CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The idea to publish a short series of columns to simplify the seemingly complex world of Belgian beer came to me under anesthesia; well OK, it was local anesthesia while having some very minor surgery.
The good doctor and I were having a pre-op conversation about beer in general. Alas, the subject of Belgian beer came up just about the time I was staring into the blinding white lights of the operating room. A nurse asked, "So what's the difference between Belgian beer and any other beer?"
Obviously, I was at a clear disadvantage to field the question so I listened as the doc attempted to answer. All in all, he did a decent job of hitting the salient points. It was the combination of the directness of the question and the doctor's roundabout answer that led me to the conclusion that this was a subject that should be tackled and simplified in a series of columns.
I am only going to say this once and only in this first column of the series. Belgium is the original Disneyland of beer. I say "original" because U.S. craft brewers are giving the Belgians a run for their money in many ways, but we cannot diminish the importance of Belgium in shaping beer culture.
Belgium is a perfect mix of French whimsy and Flemish (Dutch) precision. This mix of diverse characteristics makes for a place where offbeat and crazy beers can be created and well-crafted. It is truly a place where the brewer's art meets practical science and a bit of luck.
Belgium is a small country (about the size of Maryland), yet it is home to more than 150 unique artisanal breweries. In Belgium, and most of north-central Europe, beer was not a luxury, but a necessity in the Middle Ages. Beer was the only safe method of hydration because the water supply was polluted, and wine was not to be found in the colder non-fruit-growing climate.
Historically, the Catholic Church has acknowledged the importance of beer to the survival of the region by granting sainthood to those who preached the "drink beer, not water" message, St. Arnoldus being the most notable. Beer was considered a divine gift revered by the people as well as the many Benedictine and Trappist monasteries in the region.
One of the many rules of St. Benedict is to be hospitable to all, so many monasteries and abbeys also served as travelers' inns along trade routes throughout Europe. Beer was certainly on every menu at that time. Abbeys and monasteries brewed beer as sustenance as did just about every farmhouse and home. All Benedictine monks, including Trappists, follow a strict tradition of fasting during Lent so stronger and more-filling beers were brewed for nutrition during the fast. Yes, folks, beer is food, and there are many historical paintings of fat and jolly beer-drinking monks making that point.