A Brief History of Belgian Beer

The wonderful Belgian brewing tradition includes a wide range of beer styles that are light and fruity, dark and malty, sour and funky. This article briefly examines their origin.

A Brief History of Belgian Beers

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The Trappist and Abbey-style Ales of Belgium, and the sours and saisons, along with Belgian inspired ales from breweries in other Old World countries such as France and Italy, and New World countries including the United States and Canada, offer delicious complexity ranging from mild to strong in alcohol with a character profile from light and fruity, to dark and malty, to tart, sour and “barnyard”. Belgium has been long renowned among American beer enthusiasts for these flavorful complex ale styles with their rich history. But where did these wonderful beer styles originate?

While the Belgian brewing tradition we enjoy today dates back to the 12th century, beer making and its consumption began in the region far earlier. Over 2,000 years ago, in fact. And it was the women — not the men — who practiced home brewing in the family. The region’s early ancestors also invented the use of wooden barrels to store beer in lieu of pottery.

Monks Toasting with Tankards and Mugs of Beer

Monks Toasting with Tankards and Mugs of Beer

The Church and Beer

The beers they brewed way back then were quite different as well and the elements comprising the beers we now attribute as being Belgian didn’t begin to take shape until the Middle Ages. With the permission of the Catholic Church, the local French and Flemish abbeys brewed and distributed their beers to raise funds for their monasteries and philanthropic endeavors within the community. That early beer was relatively low in alcohol and was preferred for consumption over the local drinking water because it was more sanitary.

As beer grew in popularity in the communities of Catholic monasteries, breweries were built in the abbeys. And under the abbey’s supervision, a professional and organized level of brewing with quality standards emerged among the monks, who controlled the early beer making industry. Their methods for traditional and artisanal brewing evolved over the next seven centuries and a beer brewed at the hands of Catholic monks proved to be an enduring art and way of life.

Trappist Beers

The Trappists, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Latin: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae, abbreviated as OCSO) and originally named the Order of Reformed Cistercians of Our Lady of La Trappe. These Cistercian monastic monks migrated from France and Germany and they originally produced wine but began brewing beer because the northern climate of Belgium and the Netherlands was not conducive to growing grapes. These monks were self sufficient. Besides brewing their own beer, they also ate foods that they grew in the fields that surrounded their their abbeys.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, a beer named crabbelaer was the most popular beer in Ghent. And at the peak of its popularity, more than 50 different breweries produced more than 6 million liters a year. Other kinds of beer brewed in Ghent were klein bier, dubbel bier, clauwaert, dubbele clauwaert and dusselaer.

The Trappist monasteries that now brew beer in Belgium were occupied in the late 18th century primarily by monks fleeing the French Revolution. The older Enkel (Trappist Single) and Dubbel styles date back to the Middle Ages but were revived by these monks in the 19th century, following the Napoleonic era. Popular beer styles like the Dubbel and Tripel are often attributed to Trappist brewing ingenuity and their ties to the first Trappist brewery in Belgium, Westmalle (Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle). However, Westmalle did not start operation until December 10, 1836, almost fifty years after the Revolution. And their beer that was brewed exclusively for the monks was described as being “dark and sweet.” The first recorded sale of beer occurred twenty-five years later, on June 1, 1861.

The Tripel, often considered to be an Old World classic, was actually first brewed at Westmalle in 1931. Its recipe has not changed since 1956.

Outside the Westmalle Monastery where the Westmalle Brewery is located.

Outside the Westmalle Monastery where the Westmalle Brewery is located.

Today, some of the world’s most highly rated and respected beers are brewed at Trappist abbeys in Belgium. And a 1992 Trappist ruling stipulated that authentic Trappist beers must be brewed inside the walls of a Trappist abbey under the watchful eye of the monks. Later, the International Trappist Association created a label to ensure consumers of the product’s origin and authenticity.

Trappist is a protected legal appellation, and cannot be used commercially except by genuine Trappist monasteries that brew their own beer. However, we can use it to describe the type or styles of beer produced by those breweries and those who make beers of a similar style. Trappist type beers are all characterized by very high attenuation, high carbonation through bottle conditioning, and interesting (and often aggressive) yeast character.

