history of Belgian Beer - old brewery - VisitFlanders

It is the combination of a beer tradition stretching back over centuries and the passion displayed by today’s brewers in their search for the perfect beer which has made Belgium the home of exceptional beers, unique in character and produced with an innovative knowledge of brewing. It therefore comes as no surprise that Belgian brewers regularly sweep the board at major international beer competitions.

Every birth starts with a woman

The art of brewing beer is as old as civilisation itself and originated in Mesopotamia in 9000 BC. Over time, beer found its way to Gaul via Egypt and the Roman Empire and because beer brewing was, initially, a household task, the very first brewers were women.

The art of brewing beer is as old as civilisation itself and originated in Mesopotamia in 9000 BC. Over time, beer found its way to Gaul via Egypt and the Roman Empire and because beer brewing was, initially, a household task, the very first brewers were women.

In the Middle Ages, abbeys became centres of knowledge about agriculture, livestock and certain crafts, including brewing beer, and monks were allowed to drink limited amounts of their regional beverage because the quality of the drinking water was so unsanitary. In southern Europe the daily drink was wine, so the monks living there concentrated on growing grapes and winemaking, but because our region’s climate did not favour the production of wine, the locals turned to beer brewing instead. So, thanks to the monks, beer brewing devolved from a domestic activity into a true, artisanal craft.

It was during the Middle Ages that beers were flavoured for the first time with a herbal mixture called “gruit”. Brewers had to purchase this mixture from the “gruithuis” (see the Gruuthuuse in Bruges) but the abbeys were exempt from this obligation and switched to hops because it helped preserve the beer, giving it a longer shelf life. In the 11th century the Benedictine Abbey of Affligem played an important role in the introduction of hop-growing in Flanders.

In 1364, Emperor Charles IV enacted the “Novus Modus Fermentandi Cerevisiam” decree, seeking to improve the quality of beer with his ’new’ brewing  method that required  brewers to use hops. This decree had to be followed throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the German Nation to which Brabant and Imperial Flanders (Rijks-Vlaanderen), the region to the east of the Scheldt, belonged.  However, in Flanders, the region to the west of the Scheldt, the right to use gruit was uphheld, and, as a result of this division, Belgian beer culture diversified.  Brewers in Imperial Flanders and Brabant brewed hopped beers, which kept for longer, while the gruit beers continued to be brewed in Flanders where brewers acidified their beer to help preserve it. This led to the development of red-brown beers.

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Abbeys and monks

In the Middle Ages, abbeys became centres of knowledge about agriculture, livestock and certain crafts, including brewing beer, and monks were allowed to drink limited amounts of their regional beverage because the quality of the drinking water was so unsanitary. In southern Europe the daily drink was wine, so the monks living there concentrated on growing grapes and winemaking, but because our region’s climate did not favour the production of wine, the locals turned to beer brewing instead. So, thanks to the monks, beer brewing devolved from a domestic activity into a true, artisanal craft.

Gruit and hops

It was during the Middle Ages that beers were flavoured for the first time with a herbal mixture called “gruit”. Brewers had to purchase this mixture from the “gruithuis” (see the Gruuthuuse in Bruges) but the abbeys were exempt from this obligation and switched to hops because it helped preserve the beer, giving it a longer shelf life. In the 11th century the Benedictine Abbey of Affligem played an important role in the introduction of hop-growing in Flanders.

In 1364, Emperor Charles IV enacted the “Novus Modus Fermentandi Cerevisiam” decree, seeking to improve the quality of beer with his ’new’ brewing  method that required  brewers to use hops. This decree had to be followed throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the German Nation to which Brabant and Imperial Flanders (Rijks-Vlaanderen), the region to the east of the Scheldt, belonged.  However, in Flanders, the region to the west of the Scheldt, the right to use gruit was uphheld, and, as a result of this division, Belgian beer culture diversified. Brewers in Imperial Flanders and Brabant brewed hopped beers, which kept for longer, while the gruit beers continued to be brewed in Flanders where brewers acidified their beer to help preserve it. This led to the development of red-brown beers. 

Abbeys were exempt from the obligation to purchase ‘gruit’ and switched to hops because it helped preserve the beer, giving it a longer shelf life. In the 11th century the Benedictine Abbey of Affligem played an important role in the introduction of hop growing in Flanders.

First steps upwards quality and export

In the 16th and17th centuries more and more regulations were brought in to ensure the quality of beers. In Germany, the “Reinheitsgebot” (1516) stated that beer could be brewed exclusively from barley, hops and water, while In Halle, in Flemish Brabant, a city account from 1559 refers to a mash for brewing “lambiek” beer.

From the 17th century onwards, regional beers were created such as the Antwerp “gerstenbier” (barley beer), “Leuvense witte” (Leuven white beer), brown beers in Diest and Oudenaarde, and “caves” (cellared beers) in Lier. Gradually, brewers started to ’export’ their beers outside of their own region.


The end of the 18th century marked the end of the abbeys’ privileges, when, in 1783, Emperor Joseph II dissolved the abbeys because they infringed upon the breweries, and several abbeys and their breweries were destroyed during the French Revolution.

The 19th century marked a new chapter in beer history with the breakthrough of the Czech pilsner (1839) - it was an instant success in the world of cloudy, dark (regional) beers. During the Industrial Revolution scientists gained a better insight into the brewing process and yeast culture in general.

Brewing in time of war

The First World War was the final blow for several Belgian breweries when the German occupying forces seized the copper vats, equipment and their vehicles. Only half of the nearly 3,200 breweries survived. Then the breweries, which slowly picked up where they left off, were dealt a new, heavy blow during the economic crisis of the 1930s and by the effects of Second World War. In 1946 only 775 breweries remained.
In the following decades, more and more microbreweries closed as a result of strong competition and the high investment cost for new installations, while the big breweries consolidated their home market through acquisitions

Specialty Beers

Inspired by the Flower Power movement of the late 1960s, Belgian speciality beers were rediscovered and, in 1977, the British beer guru Michael Jackson (1942-2007) finally put Belgian beer culture in the spotlight, which lead  to global recognition of  Belgian beer culture in the following decades.
Between 1985 and 2000 large and medium-sized breweries began to merge and local microbreweries opened, largely brewing beer for export, in some cases at the request of foreign importers who were looking for unique Belgian beers.

Since the turn of the century the interest in authentic speciality beers has continued to grow and the Belgian beer industry now includes some of the best known and popular brands. In addition, Trappist beers are becoming increasingly exclusive because of the limited quantities produced by the monasteries, and also popular are the distinctive specialty beers of local and family-owned breweries. This trend first became apparent for lambic beers, but is now spreading to include Flemish red-brown beers, brown beers, and strong blonde, well-hopped beer.

In recent years, hobby brewers are increasingly starting to share their beers with the public, selling them directly to customers or to local restaurants and pubs.

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