THE HISTORY OF BELGIAN BEER (part 1)

The Bravest

Julius Caesar wrote more than 2000 years ago that the “Belgae” were the bravest under the Gaul’s. He defeated them, so he must have been braver. Although beer was the beverage of choice for the common people in the Roman Empire, Julius was surprised to learn that those Gaul’s were drinking such high quantities of a more potent version. During 400 years the influence of the Roman-culture was so strong that not only the wine-making made its way up to the North but also the Celtic languages of the Gauls were gradually replaced by a “Roman” language which is the origin of French. In the next centuries, for more than 1000 years, when the average temperatures were higher than today, wine was also cultivated in what is now Belgium.
In several of the Belgian Beers, you still can enjoy the influence of the wine-making: the spontaneous fermented lambics (Cherish, …), the aging in wine-casks (Petrus Old Brown, …), the re-fermentation in the bottles (Piraat, Sara, Hommel Ale, …) and the brewing styles of the Catholic Abbeys (Augustijn, Bornem, …)
About 400 years after Julius Caesar, a mass-movement of tribes from the East, the Germans, moved into Western Europe and defeated, chased and absorbed the Gauls. (In the 20th century they came back twice but stayed only for a couple of years. Now, they come once a year, not all together and stay only for a week in the Belgian tourist spots.) The Germans moved West because they became under pressure on their Eastern borders by Asian tribes like the one of Attila The Hun and many others. These Asian warlords were stopped in 451 on the plains of France and chased from Western Europe by a coalition of the German tribes and what was left of the Roman Empire. These Asian tribes continued to rule the Russian mainland for centuries.

No law on beer

The German Culture and the Roman culture influenced each other but one never replaced the other. Instead a language frontier and even a cultural frontier emerged between the Roman-speaking tribes and the German-speaking tribes. This frontier divides modern Belgium right in the middle, stretches farther over Luxembourg, the Elzas (France), Switzerland … The Germans brought their grains and brewing techniques with them like the wheat-style beers (Wittekerke, …).
In the next centuries, the Low Lands (common name for what is now Belgium and the Netherlands), were sometimes independent and very prosperous, sometimes ruled and plundered by all surrounding nations: Vikings, France, Austria, Spain, Germany … The good result, brought by these foreign invaders, is that the Belgians disrespect authority. It goes that far, that the Belgians voted in recent general elections for corrupt politicians, who never tell the truth and who always raise taxes. Who cares? Everybody cheats on taxes. The best part is: the higher the taxes, the higher the national debt. An absolute world-record: 140 % of the GDP. The good news for us, beer-lovers, is: no law tells a Belgian brewer how to brew his beer. This is one of the reasons why Belgians enjoy the widest selection of different beer-styles in the world. Other nations, like the Germans, have a large selection of excellent beers, but most of these beers are Pilsner-style beers.
In the fourteenth and fifthteenth century Flanders and Wallonia, the 2 States of modern Belgium, were very prosperous. Cities like Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Brussel, Tournai and Liege were cultural and political centers of the world. All these cities were involved with international trade with the rest of Europe and the Middle East. They were all at the top of technology and craftsmanship. You can compare their wealth with the splendor and good fortune, at the same time, of the Italian cities (Venice, Padua, Torino …) and the Scandinavian cities (Kopenhagen, Stockholm, …) and Northern German cities (Bremen, Hamburg, Dantzig …) along the coast of the Baltic sea.
Brugge (Bruges) was called the “Venice of the North” because of all its canals, where ships from all over Europe traded their merchandise. The Oldest known Stock-Exchange of the world can still be visited in the center of Brugge. In fact, the word “bourse”, another word for stock-exchange, comes from the Flemish word “beurs”. The houses and cathedrals built in that era, and the artwork of the Flemish painters Bruegel, Memlinck, Rubens, Van Dijck and many others are still the witnesses of the power and the richness of Flanders. Examples of these paintings can be admired in all major museums of the world. They are catalogued as “Flemish Primitives”. A strange name when you see the picture-like details of these paintings.

 Overseas beer

Thanks to the international trade and the craftsmanship, these cities became very powerful and were governed like a republic, where the rulers stood close to and were part of the people. Some historians claim that the absence of higher layers of government and the self-rule of these small identities is the main reason for the economic successes of that time. It was free-trade and free enterprise at its top. Free thinking and criticism of the higher powers, church and kings, leads to the emergence of new ideas and Protestantism.
The cities, and thus the people, had the money and that was something the kings didn’t like. When the King and Queen of France visited Brugge at the end of the thirteenth century, the Queen was mad because the women of Burgess’s Trading families were better dressed than herself. All over Europe we see the Kings and Emperors bring the cities and the regions back under their control, and sadly enough, they succeed. Imperialism of the French, English and Spanish kings brings devastating wars and illnesses over Europe and the decline of the economic well-being of the population. This will create the ideal circumstances (oppression, poverty, sickness …) for the people to take a new chance and migrate to new discovered territories like the Americas. And, these immigrants brought of course their beer to the new world!

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