We, Belgians, drink around 80 liters of beer per peson per year. It is culturally accepted and part of the Belgian culture for over 1000 years now. But when we drink beer, do we think about the origin of beer? I never did. Up till now. And I have to say, I was surprised about the results I obtained through my research…
Beer is considered to be first brewed in Palestine, around 8000 BC. It is thought that bread became wet, began to ferment and resulted in an inebriating pulp. Especially Sumerians and Babylonians were driven beer brewers.
Beer came to Europe around 5000-4800 BC and was brewed and drunk in Greece and Rome until it was oppressed by wine. In northern Europe however, beer was very much appreciated. The conditions for barley fields were much better than in southern Europe. During the time of the Gauls, brewing beer was a cottage industry. But when the Roman Empire fell, the church took over control and breweries in every Christian abbey were established.
In the 7th and 8th centuries, beer had become a popular beverage, brewed by monastic communities. In the 14th and 15th centuries, breweries proliferated even more. Drinking beer was considered better than drinking water. Water could be infected by epidemics such as Cholera and the Plague, while these epidemics were eliminated during the brewing process. Small breweries flourished in the 17th century.
During the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century, many monasteries were destroyed. As a consequence, the beer industry went through a serious crisis. In the early 19th century under the reign of Napoleon, the economy recovered and the beer industry flourished again. However it now became an independent industry, not only practiced by monks.
During the First and Second World War, the number of breweries in Belgium decreased significantly because of shortcomings in raw materials, manpower and an economic recession in the 1930s. Also after the Second World War, the beer industry had many difficulties. The small breweries disappeared or merged with larger ones.
Nowadays, the beer industry is divided into 2 parts, the global section and the regional section. We all know AB InBev as an example of the global section, a result of major fusions between large breweries. Examples of more regional breweries are Chimay, Westvleteren, St. Bernardus… The competition between small and medium-sized breweries resulted in an assortment of beers with their own characteristics. There are about 100 breweries in Belgium now offering 500 different beers.
It is interesting that however brewing beer was invented in Palestine, even the biggest beer company in the world (AB InBev) does not sell beer there. Why did Belgium become so popular for its beers? And why is no beer company focusing on the location where beer is invented?