Belgium’s centuries-old beers, product of the small country’s location at a culinary and cultural crossroads between north and southern Europe, are taking the world’s tipplers by storm.
From red to golden ales and sour cherry froth, lagers to stouts and lambic beers, the fame of Belgian brews has sent exports soaring 70 per cent over the past decade, with 62 per cent of the beer produced last year shipped abroad.
In Australia, the Belgian beers to look out for are Hoegaarden, on old beer that predates the use of hops and is spiced with curacao peel and coriander seeds; and Chimay, the king of the trappist brews, a strong beer that unlike most can be put in the cellar for a few years.
More varieties can be found at Australia’s four Belgian Beer Cafes.
“Beer is to Belgium what wine is to France, it gives our small country a real identity,” says Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian Brewers’ Federation housed in an old guildhall on Brussels’ central square, the Grand Place.
Sales of Belgian beer are exploding in Japan, Gatz said.
The price of a pint of Belgian brew in a Tokyo pub is likely to be four times as expensive as in Brussels, however.
“People order just one or two, as they would a glass of whisky or very good wine,” Gatz said.
“The quality of our beers attracts the new young professionals,” he added
Beer, like bread, is thousands of years old and essentially composed of cereal, water and yeast.
Said to be the third most popular drink after water and tea, it is the globe’s most widely consumed alcoholic beverage.
Belgium’s 150 brewers prefer to innovate with spices rather than adhere to the classical recipes of Germany and northern Europe.
“German beers are pure, using only four elements (malt, yeast, hops and water), always made the same way,” Gatz added.
“We’re all over the place, we do everything and anything,” he said
Belgium’s speciality is its “savoir-faire” with hops and yeasts, and techniques such as re-fermenting in bottles, says Olivier Degehet of Bocq brewery, which exports the well-known Blanche de Namur brand (available in Australia through local mail-order companies).
“Belgium profited from the global boom in beer thanks to its positive image,” says Vincent Caulier, head of the Caulier brewery.
As intake dropped in local watering holes, the industry turned to the export market.
“People drink less but go for quality and authenticity,” he said.
France remains Belgium’s top buyer, followed by the Netherlands, the US, Germany, Britain and Italy.
“The prospects look good in the remainder of Asia and in Latin America due to the rise of a middle class keen for classy foreign products,” adds Gatz.
Among the most popular brands are the trappist beers produced over centuries by monasteries. Belgium boasts six of the world’s eight trappist brands, including Chimay, Orval and Westvleteren.
The latter’s most famous brew, Westvleteren 12, is regularly voted first or second best of the world’s beers by RateBeer.com. The number in its name comes from its strength – 12 per cent.