Alongside Great Britain and Germany, Belgium is one of the countries that deserves special mention on a world map of beer culture. However, the area in question only covers today’s Belgium at its core, and parts of today’s Netherlands and northeastern France are also included. Until the heyday of the Hanseatic beer trade in the 14th century, Belgian housewives brewed their own home as well as elsewhere, while some monasteries started beer trading. The brewers were subject to the Gruitrecht (forced to use a herbal mixture on which the emperor taxed), but the legislation of Charles IV divided the country: The brewers belonging to the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation east of the Schelde were stopped from 1364, their beer with Hops (instead of the herb mix Gruit) to brew, the western cities of Bruges, Ghent and Tournai, however, remained at Gruitzwang.
Trading beer since Middle Ages
Inspired by the great success of the German Hanseatic Cities with their export hit beer, the Belgian trading cities finally released the brewing right, as a result of which more and more breweries were founded. Bruges, for example, recorded around 50 breweries in the 15th century, compared to 425 by 1680. Between 1620 and 1640 alone, the province of Holland produced over two million hectoliters of beer annually. Due to the considerable wheat surpluses, which were traditionally produced especially in the Flemish part of today’s Belgium, developed with the Witbier (wheat beer) a first own beer style in contrast to the usual barley beer, which was called in Belgium as red beer. However, the wheat used was usually unmalted, which is why the recipes always had to contain at least 30-40% barley malt for a sufficient amount of enzymes. The most famous old-time beer was created in Leuven, not far from Brussels. The local university, founded in 1425 Katholieke Universiteit, had acquired a good reputation as a training center for brewers.
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The brewers usually started before dawn so they could cope until the evening and the cool night. The fermentation vessels were set up in well-ventilated locations and sometimes helped with hand-operated fans, so that the wort could cool down faster. After the widow quickly became angry, it had to be drunk in summer, within two to five weeks. In the 17th century, all major cities in the region – local, often due to the existing raw materials – developed beer recipes such as Hoegaarden and Oudenaarde. However, the beer, at least in the rich citizenship, at the same time got a lot of competition: tea, coffee and cocoa crossed the oceans thanks to the trading companies and opened up new taste horizons for the local population. While the brewers elsewhere concentrated on malt and hops, in Belgium a very special kind of beer, the sour beer, in particular the spontaneously fermented “lambic”, arose from the above-mentioned process. As a rule, as described above, a maximum of 70%, mostly barley malt, and at least 30%, mostly raw wheat, ended up in the brewing kettle, as well as aged hops, which hardly contained any bitter substances. After brewing, the wort stood for a few hours at room temperature in an open tub or trough, which allowed the “trapping” of wild yeasts from the air.
The whole process
The brewers then bottled the beer in oak or chestnut barrels, where it was subject to a different fermentation and maturation process, which could take years. Classic brewer’s yeast provided an alcohol content of about 5%, while wild yeasts such as Brettanomyces bruxellensis and Brettanomyces lambicus subsequently fermented the remaining sugar. By relying on a favorable ambient temperature for wild yeasts, Lambic could only be brewed in the spring or fall. The name comes from either the southwest of Bruges location “Lembeek” ago, where there was a tax-exempt area with over 40 breweries, or the historical name “alambic” for the mash tun, or the Latin “lambere” (in small sips drink). The Lambic, a dry, sour and low-carbon beer, is still drunk in Belgium today, but usually not pure, but further processed.
Well-known is the Gueuze, a mixture of different old Lambics, which are bottled thanks to a second fermentation to develop carbonic acid (champagne method). If the drink was too sour for the consumer, he usually added sugar candy, caramel, spices or molasses to sweeten it. Popular was especially in the 19th century the Faro. Here, the brewers also blended different old Lambics, but added candy before the bottling, without triggering another fermentation. As a result, the beer had a sweetish taste and a lower alcohol content at the end.