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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Does Belgium Have an "Intangible Cultural Heritage" of Beer? Does Anyone?

Yesterday, news came out that UNESCO had given Belgium a singular honor:
Citing Belgian beer's integral role in social and culinary life, UNESCO is putting the country's rich brewing scene (with nearly 1,500 styles) on its list representing the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Belgium's beer culture is one of 16 new additions that were announced Thursday.
The honor came with an accompanying video (see below), which helped flesh out the case--one that might have come straight from the Belgian tourist board. Perhaps you picked up on one tell of a certain kind of exaggeration in the quoted paragraph: "with nearly 1,500 styles of beer." That would indeed be a hell of an accomplishment!

I actually think UNESCO intuited something profound in Belgium's beer culture, but they didn't do a very good job of documenting it. Had they done so, they would have seen that a few other countries have a similar cultural status. Beer, almost uniquely among human activities, is a mirror of the culture that brews it. This was the great discovery I made researching The Beer Bible, and one I speak about whenever anyone invites me to do so. When you pick up a glass of beer from one of these countries in question (Belgium, Czech Republic, Germany, the UK), you can only understand it fully if you know the agriculture, history (including things like wars, famines, and rulers), drinking culture, laws, and ineffable qualities that seem to have no source. Of course, these manifest not just in the ingredients and final color, strength, and flavors of the beer, but the way it was made.

In the video, Senne's Yvan De Baets describes the four different types of fermentation found in Belgium, but he skips over the most interesting element--warm rooms. This is absolutely central to the production of Belgian ales of all types, and is a process used nowhere else (except the new world, where breweries make Belgian-style beers). The English practice of cask-conditioning, the Czech insistence on decoction, the German approach that is filtered through the restrictions of Reinheitsgebot--all these countries do something that looks totally bizarre when you compare it to other countries. And those practices are a kind of distilled version of the whole national tradition.

Perhaps the Belgians, living in a smaller country where cultural heritage is more evident nationwide, decided to pitch this idea first. (I have no idea what gave UNESCO the idea.) But they have no greater claim to the heritage than these other countries--though indeed they have enormous claim to it on its face. Even Julius Caesar noted that the Belgians brewed beer. (They were probably doing something offbeat even back then.) Walk into any cafe in Belgium, and it's hard not to observe something unique and pervasive happening there. So yes, Belgium deserves this. But so do at least three other countries.

Now, enjoy the film (it is pretty good).

1 comment:

  1. To quickly follow-up on your point of how this came about, it was a submission by the various different Belgian governments, supported by consumer and industry groups. Which means, you'd think, the other countries you mention would be entitled (emboldened, even) to launch their own submissions on the back of this decision.