THE Trappist Abbey of St Sixtus of Westvleteren has little to offer those wishing to gawp at ecclesiastical architecture. The 19th-century buildings—squat, brick and functional—sit on a quiet country lane amid flat farmland, close to Belgium’s border with France. Yet the vast visitors’ car park is a clue that some people nevertheless consider the abbey worth a trip. For beer lovers, St Sixtus is a place of pilgrimage.
The abbey and its most famous brew, Westvleteren 12—a dark, strong ale—have taken first or second place in an annual poll of beer enthusiasts’ favourite tipples by RateBeer.com, a widely trusted reviewing website, for the whole decade that the survey has been running. Yet exactly how the American drinkers who predominate on the site get to knock back a Westvleteren 12 is something of a mystery.
Visit the abbey—no easy jaunt on public transport—and you can drink it to your heart’s content, or your head’s. But it is hard to buy elsewhere. The monks tightly ration takeaway sales of the tiny quantities they produce. The abbey’s website gives details of the brief windows when buyers may attempt to call with an order. If they are lucky and get through, they will be allotted a time to arrive at St Sixtus. They are then permitted to purchase two cases (four dozen 33cl bottles) in return for a solemn undertaking that the beer will not find its way to a third party.
Evidently some people are prepared to lie to a monk for the sake of beer. Cases of Westvleteren 12, on sale at €39 ($53) at the abbey, turn up on online beer-sellers for as much as $800. (In a rare easing of the rules, in November the monks released a batch of 93,000 six-packs for the Belgian market, to pay for repairs to the abbey. Next year 70,000 six-packs will go on sale worldwide.)
As well as having a good claim to brew the best beer in the world, Belgium is also home to the world’s biggest brewer. Anheuser-Busch (AB) InBev, based in Leuven, a small university town half an hour by train from Brussels, turns out one in five of every beer sold around the world. Across the road from head office, the ultra-modern Stella Artois brewery pumps out one of the firm’s best-known international brands.
If St Sixtus fails to match the splendour of a medieval cathedral, the main brewing hall at Stella Artois comes close. The quiet and cavernous interior is dominated by 15 immense stainless-steel brewing kettles, whose column-like spouts soar heavenwards. In different ways both St Sixtus and Stella Artois illustrate the reverence with which Belgians regard their beer.
Their country also makes a bigger range than any other—1,131 at the last count. Apart from six Trappist ales and other abbey beers, it churns out lagers such as Stella Artois and its stablemate Jupiler, the more popular brew in Belgium. Tipplers can also choose from an array of wheat beers, brown ales, red beers from West Flanders, golden ales, saison beers based on old farmhouse recipes, and any number of regional brews. Oddest are the austere, naturally fermented lambic beers of Brussels and the nearby Senne valley, a throwback to the days before yeast was tamed. These anachronisms have survived only in Belgium.
Some people are prepared to lie to a monk for the sake of beer
The country generously shares its creations with the rest of the world. It is one of the biggest exporters of beer in absolute terms and as a proportion of national production (statistics boosted by the worldwide thirst for Stella Artois). More than half the booze it makes is sent abroad.
How did a nation that, aside from its mussels and chips, renowned chocolate and reviled Eurocrats (the European Parliament is on the site of an old brewery), has made little impact on the world, come to dominate in beer? The answer lies in Belgium’s hybrid history and culture.
Beer is to Belgium as wine is to France. It is “ingrained in the culture”, says Marc Stroobandt, an expert on Belgian beer. Belgians have been at it for a long time: the Romans are said to have brought brewing to this part of Europe; many Belgian breweries have origins in the Middle Ages. Stella Artois traces its roots to the Den Hoorn brewery, founded in Leuven in 1366: the horn remains on the beer’s label to this day. Sebastian Artois brought his name to the brewery relatively late—in 1717.
Geography helped. A beer belt stretches across northern Europe, where it is too chilly to grow grapes that can be turned into half-decent wine. But the climate and the land are excellent for growing barley and hops, the basic ingredients of beer. Belgium is also known for its high-quality water, vital for turning out good beer. The town of Spa, whose name has become generic, is in eastern Belgium. As Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian Brewers’ Federation, points out, being at a crossroads of Latin and Germanic Europe allowed Belgium to soak up influences from both that can still be tasted in its beer.
Herbs such as coriander and liquorice, spices such as ginger, and fruits such as cherries and raspberries, once popular among French brewers, are all still in use in Belgium. This French tradition endured where that country’s influence is strongest, even after hops began to find a role in beermaking. Monastic brewers were disinclined or prevented from using that ingredient—the church deemed hops the “fruit of the devil”. One explanation for this attitude might be the monopolies granted to bishops over the gruyt (as the mixture of herbs and spices was known) that went into beer. An intense medieval PR campaign was waged in the battle between gruyt and secular hops. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, favoured gruyt, attacking hops for causing melancholy and the gentleman’s affliction of “brewers’ droop”.
