What's great in wine, beer, fine dining,
places to stay, & places to visit
in California State

Before the Beer—How Belgian Social Policy Nearly Crushed its National Spirit, Genever

Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Genever pouring Picmonkey

TASTE News Service May 30, 2014 - Belgium’s image abroad is one of a country full of bars and expressing a very tolerant view towards alcohol. Today, the legal age for being served alcohol in Belgium is 16 years and, public alcohol consumption is also permitted, though public intoxication is prohibited. These tolerant policies are fairly recent; during the course of the 19th century, the government declared open season on genever, the country’s traditional spirit.

Distilled from grain nurtured in the soil of Belgium and the Netherlands, genever embodies the spirit, creativity, and resiliency of the culture that created it. Surviving five centuries of wars and prohibitions, genever was perfected and spread across the world. During its evolution, genever inspired the creation of gin and secured a place at America’s early cocktail bars. Many classic gin cocktails were originally made with genever.

“To many, Belgian specialties and cuisine means waffles, chocolates and beers. While beer may be Belgium's most famous alcoholic beverage, genever has been the country's traditional and national spirit for over 500 years. But the impact of Belgium’s prohibition on genever can still be felt today” said Véronique Beittel, author of Genever: 500 Years of History in a Bottle.

By 1912 a Belgian genever production record of 22 million gallons was achieved. But in 1919, the Wet Vandervelde or Vandervelde Law, introduced by socialist Emile Vandervelde (1866-1938), was enacted as an answer to excessive liquor consumption, prohibiting the serving of all spirits in public bars. Vandervelde was a fervent opponent of alcohol consumption, considering even one glass per day to be excessive. This radical ban came shortly before the official introduction of the shorter 8-hour work day in 1921. The Belgian government was afraid that laborers, now with more time on their hands, would visit bars en masse.

Genever poster Picmonkey

The harsh reality was that by banning spirits in public places, alcoholism circumvented the law by moving from the bar to home. The government countered by increasing the already high taxes on genever fourfold. Combined with the fact that liquor stores sold a minimum of 2 liters of genever and set against the average earnings of Belgian workers at the time, it was only a matter of time before demand for genever collapsed. Belgium’s elite still had easy access to liquor, but bar and restaurant patrons had to make do with beer or water.

Belgium’s strong beer culture and industry owe quite a bit to this period. After competition from spirits was blunted by the temperance movement, brewers moved to fill the gap, increasing the relatively low alcohol content of beer to “console” drinkers forced to give up genever. The consumption of genever, once the most popular spirit in Belgium, had officially begun its decline, paving the way for the popularity of Belgian beer as we know it today.

It was not until 1985 (yes, 1985!) that the ban on sales of spirits in bars was lifted, although most people had stopped obeying the law by the seventies. This lift of the Vandervelde Law after 66 years ultimately had nothing to do with giving in to popular demand, and everything to do with tax revenue. It was common knowledge that, despite the ban, public places were still serving genever, and underground distilleries and smuggling rings were lucrative occupations.

Genever’s colorful past has earned this historic spirit a Protected Designation of Origin, the equivalent of an AOC, that pertains to any genever distilled in Belgium, the Netherlands and small parts of France and Germany. Genever is a strictly European regulated distilled beverage with many protected classes and types, of which most are exclusive to Belgium.

Around the world, the Belgians are known for their world-class beers. While beer may be Belgium's most widespread alcoholic export, genever has been the country's national and traditional spirit for over five hundred years. Fueled by national pride, recognition across Europe, and a renewed passion for regional products and classic cocktails, genever enjoys a revival.

Editor's note: More information about Belgian genever can be found at www.BelgianGenever.com.

Copyright © 2005 - 2020. Taste California Travel. All rights reserved. | Phoenix Website Design by CitrusKiwi