Belgium is, quite rightly, renowned for its beer. In fact, Belgium is renowned for many things - it’s the underappreciated gem of Europe if you’re into your food and drink, but that’s not for this article. This article is about beer!
Way back in the day, beer was pretty much a staple of a person’s liquid intake as water was usually quite unsanitary and Belgium – like everywhere else – made lots of beer. Its production evolved over the generations and then religion got involved. Just as Chartreuse was (and still is) made by french monks and whiskey was invented by Irish monks, in Belgium the monks took over much of the production.
It makes sense: monasteries usually had lots of land to grow the ingredients, large buildings to do the technical bits and a team of ready-made workers to make it happen. They also had long evenings to get through – but that’s just speculation…
Anyway – there are two types of well-known (religious) Belgian beer: Trappist and Abbey. The former is only brewed in Trappist monasteries (Trappist monks – and nuns – are a Catholic order of cloistered monastics) and the latter is any monastic or monastic-style beer.
There are fourteen Trappist monasteries that brew beer and are recognised by the International Trappist Association. Six are in Belgium, the rest are spread across Europe and there’s one in the USA. (There’s one in the UK, in Coalville, Leicestershire). The beer cannot be produced as a means of making profit (all proceeds must go back into the monastery and to charity) nor can it be the main purpose of the monastery which must be religious observance.
The six Trappist producing monasteries are Westmalle, Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westvleteren and Achel. Westvleteren has been voted the best beer in the world on several occasions. The monks themselves claim that drinking a pint connects you directly with God and you should immediately start your prayers once you’ve drunk it. Howzabout that for a recommendation?
Westvleteren 12 is the most famous and if you can get hold of some you’re in for a treat. It’s a deep burgundy colour but is clear and has a complex taste: dark fruit, caramel, raisins, malt – it’s even slightly leathery. And never get caught drinking it out of anything other than a Westvleteren glass. You can only buy it in bottles and you have to order them by calling the monastery. You can, apparently, find some specialist bars in Belgium that will sell you a bottle ‘under-the-counter’ but we can’t tell you where they are!
Belgium takes its beer seriously, appreciating the craft and weaving it right in to the country’s café culture.
Fruit beer is very popular in Belgium and the naturally-occuring yeast in the region lends itself to a fruitier (rather than hoppy) taste. Sour beer is also very popular and although an acquired taste it worth a try. A Flanders Red Ale is probably a good place to start.
Lambic beer is brewed in and around Brussels and is fermented using wild native yeasts in the air – these create a slightly sour taste. Kriek cherry beer is probably the best-known Lambic beer in the UK and is typical of the real difference Belgian beer offers.
Another reason Belgian beer is so well-known is that some brands – Stella being a prime example – are really very good at marketing! Stella isn’t typical of the variety and craft that you’ll see in Belgium, but is typical of just how seriously they take it.
Although very different to the ale that we – and many other craft breweries – create here in the UK, we cannot help but salute – and draw inspiration from – Belgium’s pure dedication to ale.