Mapping Belgian beer

Breandán Kearney uncovers the regional beer traditions of Belgium

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In 2018, two American filmmakers—Peter Bragiel and Jake Viramontez—set out to explore the beer culture of Belgium by riding their bikes around the country. 

Their plan: cycle through Belgium’s coastal plains in the north, across sandy dunes, flat polders, and gentle hills; spin their wheels through its central plateau, large arable land with a smattering of heath and woodland; traverse the Ardennes plateau in the south, full of ridges, forests, and steep-sided valleys carved out by swift-flowing rivers; and criss-cross the invisible language divide between Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia. 

Bragiel and Viramontez’s specific goal was to visit Belgium’s six Trappist breweries, each of which is located in a different province: Westvleteren in West Flanders; Chimay in Hainaut; Orval in Luxembourg; Rochefort in Namur; Achel in Limburg; and Westmalle in Antwerp. The trip would reveal the varied make-up of Belgium’s landscape, sometimes picturesque, other times dramatic. It would showcase the deeply-embedded local quirks of its people. And most strikingly, it would reveal the surprising regionality of Belgium’s beer culture.

In the Regions

The Kingdom of Belgium is tiny. 11.5 million people are crammed into around 30,000 square kilometres: that’s almost twice as many people as on the island of Ireland in less than half the space. On the face of it, it’s hard to see how it’s home to such a diverse range of indigenous beer styles. But it is.

The country is a complex construction, with three official languages and six different governments. Subject to a varied array of institutional regimes and bureaucracies over the last millennium, Belgians developed work-arounds, many of which have helped maintain the quirk of their regional brewing identities in the face of increased globalisation. 

A whole range of factors have influenced how regional brewing identities developed: the language spoken; the historical connections to previous rulers; the agricultural landscape and ingredients available to brewers; how urban or rural your immediate market for beers might be; and the density of, and competition between, breweries in each region. 

Cartographical Exploration

The Pajottenland and Senne Valley 

The areas around Brussels known as the Pajottenland and the Senne Valley are Lambic land. The Pajottenland is a fertile agricultural region to the south-west of Brussels, with gently rolling hills and bustling villages. The Senne river runs through the valley, through Lambic-producing towns, and into the heart of Brussels.

There’s a small cohort of Lambic breweries here, producing a spontaneously fermented wheat ale often blended across different ages to create Geuze. These include institutions such as Boon, 3 Fonteinen, and Cantillon. There are also blenders such as Oud Beersel, De Cam, and Hanssens, who buy Lambic wort to age and blend themselves. 

Up until very recently, brewers and blenders of Lambic, as much a cultural artefact as a brewing process, argued it was only possible to produce Lambic here, and nowhere else, but it’s now widely accepted that variants of the microorganisms essential to the production of Lambic can be found naturally all over the world. 

Flemish Brabant

The area around Leuven in the province of Flemish Brabant is synonymous with Belgian Witbier. This spiced wheat ale was brewed here as early as the fourteenth century, long before Belgian milkman Pierre Celis revived the style during the 1960s in the town of Hoegaarden. At its peak in 1758, the town of Hoegaarden supported thirty-eight breweries, the last of which—the Tomsin Brewery— closed in 1957.

The growing of wheat in the region around Leuven sparked many different types of white beer, including: the Leuvensch Wit, often consumed very young with a herbal profile resulting from mashing with rootlets intact; the Peeterman, boiled longer giving a darker colour with honey-like notes; and the Hoegaardse, made with both wheat and wind-dried barley malt, spontaneous fermentation in a wooden coolship, and natural acidification by wild lactic acid bacteria.


The Port of Antwerp

Antwerp’s regional beer identity largely stems from it being Europe’s second biggest sea port after Rotterdam. Food and beer cultures from all around the world were transported to Belgium through Antwerp, filtering down into local culture in a multitude of ways. 

In Antwerp’s historical “Seefhoek”—a city quarter built at the north edge of the town for dock workers—it’s believed that approximately 100 breweries brewed a style of beer called Seefbier in the sixteenth century. Former Director of Duvel Moortgat Johan Van Dyck recreated what he believes to be Seefbier in 2012, a hazy blond ale of 6.5% ABV brewed with barley, wheat, oats, and buckwheat. 

The port also facilitated the introduction of spices previously unavailable to Belgian brewers, as well as foreign beers, particularly those from the British Isles. John Martin established his brewery by first importing Guinness Special Export through Antwerp, a business which his grandson still runs today. The influence of imported English Ales might have had an impact on the creation and evolution of Antwerp’s undisputed city beer, the Bolleke. The Belgian Pale Ale from Brouwerij De Konnick marries the subtle fruity esters and malt character of an English Bitter with the full-bodied, more carbonated characteristics of a Belgian ale. 

The North Coast

Heading west from the port of Antwerp is Belgium’s truncated northern coastline. The fishing industries of Ostend, Nieuwpoort, De Panne, Koksijde, and Oostduinkerke drew fishing fleets and fresh catches which gave rise to restaurants in these villages cooking with beer and pairing seafood with beers: Mussels cooked in Witbier; Oysters served with Belgian Dark Ales; and Grey shrimps cooked in Flemish Red-Brown beer.

Beers such as Struise’s Pannepot—referred to by the brewery as “Old Fisherman’s Ale”—takes its name from the fishing trawlers on which “men would risk their lives to feed their families”. It sits somewhere on the spectrum between a Belgian Dark Strong Ale and an Imperial Stout, and would warm the coldest of cockles after a long fishing trip.

