'Beer Culture' Revered As Belgium's Heritage

Beer in Belgium is such serious business. The country applied to have its beer culture recognized and protected by UNESCO. NPR's Rachel Martin speaks with Belgian beer connoisseur Erik Verdonck.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Grabbing a beer with a friend might sound like a good time to a lot of people but in Belgium, beer is about more than just a good time. This week, Belgium formally applied to the United Nation's cultural arm, UNESCO, to have its so-called beer culture recognized and protected as "an honored part of our global cultural heritage." If Belgium has its way, beer culture in that country would join flamenco in Spain and Mexico's mariachi music. So what makes Belgium's beer so great and perhaps worthy of such a steam? To find out, we called up Erik Verdonck in Antwerp, Belgium. He's a beer enthusiast, advocate and author. Hi there, Erik. Thanks for being with us.

ERIK VERDONCK: Hello. Hi.

MARTIN: So can you describe the beer culture in Belgium? Why is it so exceptional?

VERDONCK: Well, I think, thanks to the fact that we still have 150 breweries and many of these are still family owned. So it's not only a lot of more industrial type of beer tradition, we also keep to our typical traditions like sour beers, for instance, lambic beers close to Brussels and of course, the famous trappist and abbey beers. This is all part of our liquid heritage, if you want.

MARTIN: As I understand it, there is also a religious component to this, too. It's a tradition in Belgium for monks to brew beer.

VERDONCK: Yep.

MARTIN: Right?

VERDONCK: Yes, that's right. And these monks, in the abbeys, they were used to brewing beer. And why? You couldn't trust the water in these days. So in fact, it was a very good idea to drink beer because then you boiled the water. So it has been a tradition of brewing beer within abbeys for ages. The trappist beers are brewed within the abbey walls. If you look at Chimay, for instance, which is quite known in the U.S., that beer is brewed at the Abbey of Chimay.

MARTIN: So why do you think the beer culture in Belgium needs UNESCO recognition or protection? Is it in jeopardy, in some way? Are people not respecting it in the way that you would see fit?

VERDONCK: Well, I think the people here are not enough proud of their heritage, and that's because of our mentality. We don't have, say, the more chauvinist mentality of the French, who will always promote their wines. But we are so used to it that we take it for granted. And that's why, for us, I think it is important to stress how unique this really is.

MARTIN: Well, thank you so much. Before we let you go, though, how do you say cheers in Flemish?

VERDONCK: We would say skal.

MARTIN: Skal? Skal.

VERDONCK: Skal.

MARTIN: Skal.

VERDONCK: Skal.

MARTIN: Erik, skal.

VERDONCK: Skal. Thanks.

MARTIN: Erik Verdonck is a Belgian beer expert and author. He joined us from Antwerp, Belgium. We need to go get a beer. Thanks so much, Erik.

VERDONCK: See you. Bye-bye.

MARTIN: This is NPR news.

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