Ask someone who self-identifies as a “serious” beer drinker about the most important global beer destinations, and they might mention the rich cultural heritage of Germany, the Czech Republic and the U.K. They might also cite the comparatively recent craft beer explosion in the U.S.
But they will most certainly bring up Belgium.
Two and a half times smaller than the Czech Republic, and one-twelfth the size of Germany, Belgium enjoys a share of the global beer imagination that outweighs its minuscule footprint. So, what makes the land of chocolate and waffles outshine its Old World brewing competitors?
To start: variety.
“There weren’t that many heritage brewing countries back in the ’70s,” says Tim Webb, co-author of The World Atlas of Beer, among other books. “There was only really Czechoslovakia, West Germany, the U.K. and Belgium. Where Belgium differed from the other three was that Belgium had a huge range of beer styles.”
Comprising everything from rich dark ales to spritzy saisons and spontaneously fermented sour brews, Belgium’s range echoes the whimsical, all-encompassing smorgasbord of today’s craft beer world.
Joe Stange, managing editor of Craft Beer & Brewing magazine and Webb’s co-author for several recent editions of Good Beer Guide Belgium, credits idiosyncrasy for Belgium’s role as the “spiritual home” of brewing variety.
“How can saisons, Trappist ales and lambics all come from a place that’s roughly the size of Maryland? That’s absurd,” he says. “All of that variety comes out of a bunch of stubborn local traditions that were never nationally homogenized, as they mostly were in Germany.”
An inclination for brewers doing things their own way might have been one reason for Belgium’s fame. Fred Waltman, author of multiple European beer guides, says that Belgium also benefits from a romantic reputation.
“You’re drinking in a café, not a bar or beerhall,” says Waltman of the prototypical Belgian beer experience. “The beer comes in pretty glass that you sip. Brussels has a big French influence, which impresses Americans, or at least back in those days it did. And the bottle may have a cork in it, which impresses the hell out of some people.”
Other aspects have aided Belgium’s reputation, like the renown of Trappist monastery breweries, something almost exclusive to Belgium.
And then there is the country’s location, close to the U.K. and easy to reach from the U.S. Early beer travelers and journalists could discover the joys of Saison Dupont, Cantillon and the like on jaunts to Belgium in the 1970s and ’80s.
By contrast, the great beers of Germany’s Franconia brewing region, for example, lay another 400-odd miles to the southeast, with then-Czechoslovakia even more distant, locked behind the Iron Curtain until late 1989.
Belgium’s location in Western Europe led to another big bonus: Michael Jackson, an influential British beer writer, visited the country repeatedly before he began to promote the concept of beer styles as families of semi-related lagers and ales.
Along with his TV show, The Beer Hunter, Jackson’s books The World Guide to Beer, Pocket Guide to Beer and Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium introduced millions to the country’s legendary breweries. They outlined much of the language and concepts used by enthusiasts today.
“Would Michael Jackson have fallen so in love with it if it weren’t so easy to reach?” asks Stange. “He came down and became enthralled with brasseurs artisanales. Then we went and offered the world this taxonomy of the world’s beers, and there was no hiding the novelty and variety of Belgium compared to basically everywhere else.”
While Belgium’s shine has not faded, beer fans have started to pay more attention to other countries in recent years.
“I don’t think its reputation is going down, but Germany and Czechia, i.e., lagers, have gone up,” says Waltman. “If you exclude lambics, then there’s maybe not quite the interest [in Belgium that] there was in the past.”
That might not be such a bad thing. Webb says that Belgian brewers now focus on both quality and drinkability in ways that they haven’t needed to for decades, thanks to increased competition. But even if other countries now produce comparably good beers, they’ll still have trouble matching the grand storytelling around Belgian brewing, which Stange calls its “mythos.”
“The secret weapons in the Belgian arsenal are mythos, presentation and balance,” he says. “The stories matter. There is mythos attached, and that helps with the marketing. Farmers brewed beer for themselves and their seasonal workers. Monks brewed ales for themselves and their guests. And then there is the ‘magic’ of spontaneous fermentation.
“It would all seem really silly if the beers weren’t so damned tasty.”