There was a time when I did not enjoy beer. My father gave me a taste of a Budweiser when I was ten, and I thought it tasted like watery carbonated alcohol. I wrote this off to inexperience. Eight or so years later, I got my second tasting and it was exactly the same. As the other beers around the house smelled similar (Miller, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Labatts), I just figured beer was one of those food and beverages not amenable to my taste buds. Like liver or durians.
Hey, you can't like everything!
I can pinpoint the exact time I realized I got that wrong. I was strolling through Paris as a twenty-one year old college student and came across a Belgian beer bar. For someone who knew next to nothing about beer, I found it out of the ordinary to see a bar fully dedicated to the beers of neighboring country. I have never ever seen a Canadian beer bar in the United States or a Vietnamese beer bar in Thailand. It was enough of an oddity to get me to walk in and give beer one more try for the helluva it. I ordered a Belgian wheat. The taste was richer, fuller, and more complex than the Budweiser samples I'd tasted heretofore. I was inspired enough to order a second, a kriek, a cherry beer. And I kept on ordering right back in the USA, now extremely selective with whatever I bought.
Apparently, my newfound lesson about the superiority of Belgian beers was a realization Europeans had come to centuries ago.
Brewing in Belgium goes back to at least the twelfth century, possibly before. Flemish abbeys were given the blessing of the Catholic church to brew beer in order to raise funds. Beer at that time was a lot like the apple ciders distilled by the early American settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, brewed at low alcohol levels as a way to ingest liquids in sanitary fashion.
Artisanal brewing methods were honed in the many centuries thereafter. Trappist monasteries got into the act in the late eighteenth century, originally to brew beer just for themselves. Trappist beer became so popular and widely aped by non-Trappist poseurs that the International Trappist Association finally stepped in to define, legally, what was required for a beer to be stamped with a Trappist beer certification. Just two years later, the Union of Belgian Brewers introduced a Belgian Abbey Beer certification as well.
Crabbelaer, an aromatic blond beer, was Ghent's most popular beer in the 16th and 17th centuries, once produced by more than 50 breweries. Ghent had other popular styles, like klein, clauwaerts, and dusselaers; and other areas of the country produced types, such as arge, faro, grisette, and red beer that no one but an obscure microbrewery might produce today. These archaic styles have given way to other popular types now even produced by breweries outside Belgium: amber ales, blondes, browns, champagne beers, dubbels, tripels, Belgian wheats, Flemish reds, lambics, Flemish sour ales, scotch ales, and saisons.
Considering Belgian's population, the diversity of locally made product is astounding. With just over 11m people, there are over 180 breweries and 1,150 original beers. Belgium produces the second highest amount of beer per capita in the world (165 liters), just after the Czech Republic and about 40% more than Germany.
But an interesting factoid separates Belgium from the other high per capita producers. Other bigwig producers are, nearly all of the time, also high per capita consumers. Whereas Germany and the Czech Republic consume slightly less per capita (10%) than what they produce, Belgium does not even consume half of its per capita production. 60% of Belgian beer is exported. The country only ranks #18 on a consumption scale per capita. In this respect, the Belgians seem to be a lot like the French with their food: gourmet produce but consumed in small portions.
The Belgian government and tourism offices are only too happy to promote that perception of the country's beer scene to outsiders. "Beer is more than just a frothy beverage, it is a culture," insists VisitBelgium.com, describing Belgium as "a food lover's dream … a beer lover's heaven." That it may be, but beer - macrobeer -- is also big, BIG business here. Anheuser-Busch InBev became the world's largest brewer in spurts. You could say the first growth spurt occurred in 1987 when the two largest Belgian brewers, Artois and Piedboeuf, joined hands. InBev owns "craft" brands like Hoegaarden and Leffe, the latter actually being marketed as an abbey beer. Royalties are still paid to the Leffe abbey which first worked out a commercial licensing deal with a bigger producer in 1952.
The truth is that the term "craft beer" doesn't really mean in Belgium what it means everywhere else. Craft beer emerged as a term to distinguish beers made from old fashioned artisanal methods from beers made by cost-cutting massive commercial brewers. In Belgium, where artisanal brewing has always been present and valued, the difference in beer is more one of a scale: is the brewery part of an international conglomerate that can provide global distribution or is it a smaller private concern? With Belgium's esteemed reputation, a smaller brewery can still find huge global demand and distribution for its beers. The famous Trappist Chimay brewery only produces 123,000 hectoliters annually and yet remains famous worldwide. Orval, another Trappist brewery but with an output about a third of Chimay's, also enjoys international success.
It isn't stretching the truth to say that the first American and British craft brewers picked up many, if not the majority, of their new brewing ideas by looking to Belgium for inspiration. Near extinct or little known styles internationally, like lambics or blondes, were rejiggered with local ingredients to create new craft beer brand signatures. Hoegaarden on its own popularized the Belgian wheat style globally to the stage that now most craft brewers offer a Belgian wheat variety as a standard.
Belgium may be a land of stodgy European Union bureaucrats on fancy expense accounts. And having overpaid humorless European politicos around is always easier to stomach when there are ample kegs of high quality beer around to squirt them with.