BRUSSELS, Belgium -- They have names like Trappist, Sudden Death, Forbidden Fruit and Lamb of God. Some date back to the Middle Ages, while others come in champagne bottles, reflecting their undoubted nobility. They are the astounding 430 Belgian beers, the quality of which have made this country -- not much bigger than Maryland -- a brewing super power.
As the ubiquitous jugs of frothy beer attest in the earthy portraits of Flemish peasant life by Rubens, Breughel and Brouwer, the brew has long been part of Belgian life itself. In their day, the locals drank an incredible 500 liters a head each year. Soldiers got a daily beer ration of two liters, hospitals spent up to 20 percent of their budgets on beer for patients, nursing mothers guzzled it, and home-brewing went hand in hand with other housewifely chores. Even today, it is common for the whole family to drink beer at meals.
"At the beginning of this century there were 3,223 breweries in Belgium," says Jan der Brabanter, of the Belgian Brewers' Federation, one of the world's oldest guilds, installed in splendor in Brussel's Grand Place. "That's more breweries than we had towns and hamlets. Only 126 remain today, but they have been able to draw on a beer culture of unparalleled richness."
Naturally, beer-lore abounds. Gambrinus, the mythical Flemish warrior sitting astride a beer keg, pint in hand, is hailed as the brew's inventor. Then there is the brewers' patron, St. Arnould: The hallucinatory effects of his stature are such that French-speaking brewers have him born in 580, while the Flemish date his beginnings from 1066.
Built by a princess
Orval, the best known of the legendary Trappist beers, brewed by monks at the monastery of Notre Dame d'Orval, even attributes its existence to an act of God. Princess Mathilde, so the story goes, lost a golden ring in an Orval lake and promised if God retrieved it, she would build a monastery in thanksgiving. When a trout rose from the lake, gold ring in mouth, the princess kept her promise. And the monastery -- and brewery -- were born.
That was 900 years ago. Now, Orval and four other monasteries in Belgium and one just across the border in the Netherlands hold the secrets of the 1,000-year-old Trappist beer-making traditions. These heavenly brews are top-fermented, bottle-fermented and, in some cases, further bottle-conditioned, very much like fine wines.
Orval's monks brew a single beer, the superb amber Orval with its grainy taste, high vitamin B sediment and 5.2 percent alcohol strength. The beer begins to peak in a year, but is better kept for two to three years.
A secret hop mixture
Nearby, Chimay's Trappists boast an 800-year brewing tradition in their magnificent abbey deep in Wallonia. Their three, full-bodied, fruity brews -- Chimay White, Red and Blue -- are made from a secret hop mix irrigated by local acidic water, eliminating additives. At the neighboring Notre Dame de St. Remy Abbey in Rochefort, 400 years of experience produces limited brews such as the prized Abbaye de Bonne Esperance.
In Belgium's West Flanders town of Westvleteren, St. Sixtus Abbey rates its Trappist brews ecclesiastically -- Pater, Prior and Abbot --with the latter (at 12 percent) one of Belgium's strongest brews.
Belgium beer's answer to champagne is spontaneous fermentation. This is Lambic and Gueuze, the exotic, fruity, aromatic and colorful beers of a happy triangle west of Brussels' Senne Valley. Natural ingredients spark spontaneous fermentation, as in wine-making. Yeast is added naturally from the ambient air of the Senne Valley as the boiling wort cools in open tanks. Lambic's brewing season extends from October to May.
"Air is the worst enemy of brewers of bottom and top fermented beer," says Jack van Antwerpen of Timmermans Kriek. "But it is indispensable to brewers of Lambic and Gueuze." The art of producing a good Gueuze involves mixing (blending) 1-, 2-, and even 3-year-old Lambics in order to make a tasty beer. The bottle-fermented Gueuze is sparkling like champagne.
Timmermans, the century-old brewery in Etterbeek near Brussels, specializes in Lambics. The success of its Kriek
(Lambic with cherries), led to the addition of more fruity tastes with Framboise (raspberries) Cassis (black currants) and Peche
Even modest Belgian cafes -- in a country of 31,517 cafes -- will offer 40 to 50 different beers. Some have 350 or more, served in their distinctive glasses. Origins are there to be traced. Mort Subite (Sudden Death) has a reputation for its potency. The brew owes its label to a Brussels pub once frequented by underemployed bank clerks with a passion for dice -- who faced "sudden death" settlement when the boss' call came.
The favored Belgian brews are too many to name. Duvel (Devil), a seemingly harmless barley-hops-and-water-based beer, packs a punch mightier than its 8.2 percent rating. Rodenbach is a top fermented reddish-brown ale stored in oak tuns.
Interbrew's the giant
Interbrew is the country's giant, brewing 11 million hectoliters of beer annually, with the biggest turnover coming from Pilsner-style lagers, such as Stella Artois and Jupiler. But its range spans Belgium's beer map -- amber-reds (Vieux Temps, Ginder Ale), abbeys (Leffe), whites (Hoegaarten), as well as Gueuzes and Krieks. Other important brewers are Palm and John Martin, both internationally known.
In recent years, U.S. beer-drinkers have shown a developing taste for Belgian beers, devouring 9 million liters last year -- with the capital area showing a particular thirst.
"The United States is an interesting market for specialty beers," says Henri Vandeuren, keller-meister at the Maison du Brasseurs, port of call for thousands of American visitors. "Americans enjoy tasting new and interesting brews."
Cracking the U.S. market has not always been easy. When Dubuisson introduced its Bush Beer (at 12 percent a most FTC potent lager) to the United States, it found the label already existed. Its U.S. name is Scaldis. De Kluis' Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit), a refermented beer of 9 percent potency, had a similar hiccup. Its saucy label, based on Rubens' "Adam and Eve," has Adam holding a beer. The U.S. authorities tried to ban the brew's importation because of the label's nudity.
But fate has planted the Belgian hop in America. Hoegaarten, east of Brussels, once had 30 White Beer breweries. The last closed in 1954, and Hoegaarten disappeared. Then, in 1966 an enterprising local, Pieter Celis, bought an unused brewery and second-hand machinery. And his re-created Hoegaarten White was an overnight success.
Then fire crippled his brewery. He sold out and left for the United States. He invested in a local brewery in Austin, Texas, called Brewpub. And now the magical Celis Hoegaarten is flourishing in America.