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Belgium’s beer culture is officially a world treasure

Enshrined by UNESCO, Belgium’s “intangible cultural heritage” owes you.
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Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

Beer, I would argue, has no nationality. It has no ethnicity, no religion, and it carries no passports. Its deepest roots are local, not national … though you could plant those seeds anywhere and see what grows. It never seems to sprout up quite the same.

That argument goes against the way that we learn about beer. We learn about Belgian ale, German lager, British cask, Czech pils, American craft, and so on. As if every glass of beer we drink has a little national flag sticking out of it.

Much like beer styles, nationality provides a useful sort of shorthand—it’s a map, not the actual territory. It provides a label to help us understand each other when we talk about beer—or a keyword to help us manage expectations—but the reality is always more complex, more interesting. There is nothing magical about those national borders, unless tax law is magical. A beer brewed in the next village might taste far more different than one brewed just across the border.

Anyway: This week UNESCO approved Belgium’s application to have its beer culture named an “intangible cultural heritage.” You can read Belgium’s bid here. It’s there alongside the Cuban rumba, Dominican merengue, Indian yoga, North Korean folk wrestling, Czech and Slovak puppetry, and several things more obscure.

The application gamely tries to do justice to what it calls a “creative and sparkling beer landscape.” It emphasizes local brewing traditions like spontaneous fermentation for lambic, cooking with beer, style diversity, and the importance of the drink to daily life. “Because of the unprecedented diversity of the brewing art found in Belgium, as well as the intensity of the beer culture that is part of daily and festive life, the element is recognized as an identity and part of Belgium’s cultural heritage,” the application says.

This is all harmless, probably. At the least it’s a clever way to market the brand called “Belgian beer” to the international community, since the Belgians themselves only drink about 40 percent of it. The lion’s share goes abroad for the rest of us to enjoy. An NPR headline likened the honor to naming Belgian beer a “treasure of humanity.” I can’t imagine many enthusiasts would argue with that.

So why does this bug me?

For one thing, the wider beer world offers other treasures. As British beer writer Tim Hampson asked, “If Belgian brewers can do this, can British brewers do it too?” For that matter, what about Germany and its purity law? What about Czechia and its beautiful homegrown lagers? What about—dare we?—America and its distinctive IPA? (Though bourbon whiskey might have a stronger case.) I’d be cool with naming any of those things treasures of humanity. The Belgian case might set an interesting precedent for the boozes of the world. French wine isn’t on the list yet.

But there’s something else: An honor like this doesn’t accurately capture the debt that Belgian beer owes to the rest of the world. I’m not just talking about drinkers abroad, and the way that their thirst has helped to steer and preserve certain styles. Michael Jackson and American beer importers may have saved Saison Dupont, and thus modern saison as we know it today. What do authentic lambic brewers owe to foreign enthusiasts who wanted it when Belgians had nearly stopped drinking the stuff?

Meanwhile, brewing ideas and traditions pay little attention to national borders. By far the most popular type of beer in Belgium is pils. While the pintje is an essential part of understanding Belgian culture, let’s be honest: It’s become a vapid, adjunct-laden, quick-fermented bastardization of the stuff from Bavaria and Bohemia that once inspired it.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

Looking at Belgian specialty ales turns up more signs of pernicious foreign influence, like pales ales, IPAs, stouts and Scotch ales. A number of strong dark ales get the whiskey-barrel treatment these days—even Chimay!—and fruity American hops are as popular in Belgium as anywhere else. In our current age of variety brewers have accelerated the rate at which they look abroad for new ideas, and the Belgians are no exception.

Borrowing clever beer ideas from abroad is as much a Belgian pastime as avoiding taxes. Even the tart Flemish brown ales, though they evolved into something distinctive, owe their origins to Britain. In the 1870s Eugene Rodenbach went to England to practice brewing, and there learned how to ripen beer on oak and blend it afterward. His grandfather Pedro had started the Rodenbach brewery just a few years after helping Belgium gain its independence, but several of the long-running family breweries existed long before Belgium did. The country is 186 years young.

Hey: Even the monks who brewed what became Belgium’s most famous beers, the Trappists, originally came from France.

I don’t make these points to undermine the idea of “Belgian beer culture,” but rather to explain the real reasons it became so fascinating. It might be harmless for the United Nations to recognize its value, but it also underplays Belgian beer culture’s most important fuels: the international market of curious drinkers—that’s us—and Belgian beer’s long-running tradition of openness to ideas from abroad.

Culture isn’t declared from on high. It’s negotiated daily by people who live it, communicate it, compromise it, drink it, and borrow recipe ideas from wherever they damn please. Cultures are not countable, hard bubbles that stop at national borders; they are viscous and flow like spilled beer, intermingling all over the map.

Last thought: I read through that application. Nowhere does it mention Belgium’s true contribution to the world of beer: panache. And unlike funny glassware or spicy yeast, that one is definitely intangible.

 

Author
Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.

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