November 30, 2016 was a historic day in Belgian beer history. This is the day when UNESCO has added our rich beer culture to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Quite a remarkable achievement, especially when you consider that our country is only responsible for one percent of world production. However, Belgium is also the only country in the world that brews ten times its demographic weight. This well-deserved recognition of UNESCO is therefore a great reward for those who are committed to keeping the beer culture in our country alive. But what distinguishes our beer culture from the german or the american beer culture? The following five reasons provide an answer to this question.
#1 | Permanent place in the World Beer Awards
Every year, several Belgian beers are among the winners of the World Beer Awards. This annual competition rewards the best beers in the world for their quality and taste. The main categories are divided into subcategories: World’s Best Dark Beer, World’s Best Flavored Beer, World’s Best IPA, World’s Best Lager, World’s Best Pale Beer, World’s Best Sour Beer, World’s Best Specialty Beer, World’s Best Stout & Porter and World’s Best Wheat Beer. The winning beer is the best beer in the country and for each main category, a final is organized to award the best beer in the world.
Since 2007, several Belgian beers are nominated for these prestigious prizes. Every year, numerous Belgian beers take home the victory. 2016, for example, was a good year for Kasteel Brouwerij Vanhonsebrouck. The Barista Chocolate Quad was awarded World’s Best Chocolate & Coffee Flavoured Beer and Kasteel Rouge was awarded a silver medal in the World’s Best Fruit & Vegetable Flavoured Beer category.
#2 | Only in Belgium: Four fermentation methods
Beer is brewed all over the world with top or bottom fermentation. These “classics” determine the temperature at which fermentation is carried out and the type of yeast that rises to the surface during the fermentation process. In the case of lager beers, we speak of low fermentation: the maximum temperature is 14 degrees Celsius and the type of yeast is saccharomyces carlsbergensis. Specialty beers such as a double and triple are examples of high fermentation: the temperature is between 15 and 25 degrees Celsius and the type of yeast is saccharomyces cerevisiae.
Some Belgian brewers use also two other fermentation methods. The first is spontaneous fermentation , a process in which the brewer does not add yeast to the beer directly. In an open cooling tank, the wort will automatically ferment as soon as it is infected with the surrounding microflora. The most suitable microflora for spontaneous fermentation can be found in the area around Brussels. This region is therefore known for the lambic and gueuze beers. With the range of St-Louis beers, Kasteel Brouwerij Vanhonsebrouck proves that it is also possible to successfully brew these beer styles in West Flanders.
The second fermentation method that is unique in Belgium is mixed fermentation. Nowhere else in the world do they dare to blend young and old beer. The original brew is often a high fermentation beer. Part of this brew is matured in oak barrels in which a lactic acid fermentation takes place. Once this process is complete, the beer is mixed with young high fermentation beer. A wonderful example of a mixed fermentation beer is the Bacchus Vlaams Oud Bruin from Kasteel Brouwerij Vanhonsebrouck. The beer brewery from Izegem is therefore known for its many specialty beers.
#3 | Balanced quality beers
The Belgian beers excel in quality, balance and variety. In many specialty beers, tradition is highly valued, but there is still enough room for creativity. Belgian brewers always avoid the extreme sweetness or bitterness in their beers, but strive for the perfect balance in the glass. According to many, that balance is the trademark of the Belgian beer culture.
However, many Belgian breweries aren’t afraid of new challenges. They are partly stimulated by the emergence of microbreweries that want to give a twist to traditional beer. Both large and small players regularly come out with limited editions and seasonal beers. In addition, Belgium is worldwide known for some unique beer styles such as Abbey beers, Trappist beers, Lambic, Geuze and the amber-coloured Spéciale Belge.
#4 | Beer brewed with love should be drunk with good sense
One of the oldest associations in our country – and in the whole world – is the Federation of Belgian Brewers. This federation unites a hundred breweries in our country, together accounting for no less than 90% of Belgian beer production. The Belgian Brewers descend from the brewers’ guild that was established in the course of the fourteenth century. Each year in February, the Belgian Brewers celebrate the Feast of King Gambrinus and in June the Feast of Saint Arnold, the patron saint of the brewers.
The association does more than just organize parties. In 1992 it launched the campaign “Beer brewed with love should be drunk with good sense”. The Belgian Brewers are therefore committed to numerous awareness campaigns on alcohol consumption. This commitment was one of the overriding reasons for UNESCO to recognize the Belgian beer culture as heritage. According to UNESCO, the measures against excessive alcohol consumption contribute to maintain the beer culture in Belgium.
#5 | Beer is Belgium, Belgium is beer
Beer plays a major role in Belgian society. You immediately notice this when you go to watch a football match or visit a festival. Pils beers are widely represented there. The top league competition for association football clubs in Belgium, for example, is called the Jupiler Pro League. Specialty beers also fulfill their role in society. For example, there is the Basketball Club Filou Oostende, which is named after the Filou beer from the Vanhonsebrouck family brewery.
Beer cafés dominate the Belgian street scene. But you will also find numerous beer cafés abroad that focus on the Belgian beer culture. In addition, gastronomy and Belgian beer have totally found each other over the last few years. An increasing number of chefs use beer in their dishes and hire even beer sommeliers who pair dishes wonderfully with the perfect beer.
Beer is in the DNA of every Belgian. Together we therefore have the duty to keep our rich beer culture alive. And we do that by raising our glasses to our Belgian beers. Cheers!