Belgium Takes Shape  – 14th and 19th Century

    In the fourteenth and fifteenth century Flanders and Wallonia, the two States of modern Belgium, were very prosperous. Cities like Brugge, Gent, Antwerpen, Brussel, Tournai and Liege were cultural and political centers of the world. All these cities were involved with international trade with the rest of Europe and the Middle East. They were all at the top of technology and craftsmanship. You can compare their wealth at the this time with the splendor and good fortune of the Italian cities (Venice, Padua and Torino) and the Scandinavian cities (Copenhagen, Stockholm) and Northern German cities (Bremen, Hamburg, Dantzig) along the coast of the Baltic sea.

Brugge (Bruges) was called the “Venice of the North” because of all its canals, where ships from all over Europe traded their merchandise. The Oldest known Stock-Exchange of the world can still be visited in the center of Brugge. In fact, the word “bourse”, another word for stock-exchange, comes from the Flemish word “beurs”. The houses and cathedrals built in that era, and the artwork of the Flemish painters Bruegel, Memlinck, Rubens, Van Dijck and many others are still the witnesses of the power and the richness of Flanders. Examples of these paintings can be admired in all major museums of the world. They are catalogued as “Flemish Primitives”. A strange name when you see the picture-like details of these paintings.

Thanks to the international trade and the craftsmanship, these cities became very powerful and were governed like a republic, where the rulers stood close to and were part of the common people. Some historians claim that the absence of higher layers of government and the self-rule of these small identities is the main reason for the economic successes of that time. It was free-trade and free enterprise at its top.

Free thinking and criticism of the higher powers, church and kings, lead to the emergence of new ideas and Protestantism. The cities, and thus the people, had money which destabilized the role of a king. When the King and Queen of France visited Brugge at the end of the thirteenth century, the Queen was mad because the women of Brugge’s trading families were better dressed than herself. All over Europe we see the Kings and Emperors bring the cities and the regions back under their control, and sadly enough, they succeed.

Imperialism of the French, English and Spanish kings brings devastating wars and illnesses over Europe and the decline of the economic well-being of the general population. This will create the ideal circumstances (oppression, poverty, sickness) for the people to take a new chance and migrate to new discovered territories like the Americas. And, these immigrants brought of course their beer to the new world!

Belgium Takes Shape  – 19th Century to Present Day

We have seen among other facts, how the Romans invented the name Belgium, but that we had to wait 2,000 years before the country was actually founded in 1830. Today there are significant  movements to break the country into even smaller pieces. Although it is unlikely, the name Belgian Beer will remain, even without the country, because it is a quality label for the widest style-selection of exceptional specialty beers under one flag.

We have seen how after the Romans, the Germans and the Vikings influenced the Low Lands and their brewing techniques. Even today the Germans and the Scandinavians are known as fabulous beer-lovers, who can drink all night. Did you know that Walhalla, heaven for the Vikings, was a place where beer was served non-stop. Later in the second millennium, from the South, France and Spain came to rule this heavenly country. They brought their wine-making techniques, but didn’t find any grapes. So they influenced the “Belgian” brewing techniques, and adopted brewing techniques in their own wine-making.

All these foreign influences, and the fact that Flanders and Wallonia, the 2 Belgian States, were very prosperous, combined with the local sense for the good life (heaven) and a complete disrespect for authority created the basis for the wide variety of delicious beers we find now in Belgium. Some argue that the German beer-purity law Reinheitsgebot significantly stifled beer innovation in that county.  Some also argue that it also allowed them to reach an incomparable level of quality and perfection with their beer styles.

Why and How Did Belgium Become a Country?

For political reasons and the profit of a few of course. The Low Lands and its people have been split by Spain during the 16th century in the religious wars.

The Protestants, who were the rich and intellectuals, went North and created Holland. The poor, the “intellectual-disabled” and those without choice, continued to be Roman Catholics and were occupied by Spain, by Austria and by France. The South reunited with the North only after the defeat of Napoleon, the French dictator and imperialist, who brought war and misery all over Europe.

In 1830, Belgium was created by France, who sponsored a secession-revolution of a few rich liberal industrialists in Wallonia and Brussels. Holland had its mind on the colonies, and wasn’t so happy with all these sinful Catholics in the South and didn’t really fight hard to keep its new Southern Provinces. England liked the idea to cripple Holland and recognized immediately the new country.

Queen Victoria’s father shipped a German Prince, who was a danger for the women living at his Court, to become King of Belgium. He didn’t even speak one word of the language of the majority of his people. Worse, the Flemings had to wait 5 royal-generations, before they had a king who could make himself clear in their language.

Holland was the loser in this rebellion. Holland was one of the richest and most powerful seafaring nations in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, with colonies all over the world. If they had played the game right and had sent more people, the whole USA would now speak Dutch, since they were the first to install colonies at the American East Coast. They bought Manhattan from the natives. Holland was a threat to England, Spain and France, so everybody liked the idea to split up a dangerous competitor.

So, all of sudden, a new nation was born, and it must be said that this new nation, Belgium, was very dynamic and modern. A beacon of freedom in Western Europe, and intellectual exiles from France, Germany and other countries came to Belgium. Like most new things, in the beginning everybody is working in the same directions, is full of enthusiasm and self-esteem.

For the common people and the brewers, nothing really changed. They had to pay taxes to new rulers but that was about it. For centuries they were ruled by people who didn’t speak their language, so they didn’t really care. Everybody does his job and leaves the other alone. That is how they survived for centuries. In the 19th century, every village had at least one brewery and most cities had plenty of brewers. Every street had at least one pub, and in some villages almost everybody owned a pub. No TV, no movies, no electricity…what else could you do than going from neighbor to neighbor to have a few drinks.

At least the community communication was well organized. The brewers, who were in most cases also large farmers, were the richest people of the country-side and became in many cases the mayor of the village. The political parties were locally organized around the brewer. Election time was the most exciting period of the year, since every brewer, candidate-mayor, went from pub to pub to give free beer.

Now that we see the emergence of Europe as a new decision-level, Europe becomes the greatest power in the dissolving process of Belgium. The decision-level of Belgium is  becoming obsolete and very costly to maintain. Some argue that its existence doesn’t make much economic sense anymore. The political power shifts away from Belgium: on one hand to Europe and on the other hand to its two states: Flanders and Wallonia.

Two things  that continue to hold Belgium together today is a king (the last one in Europe with real political powers), and a soccer team. The soccer team has been one of the highest ranked teams in the world in the last decade and the king, well…he is still drinking Belgian Beer. In 2016 Belgian Beer became listed to UNESCO’s cultural heritage list. So, dear friends and beer-lovers, all of this political confusion doesn’t affect the quality of the Belgian beer. These beers have been around for more centuries than Belgium has, and they will be here to enjoy for many, many more centuries to come!