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Beer in Belgium dates back to the age of the first crusades, long before Belgium became an independent country. Under Catholic church permission, local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed beer as a fund raising method. The relatively low-alcohol beer of that time was preferred as a sanitary option to available drinking water. What are now traditional, artisanal brewing methods evolved, under abbey supervision, during the next seven centuries. The Trappist monasteries that now brew beer in Belgium were occupied in the late 18th century primarily by monks fleeing the French Revolution. However, the first Trappist brewery in Belgium (Westmalle) did not start operation until 10 December 1836, almost 50 years after the Revolution. That beer was exclusively for the monks and is described as "dark and sweet." The first recorded sale of beer (a brown beer) was on 1 June 1861.
The brewing of Trappist beers takes place in Trappist monasteries. For a beer to qualify for Trappist certification, the brewery must be in a monastery, the monks must play a role in its production and the policies and the profits from the sale must be used to support the monastery and/or social programs outside. Only eight monasteries currently meet these qualifications, six of which are in Belgium, one in the Netherlands and one in Austria. Trappist beer is a controlled term of origin: it tells where the beers come from, it is not the name of a beer style. Beyond saying they are mostly top-fermented, the Trappist beers have very little in common stylistically.
The current Belgian Trappist producers are:
In addition to the above, a lower-strength beer is sometimes brewed for consumption by the Brothers (patersbier) or sold on site.
The designation "abbey beers" (Bières d'Abbaye or Abdijbier) originally applied to any monastic or monastic-style beer. After introduction of an official Trappist beer designation by the International Trappist Association in 1997, it came to mean products similar in style or presentation to monastic beers. In other words, an Abbey beer may be:
In 1999 the Union of Belgian Brewers introduced a "Certified Belgian Abbey Beer" (Erkend Belgisch Abdijbier) logo[dead link] to indicate beers brewed under license to an existing or abandoned abbey,[dead link] as opposed to other abbey-branded beers which the trade markets using other implied religious connections, such as a local saint. The requirements for registration under the logo include the monastery having control over certain aspects of the commercial operation, and a proportion of profits going to the abbey or to its designated charities. Monastic orders other than the Trappists can be and are included in this arrangement.
What connoiseurs now recognize as Trappist breweries began operations in 1838. Several French monasteries, however, maintained "working" breweries for 500+ years before the French Revolution (1789–1799) disrupted religious life across the northern French province of Wallonia. Even then, some Abbey beers such as Affligem Abbey, whose name now appears on beers made by the Heineken-owned Affligem Brewery, resumed brewing from "working" monasteries until the occupation of most of Belgium in World War I. Commercial Abbey beers first appeared during Belgium's World War I recovery.
Although Abbey beers do not conform to rigid brewing styles, most tend to include the most recognizable and distinctive Trappist styles of brune (Belgian brown ale, aka dubbel), strong pale ale or tripel, and blonde ale or blond. Modern abbey breweries range from microbreweries to international giants.
As of 2011[update] eighteen certified Abbey beers existed:
Other non-certified Abbey beers include:-
NOTE: At least one beer writer warns against assuming that closeness of connection with a real monastery confirms a product's quality.
These are beers similar to the traditional pale ales of England, although somewhat less bitterly hopped. A notable example is the 5% abv De Koninck brand, with its distinctive spherical glasses (called 'bollekes'). It is popular in its native city of Antwerp. Another is Palm Speciale. Some, such as Vieux Temps (nl), were based on British styles to please troops stationed in Belgium during World War I. Others were introduced by the UK-born brewer George Maw Johnson in the late 19th century. A very strong ambrée is brewed by "Bush" (Dubuisson), another brewery influenced by British styles.
These are a light variation on pale ale, often made with pilsner malt. Some beer writers regard blonde and golden ales as distinct styles, while others do not. Duvel is the archetypal Belgian blonde ale, and one of the most popular bottled beers in the country as well as being well-known internationally. Its name means "Devil" and some other blonde beers follow the theme—Satan, Lucifer and Judas for example. The style is popular with Wallonian brewers, the slightly hazy Moinette being the best-known example. Chouffe can be considered a spiced version (with coriander).