Germany’s influence is still discernible, too. The Reinheitsgebot, a Bavarian beer-purity law dating back to 1516, banned anything but water, barley and hops. Where the Germanic tendency is more pronounced, hops have always been preferred. Elsewhere, Belgian brewers continued to try their luck with whatever they could find.
Only here for the beer
Thus the turbulence of the country’s history has stimulated its brewers. At one time or another most of Europe’s great powers have held sway over Belgium; many have left behind influences and flavours. The Dutch, the last outside power to occupy Belgium before the first world war, sent traders to scour the East Indies for new spices, many of which found their way into Belgian beer. (The Belgians kicked the Dutch out to gain independence in 1830 in part because they objected to heavy taxes on beer.)
As the gruyt wars suggest, the institutions of Catholicism played a part, too. Monasteries traditionally brewed beer to sell to support their abbeys, to offer to travellers staying as guests and as “liquid bread”, a source of nourishment during Lent. Until the end of the 19th century, even when laymen ran breweries it was often educated monks who were at the forefront of the art and technology of beermaking.
All these factors encouraged experimentation. Aside from herbs, spices and hops, other stranger substances such as mustard, coffee and chocolate have found their way into the country’s beer. Pete Brown, a British beer writer, is only half joking when he sees a common thread between the “strange and mad” brews that are the country’s hallmark and another of Belgium’s relatively few gifts to the world—surrealism.
The number of breweries in Belgium peaked at the turn of the 20th century. By 1907 the country boasted nearly 3,400 commercial beermakers (compared with only around 100 today, or 12 per million people—still pretty generous compared with five per million in America). Belgians could and did enjoy a huge range of beers.
These brewers had considerable advantages over their counterparts in other countries. In Britain beer was a drink of the lower orders: no such snobbishness obtained in Belgium. Heavy import duties discouraged Belgians from buying French wine. Competition from spirits was blunted by the temperance movement, explains Mr Brown. In Belgium it led to hefty duties on genever, a gin-like drink consumed by the Dutch, hitting its popularity. Brewers, some of whom were also politicians, managed to escape attack. Belgium’s strong beers owe something to this period: many brewers upped the alcohol content to console drinkers forced to give up genever.
This lack of alternatives guaranteed brewers a large and thirsty market. In 1900 Belgians drank 200 litres per head, roughly double what Britons and Germans were putting away. Today thirsts have dried up a little: a typical Belgian now quaffs just 84 litres a year.
The rise of AB InBev began in the halcyon years of the early 20th century. Before the first world war Belgian brewing was still highly fragmented. Start-up costs were low and transport expensive, so local, family-owned firms tended to predominate.
Technological advance led to rapid consolidation. Belgian beers (strictly speaking, ales) were top fermented: the yeasty foam produced in the brewing process sat atop the liquid. But by the end of the 19th century a technique invented in Bavaria and developed in Bohemia arrived in Belgium. Lager, where the fermentation takes place at the bottom of the brewing vessel at a much lower temperature, required much more investment for artificial chilling and longer maturing times. But the clear, golden beer that resulted quickly caught on with consumers. One such was developed by Artois, by then Belgium’s second-largest brewer. Its special Christmas brew of 1926 was decorated with a festive star: Stella Artois.
After dominating Belgian brewing for much of the century, at the end of it the firm embarked on an international consolidation before the world’s other main brewers caught on. Interbrew, as Belgium’s biggest brewer was then known, bought Canada’s Labatts in 1995 and merged with Brazil’s AmBev to forge the world’s largest outfit in 2004. The merged firm, InBev, snapped up Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, in 2008.
These days, as America’s microbrewing boom shows, discerning drinkers are keen to try new and unusual brews. Belgium’s smaller breweries, with their niche beers, have benefited.
On the Grand Place in Brussels stand the ornate guild houses of the city’s ancient trades. The bakers’ and butchers’ houses are now restaurants. Another has become a bank. Yet the brewers’ house is still home to the Brewers’ Federation.
The ceremony with which Belgian beer is poured and drunk betokens a love of beer that no other country can match. Arguments in a Belgian bar will not revolve around anything so trivial as politics or football. Fierce debate might centre on the correct glass in which to serve a Stella. In its hometown of Leuven it is a flat-sided tumbler; elsewhere only one with diamond mouldings near the base will do. A barman who neglects to inquire whether you prefer your bottle of Duvel shaken slightly to mix in the yeasty lees shouldn’t expect a tip.
Though its brewers have much to celebrate, Belgium as a whole is troubled. Among the most pressing problems is the bitter Wallonian-Flemish political divide that left the country without a permanent government for much for 2010 and 2011. A dissolution of the nation no longer looks impossible. Still, Belgians intending to drown their sorrows at least have an excellent variety of beers with which to do the job.