It had to happen, having covered food and drink in Europe in relation to cycling, it is time for a beer. The piece here was prompted by a superb article in The Economist that marries brewing with history, business and politics and I’ll borrow from this to explain the subject.
Water, hops, barley. Fermented to form an alcoholic beverage. In Belgium it is not uncommon to find additional ingredients, like cherry juice or strawberries.
Euro cyclist use
A recovery drink, in moderation. The water and sugars help after a ride and some of the trace elements, including silicon can do some good.
[Belgium] makes a bigger range than any other—1,131 at the last count. Apart from six Trappist ales and other abbey beers, it churns out lagers such as Stella Artois and its stablemate Jupiler, the more popular brew in Belgium. Tipplers can also choose from an array of wheat beers, brown ales, red beers from West Flanders, golden ales, saison beers based on old farmhouse recipes, and any number of regional brews. Oddest are the austere, naturally fermented lambic beers of Brussels and the nearby Senne valley, a throwback to the days before yeast was tamed. These anachronisms have survived only in Belgium.
Too far north for fine wine, Belgium lies in a “beer belt” that stretches across Europe, an arc from Britain that bends down to Slovakia, the same zone where hops can be grown so find a source of clean water and you can start to brew beer.
A small country, Belgium sits close to France, the Netherlands and Germany and across the last few hundred years each of these nations has been instrumental in trade and new flavours with spice and sugars landing on the docks. Indeed whilst the Germans set down medieval laws prescribing the purity of beer, Belgian brewers joined the trade and added flavours and ingredients to their beers, a tradition that lives on in Belgium today. The Economist explains the more recent history:
The number of breweries in Belgium peaked at the turn of the 20th century. By 1907 the country boasted nearly 3,400 commercial beermakers… …These brewers had considerable advantages over their counterparts in other countries. In Britain beer was a drink of the lower orders: no such snobbishness obtained in Belgium. Heavy import duties discouraged Belgians from buying French wine. Competition from spirits was blunted by the temperance movement.
Today the traditions live on but Belgium has also gone into mass production. Interbrew bought Canada’s Labatts in 1995 and merged with Brazil’s AmBev in 2004. The merged firm became known as InBev and acquired Anheuser-Busch, maker of Budweiser, in 2008. Today AB InBev is the world’s largest beer producer. A world beating company from Belgium.
More modestly monks have a long tradition of brewing beer. The Trappist order, founded in La Trappe in France, ruled that monks had to live by their own means and selling beer soon became a prime source of income for some. Today there are seven Trappist breweries with six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. Wikipedia offers more on the monastic traditions.
A barman who neglects to inquire whether you prefer your bottle of Duvel shaken slightly to mix in the yeasty lees shouldn’t expect a tip
You’ll find beer all around the world but Belgium offers variety and unique flavours, curiosity in a bottle. This is matched by the variety of glasses, each matches a particular beer. This makes the barman knowledgeable and if you visit a café for the first time many will give you a tasting menu for the beer or gladly share their preferences.
In fact whilst most beers around the world are drunk in tall glasses, a Belgian bar offers a surreal collection of glass receptacles. Balloon-shapes, goblets and there are some that wouldn’t look out of place in a laboratory. It lends a touch of mystique but the shape is meant to help with the flavour and texture, to retain the bubbles or to concentrate the bouquet of aroma, much like a wine glass. This requires some knowledge but unlike wine nobody is trying to add ceremony or pretence.
There is beer across Europe but I’d venture that only Belgium offers the massive diversity. In France today a brasserie – the word for brewery – is in reality a café that offers beer from an aluminium keg, the days of local brewing are long gone. Yes there are microbreweries popping up like mushrooms yet I’d venture that in one afternoon in Belgium you could sample more variety than a day spent driving around France or Italy, these countries are more excited by their wines after all.
But is this linked to cycling? Well there is the recovery drink aspect above but to know Belgian bier or bière is to know Belgium a little bit better. And if you cannot ride the Ronde van Vlaanderen the next best thing is to be in Flanders on a Sunday in April, to watch the race with the locals and whilst sampling the local food and beer.
In addition, Roman Kreuziger is from Plzeň, also known as Pilsen in the Czech republic. The town is the birthplace of the Pilsener beer and the photo above was taken by him during the Tour de France.
This is part of a series on European foods with links to cycling or simply for fuel:
Part I: Nutella
Part II: Pâte de fruits
Part III: Stroopwafels
Part IV: Coffee
Part V: Frites
Part VI: Pasta
Part VII: French Bakeries
Part VIII: Water
Part IX: Sirop
Part X: Pharmaceuticals
Part XI: Summary
Part XII: Esta Thé
Part XIII: Grated carrots
Part XIV: Speculoos
Part XV: Belgian beer
Part XVI: Oman Coffee
Part XVI: Italian Ice-cream