian beer didn’t come to an end. Instead, as the war concluded, the facilities recovered and were rebuilt.
In 1967, the first of many scientific discoveries that would improve beer was made. Brewers learned about carbonation and how it could be added to a liquid. That discovery would change the flavor and mouthfeel of beer forever. Soon after that, preservation methods in bottling were developed. Now beer could be bottled, stored, and shipped easily for distribution.
Before World War I, there were about 3,000 breweries in Belgium. Again, wars took quite a chunk out of production. By the end of World War I, the number of breweries dropped to about 2,000. By the end of World War II, the number had fallen to 1,000. There weren’t enough employees available to operate the facilities, and that caused the equipment to deteriorate. The materials used to make the fermentation vats were also needed to make them into weapons. Once the wars ended, beer drinking came back into popularity, and production rose to meet demand.
A significant change happened in 1950. Affligem Abbey became the first brewery to contract with laymen to produce their beverages instead of monks. The facilities were relocated, and their beer was produced by the De Hertog brewery. From this point forward, there would be a split between truly traditionally produced beer and those using alternative methods.
Modern Beer Production in Belgium
There are many types of Belgian beers, but the two most popular traditional styles are Trappist beers and Abbey beers.
Trappist beers adhere to the original standards of production used by monks centuries ago. In order to be named a “Trappist” beer, the facility must be certified to meet these standards:
- The brewery must be a monastery, and monks must play a role in its production.
- Profits from the sale of beer must be used to support the monastery or other social programs outside of it.
Currently, only ten facilities meet these qualifications. Six are in Belgium, two are in the Netherlands, one is in Austria, and one is in the United States. Spencer Brewery near Boston is the only Trappist brewery outside of Europe.
Abbey beers are similar to Trappist beers, but for one or more reasons do not meet the certification criteria to be a Trappist beer. The recipes and production styles are similar.
Today, brewers have expanded on the classic Belgian beer style to create more variety for consumers. There are several styles of Belgian beer to choose from to fit your tastes. You’ll likely see one of these listed as a dubbel, tripel, or quadruple.
Dubbels are twice as strong as classic Belgian beer, which makes their alcohol content higher, too. These beers have a deep, rich flavor thanks to the candi sugar used in the recipes. There is less focus on hops, so they will be less bitter and rely on malt and yeast to develop their flavors.
Tripels have more malt yet. The alcohol content is higher, and the flavors tend to be spicy, sweet, fruity, or citrusy.
As you might expect, quadrupels have four times as many malts as a classic Belgian beer. These beers are very high in alcohol and have a spicy yeast profile. Consumers describe these beers as tasting of dark fruit, molasses, and peppery spice.
An excellent place to start exploring Belgian beers is with a Belgian dark ale. They are characterized by having a higher alcohol content, medium body, and spicy flavor.
Discover new beers at The Growler Guys.
If you found the history of Belgian beer interesting, we have even more in store for you at our taphouse locations. Explore the growing variety of beers in one taproom, The Growler Guys. Each location carries the best local varieties, from the palest ales to the darkest stouts, along with ciders and kombucha. Our friendly staff is happy to walk you through the characteristics of every style to help you discover your personal favorites. Take home the beers you love best in a growler to share with family and friends. View our online tap list to learn about the available selections at a location near you.