01.12.2016 - UNESCO Office in Brussels

UNESCO has listed Belgium's beer culture among the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

Making and appreciating beer is part of the living heritage of a range of communities throughout Belgium.

As of November 30, your Belgian cultural experience will include drinking one of the country’s world-famous beers. By inscribing Belgium’s beer culture on the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list, UNESCO has recognized Belgian beer as playing a key role in daily life of Belgians. This cultural element provides feelings of identity in a country where you can find breweries, clubs, museums, courses, training, events, festivals, restaurants and cafes contributing to the beer landscape across all provinces.

Beer plays a role in daily life, as well as festive occasions. The nomination form submitted to UNESCO by the German-speaking community made the importance of the beer culture very clear: ‘In Belgium, some 200 breweries produce approximately 1,500 beers, most of which are craft or speciality beers, of more than 50 kinds.’ These beers are divided into four types of fermentation for which Belgium is famous: ‘spontaneous’ (ambic beers), ‘high’ (trappist beers), ‘mixed’ (brown beers), and ‘low’ (similar to pilsner beers). The outstanding diversity of the cultural element is due to the brewers' creativity, the requirements of knowledgeable consumers and a wide variety of brewing ingredients and methods unique to Belgium. Beer is also used for cooking, including in the creation of products like beer-washed cheese.

It is the combination of a beer tradition stretching back over centuries and the passion displayed by today’s brewers in their search for the perfect beer which has made Belgium the home of exceptional beers, unique in character and produced with an innovative knowledge of brewing.

The art of brewing beer is as old as civilisation itself and originated in Mesopotamia in 9000 BC. Over time, beer found its way to Gaul via Egypt and the Roman Empire and because beer brewing was, initially, a household task, the very first brewers were women. In the Middle Ages, abbeys became centres of knowledge about agriculture, livestock and certain crafts, including brewing beer, and monks were allowed to drink limited amounts of their regional beverage because the quality of the drinking water was so unsanitary. In southern Europe the daily drink was wine, so the monks living there concentrated on growing grapes and winemaking, but because our region’s climate did not favour the production of wine, the locals turned to beer brewing instead. So, thanks to the monks, beer brewing devolved from a domestic activity into a true, artisanal craft.

It was during the Middle Ages that beers were flavoured for the first time with a herbal mixture called “gruit”. Brewers had to purchase this mixture from the “gruithuis” (see the Gruuthuuse in Bruges) but the abbeys were exempt from this obligation and switched to hops because it helped preserve the beer, giving it a longer shelf life. In the 11th century the Benedictine Abbey of Affligem played an important role in the introduction of hop-growing in Flanders.

In 1364, Emperor Charles IV enacted the “Novus Modus Fermentandi Cerevisiam” decree, seeking to improve the quality of beer with his ’new’ brewing method that required brewers to use hops. This decree had to be followed throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the German Nation to which Brabant and Imperial Flanders (Rijks-Vlaanderen), the region to the east of the Scheldt, belonged. However, in Flanders, the region to the west of the Scheldt, the right to use gruit was uphheld, and, as a result of this division, Belgian beer culture diversified. Brewers in Imperial Flanders and Brabant brewed hopped beers, which kept for longer, while the gruit beers continued to be brewed in Flanders where brewers acidified their beer to help preserve it. This led to the development of red-brown beers. In the 11th century the Benedictine Abbey of Affligem played an important role in the introduction of hop growing in Flanders.  

Several organizations of brewers exist who work with communities on a broad level to advocate responsible beer consumption. Sustainable practice has also become part of the culture with recyclable packaging encouraged and new technologies to reduce water usage in production processes. Besides being transmitted in the home and social circles, knowledge and skills are also passed down by master brewers who run classes in breweries, specialized university courses that target those involved in the field and hospitality in general, public training programmes for entrepreneurs and small test breweries for amateur brewers.

Credits of the historical part of this article go to Visit Flanders.

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