The Leiestreek and South West Flanders 

The Leiestreek and surrounding countryside in South West Flanders is Flemish Red-Brown territory.

The river Leie defines this region, cutting through rich agricultural land and promoting the spinning and weaving of flax. This created prosperous and densely urbanised 17th century municipalities which grew into modern-day cities like Kortrijk, Kuurne, Harelbeke, Waregem, and Roeselare.

Flemish Red-Browns are beers of mixed fermentation, most commonly aged for long periods in large oak foeders before being blended or cut with younger beer in various ratios depending on the desired result. These beers involve a balance of malt sweetness and flavour compounds which derive predominantly from lactic acid bacteria, although different versions can express the personality of other bacteria and wild yeast.

The four main family brewers producing Flemish Red-Brown beer are located here—Rodenbach, Vander Ghinste, De Brabandere, and Verhaeghe—sometimes collaborating, as in the now-defunct Rondje Roodbruin tour—but more often competing. Their cafés sit side by side in towns and villages across the region. Other newer players in the world of Flemish Red-Brown include Van Honsebrouck, Strubbe, Alvinne, and ‘t Verzet.

The Westhoek 

The Westhoek (“hoek” means “corner”) is a region in the north west of Belgium affected by the legacy of war, with graves of First World War soldiers from the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Germany dotted around almost every village. This is reflected in the region’s beer culture, with beers such as Passchendaele, Wipers Times, and Flanders Fields Ale commemorating the tragic suffering which took place here.

Because of its mild maritime climate and fertile soil—it’s only 180 kilometres as the crow flies from the hop fields of Kent—the Westhoek has become Belgium’s hop growing region. 159 hectares of the country’s 184 hectares of hops are grown in the Westhoek, and a tight-knit community of sixteen hop growers located around the city of Poperinge deliver three quarters of the country’s hops.

The beers of the Westhoek reflect a pride in their hop-growing culture, such as those from hop farm brewery De Plukker, but you’ll find plenty more than just hops: from the Trappist brewery of Westvleteren to the schoolhouse experimentation of De Struise; from the iconic cave-like setting of Kazematten to the highly-regarded family brewery Sint Bernardus; from the history-inspired mixed fermentation projects of Seizoensbrouwerij Vandewalle to Leroy, one of the oldest breweries in Belgium.

Hainaut 

The province of Hainaut (or Henegouwen in Flemish) in Belgium’s “mid-west” is thought to be the home of two indigenous Belgian beer styles: Saison and Belgian Scotch Ale. The region is the most populous of the Walloon provinces, home to the cities Charleroi, Mons, and Tournai. Outside of these cities are small former farming villages where brewing was tied to a range of agricultural activities.

While there has been some suggestion in recent years that Saison has a history in the industrial city of Liège, the concept of a dry, fermentation-forward ale primarily consumed by seasonal farm workers in Hainaut is borne out by the larger number of traditional Saison breweries that still survive here. Brasserie Dupont of Tourpes (and of Saison Dupont fame) is world-famous and highly regarded, but neighbouring breweries in Hainaut produce a range of Saisons with varying degrees of ABV, colour, bitterness, attenuation and fermentation profile: Blaugies, Dubuisson, Saint-Feuillien, à Vapeur, Cazeau, Des Légendes, and Silly.

Brasserie Silly in Hainaut is also responsible for the creation of Belgian Scotch Ale as a style. During the First World War, Scottish soldier Jack Peyne was stationed in the village of Silly and approached the local brewery to ask if he could assist brewing an ale like those he had enjoyed at home. Peyne eventually went on to work for the brewery in Silly and his family live on in the village. Brasserie Silly still produces their Scotch today, a dark sweet ale of 7.5% ABV, as well as a range of barrel-aged iterations in Jack Daniels, Cognac, Bourbon, Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Chardonnay barrels. 

The Haspengouw 

Travelling east, the Haspengouw (or Hesbaye in French) has been a centre of agricultural production since before Roman times.

The Haspengouw is particularly known for its fruit, with millions of apple, pear, and cherry trees growing across its hilly landscape of clay and lime substrate. It’s perfect for long walks and peaceful bike rides. Every year in April, these fruit trees blossom together, lighting up the Haspengouw in blankets of pink and white. 

While the Haspengouw is not home to many breweries—Wilderen, Jessenhofke, Kerkom, Ter Dolen, and Den Toetëlèr among them—it is a source for much of the fruit used in Belgian beers. Raf Souvereyns of blendery Bokke, highly-respected for the quality of his fruit Lambic blends, originally worked in a winery in the region and sources his red vineyard peaches, pinot noir grapes, and other fruit from local farmers in the Haspengouw. 

The Trip 

Peter Bragiel and Jake Viramontez finished their cycling route around Belgium in 10 days, successfully visiting each of the six Trappist breweries. They filmed the journey and uploaded a series of videos to their Youtube channel, calling their video series “the Heart of Belgium” because when they mapped their cycling route around Belgium, it made the shape of a heart. 

The heart is often used as a symbol for love, and a trip around Belgium’s regions will inspire devotion to the country’s beer. But, like the heart’s more functional purpose at the centre of the body’s cardiovascular system, Belgium’s regional beer traditions are central to everything that happens in brewing and café culture here. Without its regional heartlands, Belgian beer would die.


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