Belgium is home to some of the world’s best and most awarded beers. This year, for the first time, Belgian Beer Week is officially celebrated in the United States July 14-21, culminating on Belgium National Day, known as Feestdag, or party day. It commemorates the date that Belgium’s first king, Leopold I, took an oath of allegiance to the Belgian constitution in 1831.
During the week, which is a joint effort among Belgian beer importers including Artisanal Imports, D&V International, Global Beer, Merchant du Vin, and the breweries they represent, beer aficionados are encouraged to try Belgian beers and discover the pleasurable results from hundreds of years of beer brewing.
Though wine was the beverage of choice for the Romans who controlled much of Europe, beer was still popular with commoners. Because grape cultivation was difficult in the northern territory where modern-day Belgium is, beer made from grains that grew readily in the colder climes took hold as early as the third century.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Catholic church took control of the continent and, as monks were already making beer for themselves, monasteries became hubs of brewing knowledge, known for the superior beers. Outside monasteries, village brewers flavored quaffs with a mixture of herbs and spices known as gruit, which lacked hops’ preservative qualities. As monasteries were exempt from the rule requiring brewers to purchase gruit from “gruithuis” (gruit house), they began adding hops to beers, to extend its shelf life. The flower of the hops vine became so popular as an ingredient in beer, in 1364 Emperor Charles IV decreed all beer brewed in the Holy Roman Empire and the German Nation must contain hops.
The Flanders region of Belgium appealed and was permitted to continue using gruit. Consequently, there is a marked difference in the beer styles that developed in the relatively small region. Flanders brewers acidified beers, making them sour, while in Walloon, the other region of Belgium, hopped beers developed.
Within Belgium there are many styles, but the ones that stand out the most include saisons or farmhouse ales, Trappist ales and sours.
Saisons were originally brewed by Walloon farmers during the colder months for field and farm workers to drink in the summer. Because drinkable water was scarce, workers essentially survived on low-alcohol farmhouse ales during growing and harvesting. Though each farm had its own recipe, most saisons contained a healthy dose of hops and a handful of spices for flavoring.
Trappist ales are produced by monks and are often stronger and sweeter than other Belgian beers. Some of the country’s most famous beer brands, such as Duvel, Chimay and the elusive Westvleteren XII, are brewed exclusively in monasteries.
Sours are often produced using a process called spontaneous inoculation. Brewers like Cantillon don’t add yeast during the process, instead allowing wild yeast to infiltrate the wort to start fermentation. Other sour beers, including those by Rodenbach, are made by barrel-aging the wort, then allowing yeasts within the wooden barrels to start fermentation–or by adding fruit after a primary fermentation.
This weekend, raise a glass of your favorite Belgian and toast some of the best brews on the planet.