Beer is an important part of life in Belgium. While its popularity may have fallen in recent years, they still brew 18 million hectolitres per year, about 1% of production in the world. While that may not sound like a huge amount, Belgium isn’t a huge country, with only 11 million inhabitants, and this is about ten times its ‘demographic weight’ – a lot more beer per person than you might expect when comparing them to other countries. They may export 11 million hectolitres, more than 60% of their production, but that still leaves 64 litres of beer each per year, an impressive amount – 2 pints of beer a week for every person in the country, even more than we drink in the UK.
Brewing traditions in Belgium go back to at least the 12th century, when abbeys across the country became known for brewing beer, mainly as an everyday drink for the monks. This utilitarian approach is a common theme, with farmhouse brewers appearing along with the religious orders, producing beer to feed workers and use up leftover crops.
In both cases, as ease of transport increased, and with it commerce, beer became a commodity. Initially, farmers would brew more than they needed and sell it to nearby farms who didn’t have enough beer, but over time specialist brewers began to appear. With minimal refrigeration available, the beers of the time didn’t generally last all that long and didn’t move too far from their source – they were very much associated with their place of production, and every town had a style of its own.
While Belgium is well-known for its spontaneously fermented beers – with naturally occurring yeasts from the air and brewing vessels doing the work – many brewers used yeast cultures. Yeast wasn’t available on industrial scales until the late 18th century, but regional brewers passed around buckets of yeast, with each region’s distinct strains becoming more distinct over time as they bred. However, with an understanding of yeast and increasingly easy long-distance transport during the 19th century, the different strains, knowledge of brewing techniques and regional styles spread around the country. But that mobility came with a cost – from a high of about 2600 in the 1800s, the number of brewers fell to 1000 by the early 1900s, and continued to drop through the first half of the 20th century.
As refrigeration became more advanced, technology became a threat to traditional brewing styles, as pilsner started its rise to be the most popular beer in the world. Needing serious cooling, brewing pilsner required large investments in equipment, which many of the Belgian brewers couldn’t afford. Efforts such as the 1904 competition to create a Belgian style of beer to rival pilsner, which resulted in the amber Special Belges, helped, but were not enough to reverse the trend.
The biggest driver of the decline of Belgian brewing in the 20th century was war. During the First World War, the Germans stripped breweries of metals, especially copper, leading to closures for those who couldn’t repair the damage. Even for those who could, the post-war-recovery was far from easy, and the Second World war hit them hard. By the end of 1945, there were only 600 breweries remaining in Belgium, and the number continued to fall. The breweries’ place in their local communities, as major employers and keystones of towns and villages, helped them to hang on for longer, but in the end the market could not sustain all of them.
Some breweries closed, some merged, some were bought out, and by the end of the 20th century, only 150 remained. There was some innovation over the years, with the lower-strength beers traditionally produced in the abbeys until the 1970s replaced by the high-strength ones that are more commonly associated with them today, with other brewers following the demand that created for strong beer, but it was not enough to stop the contraction.
Despite the falling number of brewers, Belgium is still seen by many beer geeks as one of the homes of traditional beer. The brewing styles, tweaked over time and in many cases beefed up since the 1970s, are now replicated around the world, with the Belgian originals cited as reference beers by which the others are judged. This heritage and the explosion of craft beer around the world has brought Belgian beer back towards the mainstream and the the fall in the number of breweries is now reversing – there are new Belgian breweries springing up each week. But thanks to this turnaround, the older brewers are feeling the constriction in the market that more competition can bring.
‘It is easy to make beer, but it is difficult to sell and market it’ —Willem van Herrewehgen, brewing engineer, consultant and all-round beer legend
The new market is changing the traditional brewery focus from small brewery sites in towns to larger, out-of-town facilities – they’re not only cheaper, but the demand for real estate has made the old brewery buildings ripe for selling, especially if they’re not easily expandable. Brewers are also looking outside of their traditional styles, and embracing the influence of other beer-making countries, especially the US, which in turn is helping their sales – not only abroad, where the beers fit more easily into local tastes, but also at home, where drinkers are rejecting traditional styles in favour of something new.
The traditional brewers are not just sitting back and have started to hit back at some of the newer entrants to the industry, especially those who don’t make their own beer – depending on who you ask they are ‘gypsy brewers’, ‘beer designers’ or even just ‘fake brewers’. Creating a recipe and getting a brewery to make the beer for you is a relatively easy entrance into brewing industry, and while it has been widespread for years for supermarkets and other own-brand products, more recently the concept of a ‘brewery’ having all of its products produced by someone else has become more widespread.
‘Mikkeller is a beer merchant, not a brewer. Fake brewer. It’s all about marketing.’ —Jean Hummler, Moeder Lambic
While it’s more accepted elsewhere in the world, it’s a big topic of discussion in Belgium, and earlier this year, a group of brewers wrote an open letter detailing their concerns, calling for legislation to protect those who actually make beer, with labelling restrictions and protection for the word brewery – you can find the text here.
The traditional producers are starting to understand the challenges of the new world they have found themselves in, and they are learning from their competition. Associations such as Belgian Family Brewers are helping to modernise brewers’ approach to promotion, and Belgian beer is growing again around the world – the far east and US are already taking as much they can get, but with new beers and creative promotion, more markets are sure to follow.
As the brewers continue to develop and modernise their approach to selling, we can only hope that they maintain the traditions that help them to make great-tasting beer. All going to plan, the next Belgian beer explosion is around the corner, only 200 years since the last.
[Information from The History, Present and Future of Brewing in Belgium, Belgian Family Brewers and Beer Marketing sessions at #EBBC15]