Champagne style beers are generally ales that are finished "à la méthode originale" for champagne. Examples include Grottenbier, DeuS and Malheur Bière Brut (nl). They receive a second fermentation much like Champagne does and are stored for several months "sûr lie" while the fermentation lasts. This creates the smaller, softer bubbles that we know from Champagne, but maintains the beer flavor and style.
Dubbel (double) has a characteristic brown colour. It is one of the classic Abbey/Trappist types, having been developed in the 19th century at the Trappist monastery in Westmalle. Today, some commercial brewers using abbey names call their strong brown beers "Dubbel". Typically, a dubbel is between 6 and 8% abv. In addition to the dubbels made by most Trappist breweries, examples include St. Bernardus Pater, Maredsous 8 and Witkap Dubbel.
Dubbels are characteristically bottle conditioned.
Typified by Rodenbach, the eponymous brand that started this type over a century ago, this beer's distinguishing features from a technical viewpoint are a specially roasted malt, fermentation by a mixture of several 'ordinary' top-fermenting yeasts and a lactobacillus culture (the same type of bacteria yoghurt is made with) and maturation in oak. The result is a mildly strong 'drinking' beer with a deep reddish-brown colour and a distinctly acidic, sour yet fruity and mouthy taste. This style is closely related to Oud bruin.
A few Belgian beers are pale and assertively hopped. De Ranke's XX Bitter (nl) has a British-style name. Brouwerij Van Eecke (nl)'s Poperings Hommelbier (nl), another example, hails from Belgium's hop-growing district.
Lambic is a wheat beer brewed in the Pajottenland region of Belgium (southwest of Brussels) by spontaneous fermentation. Most modern beers are fermented by carefully cultivated strains of brewer's yeasts; Lambic's fermentation, however, is produced by exposure to the wild yeasts and bacteria that are said to be native to the Senne valley, in which Brussels lies. The beer then undergoes a long aging period ranging from three to six months (considered "young") to two or three years for mature. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavour: dry, vinous, and cidery, with a slightly sour aftertaste.
The first of these, gueuze, blends both old and young mixtures to stimulate a second fermentation. In its most natural form, Lambic is a draught beer which is rarely bottled, and thus only available in its area of production and a few cafes in and around Brussels. Fruit beers are made by adding fruit or fruit concentrate to Lambic beer. The most common type is Kriek, made with sour cherries. The last of the Lambic brews, Faro, is lambic with sugar or caramel added to prompt the fermentation.
This style, aged in wooden casks, is a cousin to the sour "Flemish Red" style. Examples include Goudenband and Petrus.
This style makes up the bulk of beer production and consumption in Belgium. Belgian Pilsners are not particularly distinctive or renowned by connoisseurs. The top brands include Jupiler and Stella Artois (both brewed by Inbev), Maes pils and Cristal (both brewed by the Alken Maes branch of Heineken). Stella Artois, originating in Belgium, is distributed globally.
Saison (French, "season") is the name originally given to refreshing, low-alcohol pale ales brewed seasonally in farmhouses in Wallonia, the French-speaking region of Belgium, to refresh farm workers during harvest season. Modern-day saisons are also brewed in other countries, particularly USA, and are generally bottle conditioned, with an average range of 5 to 8% abv, though saisons at the more traditional 3.5% strength can still be found.
Although saison has been described as an endangered style, there has been a rise in interest in this style in recent years, with Saison Dupont being named "the Best Beer in the World" by the magazine Men's Journal in July 2005.
Historically, saisons did not share identifiable characteristics to pin them down as a style, but rather were a group of refreshing summer ales. Each farm brewer would make his own distinctive version.
