I would like to think that when it comes to experience with beer, I am, or at least was, fairly typical of most Americans. I knew of Budweiser, Coors, and Millers due to their inundating commercials. I was aware of the Irish contribution to beer, what with their Guinness. I knew Germany had a famous beer festival called Oktoberfest, and I had heard of the pub culture in England.
There was one country that didn’t enter my beer consciousness – Belgium.
I’m not sure how many people in the United States have given Belgium much thought. It’s a culture that hasn’t really entered into our collective mindset. It’s one of those European countries that get lost in the shuffle, often playing second banana to the likes of Germany, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
This is our loss. For Belgium plays a strong leadership role in two very important foods; chocolate and beer. Let’s set aside chocolate for the time being and focus on beer.
If you want to understand beer, Belgium has to be a stop on your world tour. Belgium is to beer what whisky is to Scotland. They take it that seriously. For example, we Americans will pour a beer into nearly any old glass, as long as it holds twelve or sixteen ounces (or a pint, if you’re at a micropub/microbrewery). In Belgium, not only are there specific glasses for each type of beer they brew, it is considered bad etiquette if they serve a beer with an incorrect brand name on the glass itself. I’ve heard from more than one American who had been astounded at the fact that they had to wait fifteen minutes or more as a host looked for a right glass.
As I look at the beers of Belgium, I realize that one reason their beers stand out is their willingness to add anything to the brew to see what the end result will be. While Germany has their brewing traditions steeped in the Reinheitsgebot, a regulation that restricts what ingredients can go into a beer, the Belgians have no such law holding them back. Fruits, herbs, and spices can and do make their way into various mash tuns throughout the country. The Beer Judging Certification Program recognizes fifteen different beer styles that can be considered Belgian. That’s quite an accomplishment for a country that’s smaller than the state of Maryland.
Then there are the Belgian beers that are takes on other regional types. There are breweries in Belgium that make their own stouts, pilsners, and India Pale Ales. So not only are there the traditional Belgian Beers, there are also brands that reflect the other cultures.
To frustrate other international brewers even more, not only do the Belgians make all of these beers, they tend to make them very well.
From my experience thus far, what this means is that, while the UK and Germany have a long and illustrious histories with beers and brewing, it is Belgium that shouldn’t be overlooked.