Let me work with a simple premise – A country’s beer culture is a reflection of that country’s history. It may not be a full reflection, but it does show enough to illuminate some important aspect of that country.
So why is it, that a country that’s the size of the state of Maryland, holds the rapt attention of most beer aficionados? It’s not as if Belgium is a major European tourist destination – at least not in comparison to England, France, Italy, and Spain. It’s certainly not a primary player in the history of Europe, having not even been a country until the 1830′s. So, why is Belgium so keen on beer?
The answer lies in its history. It’s a gross simplification, but the basis of the Belgian brewing industry lies in the fact that during industrial brewing’s formative years 1850-1920 , Belgium had other primary concerns than figuring out the level of regulations that dictated limited styles of beer. This lack of oversight actually made imports into Belgium cheaper than what they could brew in 1900. The Belgian brewing scene was poor at this time.
Then, occupation in World War I set back the industry even further. It wasn’t until the Belgian government banned genever from cafes and taverns that the industry started to take off. The marketplace, demanding some level of inebriates, welcomed local beers into the fold. New things were tried in order to differentiate one beer from another. Never having a Reinheitsgebot helped, and as well as a lack of a brewing “tradition”. Brewers were able to try different spices and herbs, even adding sugar to their drinks. Add in the unique yeasts of the region, and a predilection for the taste of malt over that of hops, and the resulting melange of beers available to Belgians increased.
As breweries in England and the United States consolidated, and the industry shrank (in terms of breweries, not in sales), and as the Belgians rejected German beers (for obvious reasons) Belgium breweries soared with variety. Yes, pilsners ended up on top as they did in other countries (Belgium’s most popular beer is a pilsner called Jupiler), but the marketplace was diverse, enough so that it became a source of pride for the region, quickly evolving into its state today.
Belgium’s brewing traditions are truly only about a century old, rather recent in the grand scheme of things. But this has worked in their favor, making them a “must visit” for any fan of beer.