Belgium is one of the cornerstones and true origins of our favorite carbonated drink. Beer is an integral part of its society, whether it be a refreshment after cycling flat backcountry roads or something to sip on while absorbed a card game of Kwajongen.
The little Benelux kingdom is roughly the size of Maryland, or Småland for that matter. Flanders, the Flemish speaking part, compromises roughly a third of this already small land area. Consisting of mostly farmland scattered with sleepy villages and scenic towns like Bruges and Ghent, the region is easily traversed in a short hour or two. Nestled in between big brothers France and Netherlands this gem of a place often ends up in the shawdow of the two. Flanders is perhaps a lesser known tourist destination, but nonetheless a perfect weekend trip.
I travelled through Flanders to learn about the region and its heritage. Unlike my native Sweden, Belgium still boasts a rich lineage of family brewers. Once home to some 3200 farmhouse breweries most have succumbed to the test of time and today about 180 remain. Two world wars, financial recensions and mergers being the main culprit to the low number. Twenty-two of these remaining breweries have joined forces in an association known as the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB). Memberships don't come too easy though as one criteria is that you've been "brewing beer in Belgium for at least 50 years non-stop".
On my roadtrip I had the chance to visit classic breweries like Timmermans, Bosteels, Duvel Moortgat, Verhaeghe, De Brabandere, Rodenbach, Omer Vander Ghinste and Huyghe. They're all members of BFB, some perhaps some more notable abroad than others. Among these producers many a time the beer brand itself is more known to the consumer than the brewery. Bosteels is for example responsible for both famed beers Kwak and Tripel Karmelit.
A commonality among these breweries is their impressive pedigree, some stretching back as far as to the Middle Ages. They're also often the unsung originators of many modern-day yeast driven and sour beer styles. Another common denominator they all developed is the skill of constant transformation, at the moment looking for their place in the ever-changing global craft beer environment.
An example of their adaptiveness is from the late 1940s when many breweries shifted their production to pale lager as the world experienced a surge in demand for them. Heavily relying on lager sales some breweries even renamed themselves to be synonymous with their best selling beer. Long and complicated family names were traded for shorter and punchier brand names. De Brabandere chose to go with Bavik, while Omer Vander Ghinste swapped to Bockor. The pendelum is now swinging back the other way, just last year, the above mentioned breweries reverted their company names back to match their family names.
One of the reasons of the latest transition is the current decline in lager sales and the rise of global craft beer. Belgian monastic and other specialty beers are winning peoples' hearts back and these breweries naturally want to latch onto this development.
They all come heavily packed with extensive beer portfolios showcasing various brand families and niche products. From easy-drinking blondes and wits to heavy-duty indulgences like tripels, quadrupels, and other abbey ales. Some styles require a so-called acquired taste, while others, like the sweetened fruit beers, flirt aggressively with consumer research and marketing trends.
You could delve into the vast variety of Belgian beer styles and get lost for ever. But we won't. Out of pure egotistical reasons I've chosen to focus on a style I cherish above all others. It's the foeder (vertical wooden vats) fermented and aged Flemish sour ale, mainly found and brewed in West Flanders. In my regard the star of Flemish beer. It's sweet and tart, and it comes a range of colors.
The blonde De Brabandere Petrus Aged Pale, the reddish style defining, Verhaeghe Duchesse De Bourgogne, and the brown Liefmans Goudenband. The style could as easily be illustrated by the beautiful interpretations of Omer Vander Ghinste Cuvée Des Jacobins and Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Producing these beers is both a time and resource consuming feat as the finished product is a blend of a younger and older (aged) base ale. In most cases a 1/3 of younger (jonge) beer is mixed with 2/3 aged (oude) beer. The result is multi-layered and elegant libation with a sessionable quality to it.
Although not lambics by definition, select Flemish sour ales do undergo spontaneous fermentation. More commonly it's the lactic bacteria and acetobacter hidden away in the oaken foeders that inoculates the beer adding character and complexity. The acidic traits of the Flemish sour ale lends it a vinous and tart, almost wine like profile. As a first time experience you might not even know that it's actually beer sloshing around in your cup. Santé!