W hen you ask people around the world what they associate with ‘Belgium,’ some will say ‘Belgium?’ while those who have heard of the country will typically associate it with chocolates, waffles, Brussels or Bruges, soccer and, of course, beer.
But not ‘flagship’ beer.
We don’t really understand the notion of a flagship beer, thinking it a trendy buzzword invented by marketing gurus and sales reps. We just have beers. Some are excellent, the majority are good and a few are bad. Oh yes, and some beers sell better than others, but the term flagship beer was quite unknown until recently.
To appreciate why this is and understand Belgian beer and beer culture, you have to first grasp the country’s geography, history, politics, religions and legal regulations.
Belgium is part of the beer belt that stretches across northern Europe, where it is too chilly to grow grapes that can be turned into half-decent wine, but where the climate and the land are excellent for growing barley and hops. Ours is also a country known for its high-quality water, vital for turning out good beer. (The town of Spa, whose name has become a generic term for healing waters, is located in eastern Belgium.)
On the one hand, the invaders have left behind influences and flavours, while on the other, we held strongly to our tried and tested local ways and fomented a distrust of central government and foreign fashion. So our brewers found a balance between external influences and remaining faithful to local tradition.
As a result of this political compartmentalization, most villages had at least two breweries: a Catholic one and a socialist or liberal one. In most cases, the owner of one was also the mayor of the village, free beer being a great tool to convince the voters. (Belgium was also a hiding place for Catholic monks chased from France, Germany and the Netherlands, so it’s not a coincidence that six of the Trappist breweries are located on Belgium soil.) Belgium never had a Rheinheitsgebot like Germany or absurdly high taxes on beer like England, so Belgian brewers’ hands were free to experiment.
In 1919, a government regulation known as “Wet Vandervelde” banned the sale of gin in pubs and taverns. The captains of industry paid their workers in the local pub, owned by those same business leaders, of course. and as a result of this ingenious system, the working-class spent their salaries on gin, leaving their wives and children in poverty. The regulation missed its goal, but as a side effect, it opened up a market for stronger beers aimed to please drinkers used to gin. And so strong Belgian ales were born.
All these factors ensured the great variety of Belgian beers. Now that you understand our beer culture, I can reveal my favorite icon: Westmalle Tripel, brewed by the monks of the Westmalle Trappist abbey. It’s a world-class beer, high in carbonation, sweet at the outset, immaculately balanced, fruity in the middle and wonderfully, gently bitter in its final act. It’s a true icon and a classic example of the style.
So flagship beers? No, not really. But true beer icons? Absolutely!
Flagship beers were chosen by the individual writers with no input from the #FlagshipFebruary partners or sponsor breweries.