Belgium even has a patron Saint of beer. During the middle ages, breweries were local, and the beer often produced in monasteries. In the 11th century, when an outbreak of plague convulsed Belgium, a Benedictine monk thrust his crucifix into a brew-kettle to persuade Belgians to drink beer as a substitute for water (boiled, filtered and or fermented during the purification process, beer is a much safer drink). To quote Ben Franklin, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” The plague ended and the monk was beatified as Saint Arnold.
Every year, Brussels holds a Belgian Beer Weekend in Saint Arnold’s honor; the celebration begins as a church service followed by an academic session and a parade of costumed brewers, dressed as King of the Mashing Fork, through the streets to Grand Place where the public is welcomed, beer stands offer brews from around the realm and lively music and entertainment add to the festivities.
Grand Place 10 is home to the Belgian Brewers’ Museum (Musee des Brasseurs Belges.) Operated by the Confederation of Belgian Breweries, the Knights of the Mash Staff.; the museum, in the vaulted basements of the Brewer’s House, exhibits modern and traditional techniques. Brewing and fermentation tubs and a boiling kettle may be viewed along with other equipment and supplies used in an 18th century brewery. A café transports the visitor back in time with exhibits of stained glass windows, paintings, pint pots, antique pitchers, vintage tankards and to parch the beer devotee’s thirst - the perfect pint.
Abbey beers come from a great many different abbeys; and abbeys often produce two distinct types of beer: double (a sweet and dark taste) and triple blond with a heavy percentage of alcohol. Trappist beers refer to the type of abbey that manufactures the beer.
One of the most traditional beers today is Lambic; (a beer that ferments spontaneously from wild yeasts found in the local air.) The non-malted wheat beer naturally ferments from three to five years in wooden hogshead barrels. The first taste is sour and acidic; after the second the dry, tart flavor turns into a delightful, refreshing drink.
Lambic beer is produced at the Cantillon family run-brewery in Brussels. Established in 1900, the brewery conducts tours and has a small museum Musee Bruxellois de la Gueuez. Gueuez is a mixture of lambics, and shimmers like a glass of champagne. The beer improves after years in the bottle. Cherries added to Lambics produces Sweet Kriek and may also be made with raspberries – a beer often imbibed during the warm summer months. Bierre Blanche is lighter and Witbier (made with wheat) is traditionally drunk with a slice of lemon. Candy sugar sweetens a Lambic known as Faro.
Bruge has two breweries in the heart of town; De Gooden Boom that specializes in Tarwebier, a wheat beer and Bruge Tripel with a 9.5 alcohol content. De Straffe Hendrik produces another aromatic wheat beer.
Many beers have their very own beer glass; the glass designed to enhance the taste is used exclusively for a particular beer. For example: a glass for an Abbey Ale is shaped like the chalice used by monks for centuries. Belgian beers are served in snifters, flutes and champagne glasses. Brewers use a champagne bottle, corked and wired, for beers that will be re-fermented. A good beer is as prized in Belgium as a fine wine is cherished in France. Since antiquity, aficionados are reputed to favor Belgian beer above all others for their taste, quality and diversity.
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