Explore Belgium’s brewing tradition and sly sense of humor.
By Pete Brown
OK, name 10 famous Belgians. Go on. You can’t? Thought not.
Whenever someone mentions Belgium, in any context, Brits can’t resist issuing this challenge. The fact that most of us couldn’t name 10 famous French people, or five famous Russians, is not the point. The point is that this little game confirms something we all know: Belgium is the most boring country in the world.
A decade ago, the Channel Tunnel created a rail link between England and continental Europe. You can now get on a train in London, and in two or three hours you’re pulling into Paris or Brussels. Paris; that makes sense. Everyone loves Paris. But Brussels? Well, it’s where the headquarters of the European Union are. That must be why.
If I asked you to name 10 famous Belgian beers, your answer would probably be very different. Names like Duvel, Maredsous and Orval would spill from your lips. Most of those Brits sneering at Belgium have no idea these beers exist. But slowly, more people are getting on that train to Brussels, and when they return and people ask them about famous Belgians, instead of taking part, they just smile knowingly to themselves.
They know the secret: Belgium is interesting. In fact, it’s compelling. This is a nation about the size of Maryland, but with three official languages among its 10 million people. Belgians invented pigeon racing, fries and the saxophone. The Carnivale de Binche sees a parade of people wearing huge headdresses made of ostrich feathers pelting spectators with oranges to the beat of frenzied drumming, and gave us the word “binge.” Boring?
I first went to Belgium while researching my book, “Three Sheets to the Wind: One Man’s Quest for the Meaning of Beer,” to try to discover why this small, flat country was in fact the most interesting brewing nation on the planet. I started off by simply asking people, “Why do you brew such eclectic beers?” Nobody was able—or willing—to answer the question. They just do. So the curious beer enthusiast is forced to speculate.
Maybe it’s the location. Belgium is wedged between bigger countries with great gastronomic traditions. The country shares its longest border with France to the west, and it has been said that if France is the palate of Europe, Belgium is its stomach. Toward the east lie Holland and Germany, with their great brewing traditions, and just over the sea to the northwest, there’s the English coast, a short hop away.
Belgium’s position at the heart of Europe is the reason the European Union is based here, but it’s also why, through European history, armies marching towards each other inevitably met hereabouts. Michelet described Belgium as “the meeting place of wars,” where “the blood does not have time to dry.” In its history it has been the property of France, the Netherlands, Austria and Spain. Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, just outside Brussels. In 1831, the great European powers met and the British suggested the creation of the modern Belgian state to act as a buffer between its aggressive neighbors. More than a century later, De Gaulle described Belgium bitterly as “a country invented by the English to annoy the French,” something Belgium seems to have enjoyed doing ever since.
It didn’t stop the wars though. Most of World War I was fought on Belgian soil. And here’s another clue to the beer tradition: Most of Europe was drinking pilsner lagers by this time, but British men abroad have long had a reputation for wanting their home comforts with them. Grateful—or maybe just plain shrewd—Belgian brewers created ales for their thirsty liberators. Scaldis, the stunning, 12% ABV ale, was for years called Bush—an English translation of the brewery’s name, Dubuisson, because it was originally brewed for the troops. The name was only changed when a certain large American brewer decided that the anglicized name was too close for comfort.
Of course, Belgian ales can be seriously high in alcohol, whereas British ales rarely top 5% ABV. Digging around at this time in history yields another clue as to why this might be. When the United States introduced Prohibition, there was pressure in Europe to go the same way, and different countries saw different forms of compromise. In Belgium, the distillation of gin was made illegal, but
the brewing of beer was deemed OK. No one stipulated how strong that beer could be, so the brewers filled the gap in the market left by the vanishing spirits.
While the United States has the Statue of Liberty and France the Eiffel Tower, the national symbol of Belgium is a two-foot-high statue of a small boy urinating. This should give you a clue to the collective personality of the country that invented both surrealism and lambic beers (that can’t be a coincidence now, can it?). In Café Poechenellekelder, just across the road from where the Manneken Pis stands grinning, there’s a poster saved from World War II. Obviously Belgium stood no chance against the Nazi invasion, but here, in cartoon form, Manneken Pis looms over the invaders, doing what he does best, while they scatter in panic.
This is where I finally understand the Belgian spirit. When your entire history consists of being trampled by bigger boys, you learn to duck and weave, keep your head down, and develop a laconic attitude to life. You learn to change the flags you wave as each army marches past, and laugh at all of them behind their backs. I discovered a similar attitude in that other great brewing nation, the Czech Republic, which throughout its history simply surrendered to whichever army was invading that year without a struggle, and consequently has some of the oldest, most intact medieval towns in the world as a result. I think of how monasteries used to brew beer throughout Europe, and how the survival of the monastic brewing tradition is another side of Belgian brewing that’s unique, and another piece falls into place.
I’ll bet the Belgians love that the English think they’re a boring country. “Yeah, that’s right. Nothing to see here. You’re better off going to Paris. See ya,” I imagine them saying, waiting till we’ve disappeared over the horizon (which may take a while in these flat lands), before sniggering and cracking open another one of those astonishing beers, delighted at having played Europe’s biggest practical joke. •