Nation on the Move: Belgian Beer Culture at Unesco

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The Belgian beer culture has just entered the UNESCO Representative list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is the eleventh Belgian item added to the list. To most people, this decision appeared as a nomination and immediately provoked widespread reactions. In particular, Belgian various communities warmly welcomed this announcement with shared feelings of pride and togetherness, rare enough to be worthy of note.


In fact, food has increasingly become a topic of public interest when it comes to identity. Of course, individuals and communities have always been tempted to use food to define their own culture and to differentiate from others. However, the political and legal issues around these questions are quite new. Indeed, it became more and more common to refer to public (or private) institutions to promote specific food and food practices. In this fight for official cultural recognition through food, the prestigious UNESCO list appears as the ultimate challenge.


If the UNESCO’s work of safeguarding  – tangible and natural – heritages dates back to the 1950s, the Convention for the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore was only established in 2003. Its aim is to protect the intangible heritage of humanity, focusing on people and their cultural environment. Unesco defines intangible heritage as:


“the practices, representations, expressions, as well as the knowledge and skills (including instruments, objects, artefacts, cultural spaces), that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage”1


Thus, the aim of UNESCO is not to support folklorist institutions, ethnologists or other academics in their effort to preserve and document traditions. It rather focus on traditions themselves by supporting living communities of people; practitioners of ancestral habits which reflect the social and cultural identity of the community.2 Eventually, the UNESCO inventory could gather every single collective creation, providing that these creations are tradition-based. What is not specified, however, is how the UNESCO authorities are habilitated to define and institutionalize the “authentic” character of a specific habit, practice, creation, culture or tradition. Especially while academics are so timorous when it comes to food origins. As Arjun Appadurai has rightly pointed out:


“Authenticity as a criterion seems always to emerge just after its subject matter has been significantly transformed. How is one to generate stable criteria of authenticity for traditions that are always changing? All cuisine have a history: tastes shift, regional distinctions go in and out of focus, new techniques and technologies appear. New foods come in and go out of vogue in all complex culinary traditions. The idea of authenticity seems to imply a timeless perspective on profoundly historical processes. Thus, the transhistorical ring of authority with which the word authenticity is sometimes used in the evaluation of foreign cuisines is spurious.”3


As one of the most popular beverage in the world – after water and tea -, beer consumption is far from being a Belgian uniqueness. Next to the Belgian beer culture, the UNESCO inventory could recognize, without the slightest contradictions, the English or German beer culture. Moreover, this “tradition of the Belgian beer culture” is in fact deeply reliant on technical innovations and modernity. In fact, producers and entrepreneurs highlighted much more willingly this aspect in the past than today. Just one example is the International Exhibition of 1910 in Brussels. Regarding the official journal of the exhibit, historian Nelleke Teughels indicated that


“Although it lays a brief emphasis on the long history and tradition of the Molenbeek brewery, the main focus of the article – or, as the author himself calls it, “technical report” – was on technological innovations and modern machinery which characterised its production processes. At that time, when the international reputation of Belgian beer was not yet able to compete with that of English and especially German beers, Belgium could try to equal its rivals in this international context by focusing on the technological feats of its brewing industry.”4


It seems that depending on political and economic needs, the promotion of “typical products” and “typical culture” carries with it particular discourses and representations. In a country like Belgium, where the need to reinforce feelings of national belonging regularly becomes apparent, “the rediscovery, protection, and promotion of “traditional” foods and foodways, together with the construction of historical narratives around them, actively contribute to the creation of a sense of shared experience (…)”5


In the UNESCO quest, the diversity of Belgian beer styles was heavily promoted to reinforce a sense of “unity in diversity”. The success of local breweries, whose numbers have been growing steadily for the past few years, was used as an example of this heterogeneity. On the other hand, the promoters emphasized the unifying aspect of drinking beers, privilege moment of gathering, cohesion and togetherness throughout the country.


Also, politicians immediately celebrated the economic benefits that this international recognition will generate. The idealistic image of a prosperous, generous and festive nation is clearly designed to attract visitors and differentiate from others. Maybe it explains why the announcement was internationally acclaimed. The contrast with the worldwide negative reactions respecting the registration of the “Repas gastronomique des Français” on the Unesco list is striking. What is seen as legitimate pride about Belgian beer culture, was instead considered as nothing more than chauvinism and the evidence of the decline of the French cuisine about the inscription of the gastronomic meal.


“If it is truly vital, it does not need safeguarding; if it is almost dead, safeguarding will not help.”6


These few words of Barbara Kirshemblatt-Gimblett’s summarize in a way the crucial problematic of heritagization and the need to analyze it as a dynamic process deeply rooted in its social, cultural, economic and political context. The construction and shaping of a “traditional food culture” is full of meanings ; in fact, it tells us much more about the present than the past.


2. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Intangible heritage as metacultural production”, Museum International, n°221-222, vol. 56, n°1-2, 2004, p. 52-65 (p. 54).

3.Arjun Appadurai, “On culinary authenticity”, Anthropology today, vol. 2, n°4, 1986, p. 25.

4.Nelleke Teughels, “Food at the 1910 Brussels exhibition: Spaces of consumption and the articulation of national identity”, in N. Teughels and P. Scholliers (eds.), A taste of progress. Food at international and world exhibitions in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ashgate, 2015, p. 165-182 (p. 176).

5.Fabio Parasecoli, “Food, identity, and cultural reproduction in immigrant communities”, Social research, vol. 81, n°2, Summer 2014, p. 417-442 (p. 427).

6.Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Intangible heritage as metacultural production”, Museum International, n°221-222, vol. 56, n°1-2, 2004, p. 52-65 (p. 56).