In November 2016, the Belgian beer culture received a great honor. UNESCO included it in the prestigious list of the Intangible World Heritage. This puts it in the company of a whole series of true connoisseur highlights. The list includes the Turkish coffee culture or the French cuisine. The award was presented in Brussels’ Grand Place, home to Belgium’s largest brewery association.
The application for admission was made by the German-speaking Community of Belgium to the German UNESCO Commission. Such a procedure initially requires that the proposals be compiled in a national list. Subsequently, the World Cultural Organization in Addis Abbeba decided on the recording. For this to happen, a cultural form of expression must be “demonstrably alive and identity-forming for the sponsoring community”.
From the monks to the microbrewery – how did the Belgian beer culture come about?
Of course, such an award is no coincidence. It takes time to develop an identity. The tradition of brewing in Belgium, similar to Germany, goes back to the Middle Ages. It all started with the monastery breweries, which today are often visited by beer enthusiasts from all over the world. Of the 11 Trappist monasteries worldwide, six are in Belgium. The quality is unique. The beer from the West Vleteren Abbey in Flanders is said to be the best in the world.
Modern times brought with it the mechanical production and the flowering of commercial breweries. In 1900, 3,223 breweries were registered in Belgium. One of them was Wielemanns in Forest, which was then allowed to call itself the most modern and largest brewery in Europe. At the end of World War I, there was a shortage of ingredients and skilled workers. The number of breweries declined until 1920 at 2013 breweries. The Great Depression and World War II did not improve the situation. In 1946 there were only 755 registered breweries left in Belgium.
The beer culture did not detract. Today only 100 breweries remain in Belgium. Nevertheless, the beating heart of brewing culture in the country is faster than ever before. The small and micro breweries, in particular, are helping to promote the renaissance of brewing. They ensure an almost unmanageable variety of types.
These include a noticeable number of high-percentage beers. The reason for this is the Vandevelde Act of 1919. It provided that no more liquor could be sold in bars. Consequently, the beers had to satisfy the demand for high-proof. The resulting styles exist to this day, even if the law was repealed in 1983.
Observation of the Belgian beer life
Beer has become an integral part of all Belgian culture. Of course, that also applies to the Belgian economy. In Löwen, InBev is the largest brewery group in Europe. But that’s just what you see when you glimpse the Belgian beer landscape. The Belgians deserve the UNESCO award for their attention to detail on the subject of beer.
Rather, it is about the way the Belgians produce, serve and celebrate beer. About the Belgians is said, depending on the form of the day, they resort to a different type of beer. So it is not surprising that there is a glass for almost every beer brand. Beer is consumed in cafes and bars specializing in this enjoyment.
But the enthusiasm for innovation starts with the production. Crafting techniques are passed on from generation to generation. Most diverse, sometimes quite adventurous gardening techniques such as spontaneous fermentation at Lambic provide products beyond the industrial unit.
Taste profiles versatile and full of character as in wine
This diversity makes Belgian beer as multifaceted as the wine culture of many European regions. Small quantities are produced and sampled in an authentic way. Beer thrives on complex sensory perception. Color, aroma and body may be intensively observed, smelled and savored.
Beer also plays a major role in social life in Belgium. Clubs, beer festivals and tasting associations, as well as initiatives for the training of master brewers, reflect the interest in preserving the beer culture.
Surprising is only in the study of Belgian beer life, that apparently the Belgians themselves are rather timid in the consumption of their liquid masterpieces. Beer consumption is declining. In comparison to the 104 liters per capita drunk in Germany in 2015, there were only 71 liters in Belgium during the same period. 65% of production is used to pamper foreign palates.
And what about Germany? Is the beer land absolutely chanceless?
Some people may mumble now “that’s what the Germans can do too!”. Because only the Czechs drink more beer and in this country there are over 6,000 different beers on the market. However, German beer has not even made it into the German directory of intangible cultural heritage. Why is that?
Above all, the fact that Germany only joined the relevant UNESCO Convention in 2013, which controls the award. Belgium has joined much longer. In 2014, an application from Bavaria followed, which was rejected. Focusing on the Purity Law rather than the practice of brewing proved to be the wrong way. Accordingly, it is now important not to give up, but to try again with a new registration when the opportunity to apply present itself again.