Il paese della birra

Res publica   27.12.11  

Il viaggio dell'Economist in Belgio, il paese della birra.

How did a nation that, aside from its mussels and chips, renowned chocolate and reviled Eurocrats (the European Parliament is on the site of an old brewery), has made little impact on the world, come to dominate in beer? The answer lies in Belgium's hybrid history and culture.

Beer is to Belgium as wine is to France. It is "ingrained in the culture", says Marc Stroobandt, an expert on Belgian beer. Belgians have been at it for a long time: the Romans are said to have brought brewing to this part of Europe; many Belgian breweries have origins in the Middle Ages. Stella Artois traces its roots to the Den Hoorn brewery, founded in Leuven in 1366: the horn remains on the beer's label to this day. Sebastian Artois brought his name to the brewery relatively late-in 1717.

Geography helped. A beer belt stretches across northern Europe, where it is too chilly to grow grapes that can be turned into half-decent wine. But the climate and the land are excellent for growing barley and hops, the basic ingredients of beer. Belgium is also known for its high-quality water, vital for turning out good beer. The town of Spa, whose name has become generic, is in eastern Belgium. As Sven Gatz, director of the Belgian Brewers' Federation, points out, being at a crossroads of Latin and Germanic Europe allowed Belgium to soak up influences from both that can still be tasted in its beer.

Herbs such as coriander and liquorice, spices such as ginger, and fruits such as cherries and raspberries, once popular among French brewers, are all still in use in Belgium. This French tradition endured where that country's influence is strongest, even after hops began to find a role in beermaking. Monastic brewers were disinclined or prevented from using that ingredient-the church deemed hops the "fruit of the devil". One explanation for this attitude might be the monopolies granted to bishops over the gruyt (as the mixture of herbs and spices was known) that went into beer. An intense medieval PR campaign was waged in the battle between gruyt and secular hops. Hildegard of Bingen, a medieval mystic, favoured gruyt, attacking hops for causing melancholy and the gentleman's affliction of "brewers' droop".

Germany's influence is still discernible, too. The Reinheitsgebot, a Bavarian beer-purity law dating back to 1516, banned anything but water, barley and hops. Where the Germanic tendency is more pronounced, hops have always been preferred. Elsewhere, Belgian brewers continued to try their luck with whatever they could find.

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