These sweet, heavy-bodied brown ales represent a style which originated in the British Isles. The Caledonian theme is usually heavily emphasized with tartan and thistles appearing on labels. Examples include Gordon's, Scotch de Silly and Achouffe McChouffe.
Belgian stouts subdivide into sweeter and drier, and stronger and weaker versions. Examples include Callewaerts and Ellezelloise (nl) Hercules. The sweeter versions resemble the almost-defunct British style "milk stout", while the stronger ones are sometimes described as Imperial stouts.
Beers above 7%, such as tripels or strong dubbels, may be referred to in some sources as Belgian strong ale, and this is a style name used by American brewers influenced by the Beer Judge Certification Program, though is not a name used by Belgian breweries.
Table beer (tafelbier, bière de table) is a low-alcohol (typically not over 1.5%) brew sold in large bottles to be enjoyed with meals. The last decade it has gradually lost popularity due to the growing consumption of soft drinks and bottled water. It comes in blonde or brown versions. Table beer used to be served in school refectories until the 1970s; in the early 21st century, several organizations made proposals to reinstate this custom as the table beer is considered more healthy than soft drinks. Some bars serve a glass of draft lager with a small amount of table beer added, to take away the fizziness and act as a sweetener, in Limburg it is referred to as a "half om".
Tripel is a term used originally by brewers in the Low Countries to describe a strong pale ale, and became associated with Westmalle Tripel. The style of Westmalle's Tripel and the name was widely copied by the breweries of Belgium, then the term spread to the USA and other countries. Gulden Draak was awarded the best-tasting beer in the world in 1998 by the American Tasting Institute (now ChefsBest).
This type of beer, commonly called witbier in Dutch, biėre blanche in French and wheat beer in English, originated in the Flemish part of Belgium in the Middle Ages. Traditionally, it is made with a mixture of wheat and barley. Before hops became widely available in Europe, beers were flavoured with a mixture of herbs called gruit. In the later years of the Middle Ages, hops were added to the gruit. That mixture continues today in most Belgian/Dutch white beers.
The production of this type of beer in Belgium had nearly ended by the late 1950s. In the town of Hoegaarden, the last witbier brewery, Tomsin, closed its doors in 1955. However, ten years later, a young farmer, by the name of Pierre Celis, in the same village decided to try reviving the beer. In 1966, Celis began brewing a wit beer in his farm house. Ultimately, his beer took the name of the village and became very successful and famous.
Some notable current examples are Celis White, Blanche de Namur and Watou's Wit. Their alcohol strength is about 5-6 percent ABV, and these beers can be quite refreshing, especially during the warm summer months. The herb mixture traditionally includes coriander and bitter orange peel, among other herbs. White beers also have a moderate light grain sweetness from the wheat used. In recent times, brewers have been making fruit flavoured wheat beers.
Many breweries produce special beers during December. Most contain more alcohol than the brewery's other types of beer and may also contain spicing. An annual beer festival in Essen, Belgium focuses on this type of beer with over 150 beers available for tasting in 2009.
Belgian "special" beers (stronger or bottled beers) are often served in elaborate branded beer glassware.
One of the more common types is the tulip glass. A tulip glass not only helps trap the aroma, but also aids in maintaining large heads, creating a visual and olfactory sensation. The body is bulbous, but the top flares out to form a lip which helps head retention.
A vessel similar to a champagne flute is the preferred serving vessel for Belgian lambics and fruit beers. The narrow shape helps maintain carbonation, while providing a strong aromatic front. Flute glasses display the lively carbonation, sparkling color, and soft lacing of this distinct style.
Chalices and goblets are large, stemmed, bowl-shaped glasses mainly associated with Trappist and Abbey ales. The distinction between goblet and chalice is typically in the glass thickness. Goblets tend to be more delicate and thin, while the chalice is heavy and thick walled. Some chalices are even etched on the bottom to nucleate a stream of bubbles for maintaining a nice head.
