It's not such a great surprise to discover that Belgium was stuffed full of breweries back then. The peak number of breweries (3,349 in 1910*) in the country was achieved just before WW I . To put that number into context, there were only slightly more in the UK, 3,647. A number which inlcuded 2,357 pub breweries**.
Of course, most of the breweries in Belgium were tiny. Many weren't even full time, being run as a sideline by farmers to bring in extra cash and to give them something to do in the slack times of year.
It may well come as a surprise to you that across the border in France there was an equally large concentration of breweries, nearly 1,800 just in the area occupied by the Germans. Call it French Flanders and it doesn't sound quite so surprising. It had the largest concentration of breweries in France, though again, most of them were very small. And still brewed the old, top-fermenting way.
In 1920 a paper called "The Reconstruction of the Brewing Industry of Northern France" was presented by Eugene Boullanger and H. Lloyd Hind. Right down my boulevard. This is an extract from it:
"Beer is very largely the popular drink in wide manufacturing districts in the North of France, and it was just those regions invaded by the enemy that were the largest brewing centres. How hard the industry was hit will be realised when it is noted that there were about 1,800 breweries situated in the occupied zone the time of its greatest extension in 1918. All these breweries were more or less damaged, those in the lines being generally absolutely destroyed; others, spared this destruction, were systematically stripped by the Germans of all copper vessels, machinery, casks, belting, and the like. But spoilation by the enemy and bombardment by friend and foe alike were not the only forms of destruction they suffered. Breweries are useful places to an army: their vats make glorious baths, and their casks, when cut in two, are good for many purposes. Looking back calmly on what seemed then the natural thing to do with casks, many of which were in truth to an English brewer's eyes unfit for their normal use, but were all these small breweries possessed, one realises what an immense loss was caused by their use for baths, for tar-barrels, and even for firewood, at a time when casks were beyond price, and replacement was practically impossible."I knew that the Germans had stripped out all the copper and other useful items. And that their shells had smashed up many brewery buildings. But the news of the casual destruction wrought by friendly troops was a revelation to me. But I suppose soldiers tend to grab stuff they think might be useful without particularly worrying of the consequences to others. Especially in WW I, they had other more pressing concerns, like not getting blown to pieces, machine-gunned or gassed.
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 27, Issue 2, February 1921, page 54.
Here's a breakdown of the breweries by region and the amount of beer they produced:
"The following statistics of the position in 1913 give an idea of the size of the industry and of the extent of the disaster which overtook it. There were 1,797 breweries in the invaded area, their output being 40 million degree-hectolitres*** in 1913, or almost two-thirds of the total beer production of France.You can see that two-thirds of the breweries were in Nord in the area around Lille. A majority of the other third were in the neighboring départements of Aisne and Ardennes. In the more easterly départements of Meuse and Meurthe et Moselle there were only a handful of breweries. For those of you not familiar with French geography, here's a map of the departements in the region:
*** The "degree-hectolitre" is the number of hectolitres charged by the Excise authorities multiplied by the number of degrees of gravity, which are expressed in units of ten times the degree as known to English brewers. Thus 1030 in English gravity is referred to as 3 "degrees" and 1045 as 4.5 "degrees,"
Degree-hectos. Barrels. Number of breweries. Arrondissement of Lille 12,071,046 2,300,000 227 " Avesne 3,159,568 600,000 212 " Cambrai 3,040,972 580,000 234 " Douai 2,633,585 500,000 130 " Valenciennes 4,159,102 800,000 300 " Hazebrouck (invaded part only) 640,000 120,000 37 Departement du Nord total (for invaded part only) 25,704,273 4,900,000 1,140 Arrondissement of Arras (for invaded part only) 2,000,000 380,000 90 Arrondissement of Bethune (for invaded part only) 2,880,000 550,000 98 Departement of Pas-de-Calais total (invaded part only) 4,880,000 930,000 188 Departement of Somme (invaded part only) 480,000 90,000 43 Departement of Aisne (invaded part only) 1,888,022 360,000 182 Departement of Ardennes (invaded part only) 1,939,038 370,000 210 Departement of Oise, Marne, Meuse, and Meurthe et Moselle (invaded part only) 2,040,000 390,000 34 Total 36,931,333 7,040,000 1,797
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 27, Issue 2, February 1921, pages 54 - 55.
Not only were the breweries small, they were also brewing pretty watery beers. They remind me of the stuff brewed in Britain in 1918 and 1919:
"The number of barrels given as charged is only a very rough approximation, based on the assumption that the average gravity is 1032, which is most probable, considering the large amount of beer brewed at 1020, 1025, and 1030 in the mining districts.A lot of the beer brewed in Belgium was similarly weak. It's odd that Belgium is now associated with strong beer. The exact opposite was true until after WW II.
. . . .
Among these breweries only about 100 turned out lager beer, and these were found in the Ardennes, Mouse, Marne, and Meurthe et Moselle. The others were top fermentation breweries, and the majority were very small. There were indeed only 50 producing more than 24,000 barrels a year, with an average output of 28,700 barrels, a total of 1,436,000 barrels.
There were 100 breweries producing between 12,000 and 24,000 barrels, with an average of 16,500 barrels a year, and a total of 1,050,000; 350 producing between 3,000 and 12,000 a year, with an average of 7,000 and a total of 2,560,000 barrels; and 1,300, producing less than 3,000 a year each, with an average of 1,500 and a total of 2,000,000 barrels a year.
Journal of the Institute of Brewing, Volume 27, Issue 2, February 1921, pages 55 - 56.
It doesn't surprise me that it was in the eastern départements that most of the Lager was brewed. For most of the 20th century there were two brewing regions in France: Nord and Pas-de-Calais and Alsace and Lorraine. The former having mostly small top-fermenting breweries and the latter large bottom-fermenting breweries. There was a period in the 1980's when these were the only regions of France to have any breweries at all.
To contextualise that, here are two tables. The first is the above information on French breweries in table form:
|output (barrels)||no. breweries||% of total|
|3000 - 12,000||350||19.44%|
|12,000 - 24,000||100||5.56%|
The second the number of British breweries by size class in 1914:
|UK breweries in 1914|
|output (barrels)||no. breweries||% of total|
|1,000 - 10,000||580||15.90%|
|10,000 - 20,000||197||5.40%|
|20,000 - 100,000||280||7.68%|
|100,000 - 500,000||46||1.26%|
|1928 Brewers' Almanack, page 118.|
You can see that, pub breweries aside (they constituted all but a handful of the breweries producing less than 1,000 barrels), the British industry operated on a much larger scale than the French one.
Yet another post packed full of tables. I should call this Table Week.
* "Het Brouwersblad" June 2004, pages 6-7
** 1928 Brewers' Almanack, page 118.