As any bartender the length of the country will assure you, Belgium is the home of great beer. The drink pumps so strongly through the veins of the nation’s culture that in 2016 UNESCO added Belgian beer to its list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. And yet for over a hundred years, the country's brewing scene has been dominated by a handful of famous names and a very traditional selection of brews. Small local producers have been melting away as quickly as the head on a well-poured pint.
The decline began during the two world wars when metal, required for brewing equipment, was rationed. Small-scale breweries struggled to stay afloat, leaving larger, industrial corporations to dominate the market.
Well after the 1940s, independent beerhouses continued to be squeezed out and by 1999 there were only 100 breweries left in Belgium. At the turn of the 20th century, there had been around 3,200.
While America and Britain were already beginning to ride the wave of the craft beer revolution in the 80s and 90s, Belgium lagged behind. Was the country to become a has-been of the beer world, a country of brews better suited to museum cabinets than bar shelves?
Herbs and spices over hops
Enter a group of women. Challenging, bold and experimental: these brewsters, the ancient term for a female brewer, are redefining what we think of at the words “Belgian beer”.
Inside an old warehouse where once the leather workers of Ghent would dehair and tan skins is the Gruut brewery, set up by Annick de Splenter in 2009. This brewster is turning her back on hops, instead relying on botanicals as the basis of her craft beers. “When I was at Ghent School of Brewing, my professors told me I was mad to try making beer without hops, that it was impossible,” de Splenter laughs. “So I knew I had to prove them wrong.”
Brewster Annick de Splenter’s beers are inspired from recipes from the Middle ages, where hops was often not even part of the ingredients, and instead replaced by herbs and spices.
She uses herbs like heather and spices such as cinnamon and ginger to create beers which, unlike those made from hops, reinvigorate rather than tire the drinker.
“It’s especially interesting because of the negative effect hops have on the conservation of beer, de Splenter adds. “If hops can be eliminated, beer can last longer and Belgium can export more of it.”
Although her botanical beers seem radically new to us, de Splenter’s recipes draw their origins from the early Middle Ages, before hops became widely cultivated. “Gruut means herbs,” she explains. “In medieval times Ghent was split in two: on the German side of the river they’d use hops to flavour beer, on the French side this was banned, so they used local herbs and spices instead.”
While today it is the percentage of alcohol in a beer that is taxed, in the Middle Ages, it was the herbs. “Every place had its own particular mixture, which tax would be collected on,” de Splenter says.
Women who are spearheading the revival of Belgian craft beer
She is one among a growing generation of female alcohol alchemists. At the Brouwerij Dilewyns, Vincent Dilewyns has created something of a brewing dynasty with his four daughters. The family brewery strives for a clean, pure taste with its beers, which are neither filtered nor pasteurised and defy classification into existing Belgian beer styles.
“My fifth-great grandmother set up a brewery in our town in 1875,” explains Anne-Cathérine Dilewyns, who oversees the brewing. “But during the Second World War, the Germans looted all the copper kettles, so the family wasn’t able to make any beer. A hundred years later we are returning to the family tradition.”
Before the 1600s, the word brewer didn’t even exist as beer-making used to be a female-dominated craft. The revival of craft brewing in the last decade has again been spearheaded by many new female entrepreneurial brewsters.
Should we really be surprised by the fact that it is women who are spearheading the revival of Belgian beer craft? Glancing back through the history books, you find that the legacy of women in beer is much longer than we realise, stretching right back to the medieval abbesses who first began Belgium's brewing tradition.
The move from beer-making being a female-dominated craft to a male one dates back to the Middle Ages. While the Black Death ravaged Europe’s populations, water became so polluted that people began drinking beer on a mass scale, meaning that brewing was no longer a domestic activity for women, instead falling under the remit of large male workforces.
From nuns picking herbs and fermenting hops from their fields, to big corporate chains churning out thousands of bottle a day, and back again...we are coming full circle - only with fewer long veils and black habits.
There are, of course, always steps forward to be taken too. The Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs, managed by Nathalie Eloir, is famous for its Montagnarde amber beer, which is made with no sugar at all - simply yeast, pure malt, hop cones, natural herbs and water from the local well. And with the aid of new technology, Eloir is also pioneering a new, more sustainable style of brewing. The specially designed ventilation system at her zero-waste brewery reduces energy consumption by reusing steam usually lost in cooling and the used malts are turned into fertilizer to enrich the surrounding fields.
Beer and sexism
However, for Sofie Vanrafelghem, challenging stereotypes about women and beer shouldn’t stop once the bottle leaves the factory. “Just nine years ago, I hated beer and was your typical ‘white wine bitch’,” admits Belgium’s leading advocate of women in beer ruefully.
Vanrafelghem has written many books on the subject and runs campaigns to promote women's visibility in craft beer. “There are so many prejudices. You still hear ‘women only like sweet fruit beers’, ‘it’s not elegant for ladies to drink beer’, and things like that,” she says. “Even the marketing alienates women. I mean, for god’s sake, Jupiler's slogan used to be: ‘Men know why’.”
“Did you know that before the 1600s, the word ‘brewer’ didn't exist, only brewster?” she asks. “People wouldn't have even thought of a man making beer - it was a household chore.”
Vanrafelghem is also active in promoting beer’s place in gourmet dining, and in 2012 became Belgium’s first ever female beer sommelier. She hosts regular tasting evenings, where each of the five courses is paired with a different Belgian craft beer.
“Belgians often have very conservative ideas about beer: who drinks it, when and where. People grab the brands and styles that they know.” But, she adds, things are starting to change. “Every year there are more independent breweries, more interesting varieties and more women involved in the industry.”
Vanrafelghem’s third book is called ‘Beer: Women Know Why’ - and science seems to suggest she might be right. A 2014 study by Dr Deborah Parker, beer sommelier and sensory research specialist, found that women are naturally better at differentiating between tastes than men, and may therefore make more skilled tasters in the beer and wine industries.
From manufacturing to professional tasting or the simple enjoyment of an evening: there is a place for every woman in Belgium’s craft beer revolution.
By Marianna Hunt