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The majority of Belgian beer brands are sold in bottles. Draught beers tend mostly to be pale lagers, wheat beers, regional favourites such as kriek in Brussels or De Koninck in Antwerp; and the occasional one-off. Customers who purchase a bottled beer (often called a "special" beer) can expect the beers to be served ceremoniously, often with a free snack.
These days, Belgian beers are sold in brown- (or sometimes dark green-) tinted glass bottles (to avoid negative effects of light on the beverage) and sealed with a cork, a metal crown cap, or sometimes both. Some beers are bottle conditioned, meaning reseeded with yeast so that an additional fermentation may take place. Different bottle sizes exist: 25 cl, 33 cl, 37.5 cl, 75 cl and multiples of 75. (8, 12, 24 or multiples of 24 fl. oz.) The 37.5 cl size is usually for lambics. Other beers are generally bottled in 25 or 33 cl format (depending on brands). The bigger bottles (75 cl) are sold almost in every food shop but customers do not always have an extensive choice. Bottles larger than 75 cl are named following the terminology used for champagne and are limited in quantity. In Belgian cafés, when someone orders a demi (English: "half"), he receives a 50 cl (half litre) glass (with beer from the tap, or from 2 bottles of 25 cl).
Virtually every Belgian beer has a branded glass imprinted with a logo or name.
Belgium contains thousands of cafés that offer a wide selection of beers, ranging from perhaps 10 (including bottles) in a neighbourhood café, to over 1000 in a specialist beer café. Among the most famous are "Beer Circus," "Chez Moeder Lambic," and "Delirium Café" in Brussels; "de Kulminator" and "Oud Arsenaal" in Antwerp, "De Garre" and "'t Brugs Beertje" in Bruges, "Het Botteltje" in Ostend, "Het Hemelrijk" in Hasselt, "Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant", "De Dulle Griet" and "Trappistenhuis" in Ghent, "De Blauwe Kater" in Leuven, the Vaudrées in Liège and the "Stillen Genieter" in Mechelen. Although many major brands of beer are available at most supermarkets, off-licences located throughout the country generally offer a far wider selection, albeit at somewhat higher prices.
Belgium exports 60% of its beer. Some draught-beer brands produced by InBev - Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe - are available in several European countries. Aside from these, mostly bottled beer is exported across Europe. Cafés exclusively or primarily offering Belgian beers exist beyond Belgium in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the United States, amongst others. Some beer festivals outside Belgium have a Belgian beer bar as an alternative to local products. In North America, a growing number of draught Belgian beer brands have started to become available, often at "Belgian Bars". Such brands include Brasserie Brunehaut, Karmeliet, Kwak, Maredsous, Mont Saint-Aubert, Palm, Rodenbach and St. Feuillien.
Belgium has a number of beer festivals including:
A number of traditional Belgian dishes use beer as an ingredient. One is Carbonade (French: the Flemish term is stoverij or "stoofvlees"), a stew of beef cooked in beer, similar to Boeuf bourguignon. The beer used is typically the regional speciality — lambic in Brussels, De Koninck in Antwerp, and so on — so that the taste of the dish varies. Another is rabbit in gueuze. In't Spinnekopke, Brussels, and Den Dyver, Bruges are famed for their beer cookery. In 1998 Anheuser-Busch InBev started a worldwide chain of bars/restaurants, Belgian Beer Cafe, serving typical Belgian dishes combined with Belgian Beer.
The varied nature of Belgian beers makes it possible to match them against each course of a meal, for instance:
"Beer Passion" is a magazine, which also organizes a beer festival. "Zythos" is the name of the main consumer's organization, successor to the earlier OBP (Objectieve Bierproevers). The Belgian Brewers' Association represents breweries. It organizes beer festivals and an open breweries day. The Knighthood of the Mashstaff honours individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to brewing, and pays tribute to Gambrinus and Saint Arnold.
Beer writers who have written extensively on Belgian beer include Belgians Peter Crombeq and Gert van Lierde, and Britons Michael Jackson and Tim Webb.
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