The Authentic Trappist Product Seal Issued by the International Trappist Association

The Authentic Trappist Product Seal

While thousands of monastic breweries existed in medieval times, today only fourteen are recognized by the International Trappist Association to carry the “Authentic Trappist Product” label on their beers. Six are in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren), two are in the Netherlands (La Trappe and Zundert), and one each in Austria (Stift Engelszell), Italy (Tre Fontane Abbey), Spain (Cerveza Cardeña Trappist), the United Kingdom (Mount St. Bernard Abbey) and the United States (St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts). These fourteen breweries are entitled to use the Trappist name and display the seal of Trappist authenticity on their beers and other products, such as cheeses.

Similar to Trappist beers are the abbey beers, also called Biers d’Abbaye and Abdijbier. They are commercially brewed outside Trappist abbey walls and they originated from monks who no longer had the resources to brew, and would license a commercial brewer to make beer for them under the abbey’s name. Today, several religious institutions license breweries, while other beers are simply named after an abbey ruin or a local saint.

Belgian styles generally exhibit the following characteristics.
Color: Ranging from a pale blonde to a dark brown.
Clarity: Many are cloudy or hazy but some are clear.
Head: Fluffy, long-lasting and leaves lace on the glass.
Malts: Sweet and biscuity to chocolaty and toasty in dark styles
Hops: Very mild, however can be discernible in some popular styles
Yeast: Fruity, ester notes of various light and dark tree fruits, banana. Spicy, with flavor compounds including clove in some styles.
Other: Tart, sour, earthy, funky, “horsey,” leathery, “barnyard” and acetic character traits
Consistency: Crisp to silky
Carbonation: Round and can be prickly, but very delicate in specific styles
Body: Light to medium-full
Finish: Long

The Variety of Belgian Beer Styles

Beer in Belgium varies from pale lager to amber ales, lambic beers, Flemish red ales, sour brown ales, strong ales and stouts. The variety of beer styles that originated in Belgium is also attributed to strong historical connections to the Netherlands in the north and France to the south. Belgium is divided roughly in half by two regions: Flanders, the Dutch-speaking area to the north, and Wallonia to the south. Sour beer styles such as Flanders Red and Bruin as well as Lambic styles including Gueuze, originated in Flanders, while Wallonia, which is the French-speaking region of Belgium is where the Saison (French for “season”) originated in farmhouses that dotted the land.

The Saison was crafted for consumption during the active farming season. Originally a lower-alcohol product so as to not debilitate field workers, but tavern-strength products also existed. Higher-strength and different-colored products appeared after WWII. The best known modern saison, Saison Dupont, was first produced in the 1920s. Originally a rustic, artisanal ale made with local farm-produced ingredients, it is now brewed mostly in larger breweries yet retains the image of its humble origins.

The Trappist beers, as discussed earlier include the Enkel or Trappist Single, which originated from lower-strength beers that were consumed by monk’s as part of their daily ration. Westvleteren first brewed theirs in 1999, replacing older lower-gravity products.

The Belgian Dubbel originated at monasteries in the Middle Ages, and was revived in the mid-1800s after the Napoleonic era.

The Belgian Tripel was originally popularized by the Trappist monastery at Westmalle.

At nearly the same time, the Belgian Quadrupel was first brewed by La Trappe and a similar brew, named the Abt, was brewed at Westvleteren.

In 1946, the St. Bernardus brewery in nearby Watou was granted a license to brew the Westvleteren beers but this agreement ended in 1992. St. Bernardus still brews beers of similar styles but under their own name. Westvleteren rebranded their Quad as the Westvleteren XII and St. Bernardus brewed the Abt 12.

Beer in Modern Belgium

In 2016, there were approximately 224 active breweries in Belgium. These include international companies, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and traditional breweries such as the Trappist monasteries. On average, Belgians drink 84 liters of beer each year, down from around 200 each year in 1900. Most beers are bought or served in bottles, rather than cans, and almost every beer has its own branded, sometimes uniquely shaped, glass. In 2016, UNESCO added Belgian beer culture to their list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

Surprisingly enough, in Belgium today as in most of Europe, many locals most often reach for a more simple pale lager as their daily beer of choice. Even so, there is still a wealth of Old World Belgian brewing tradition and Belgian-inspired brews from the New World to be explored and enjoyed in liquid form.


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