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.
Thus the turbulence of the country’s history has stimulated its brewers. At one time or another most of Europe’s great powers have held sway over Belgium; many have left behind influences and flavours. The Dutch, the last outside power to occupy Belgium before the first world war, sent traders to scour the East Indies for new spices, many of which found their way into Belgian beer. (The Belgians kicked the Dutch out to gain independence in 1830 in part because they objected to heavy taxes on beer.)