"In most households, it was habitual to have certain beers at the table and, provided they were enjoyed moderately, there was no reason to change. But on various sides, I've been told about the poor quality of the beer, at a time when its price is increasing, while the resources are decreasing." This is how Tante Colinette summarized, in her collection of recipes and advice for her homemaker-readers published in 1915, the shortage of beer and the decline of its quality in Belgium. A beverage of immense popularity, beer was affected by the direct consequences of the war. Indeed, a large number of traditional breweries were forced to close in view of the difficulty accessing the raw materials needed for brewing, as well as due to the varying tastes primarily due to the need to substitute – or combine – basic cereals. This alcoholic beverage (just like wine, eau-de-vie, cider, gin, cognac, etc.), that was available in the establishments that had survived the difficulties of the war, ended up becoming a latent threat to public order. The danger of its excess consumption was a constant preoccupation for the authorities, and controls on producers and distributors were commonplace.
In the daily struggle to maintain balance between customer satisfaction and the profitability of sales of alcoholic beverages, the Belgians saw a clear effect on their food habits. The increase of raw material prices together with the increase of beverage prices resulted in a decrease in the number of consumers, and a strengthening of the controls against alcohol consumption abuse by the Germans. Production and distribution dynamics directly affected the owners of cafés, restaurants and private taverns, as well as retailers, brewers and, in general, the population. Indeed, the population was obliged to adapt its daily routine, forced to tolerate not only shortages, but also theft by nimble black-market sellers, as well as controls and requisitions by the German occupier.
Alcohol and the daily routine of the war
"In recent days, a number of cases of public drunkenness have been seen. I'm told that beverage vendors are violating the prescriptions of the Authority and selling alcohol. I feel it my duty to inform operators that the police have been asked to search for violations, and that an order will be issued for the immediate closing of any establishment found to be selling alcohol." Here is the notice signed by the burgomaster of the City of Brussels, Maurice Lemonnier, sent in June 1915 to the owners of all restaurants, cafés and taverns selling alcoholic beverages in the city. This is but one example intended to show how the efforts made by the City's official authorities to limit the sale and consumption of alcohol were always being altered as a result of countless reports of police inspections confirming illegal sales. It was then normal for establishments to close the doors and turn off the lights at the regulatory time. In certain premises, it would not be uncommon for the street entrance to be closed at the time when the electricity was cut off. A few candles were then lit in order to guide the faithful clientele that was familiar with the "alternative" route to the service door.
The purchase of beverages as well as the manner in which establishments managed to obtain bottles of Hasselt, Schiedam, cognac, eau-de-vie, wine, beer and gin, will always be part of this particular facet of the war that serves to conceal the principles behind the black market and cash exchanges. The trade in alcoholic beverages was always accepted during the occupation period but, for example, in certain Belgian provinces, it was prohibited to transport and sell more than six litres per person. Through constraints on the closing times of establishments serving alcohol (at 9:15 PM at the end of 1914 and midnight as of August 1916), the authorities felt that they were controlling access to this beverage. However, the possibilities offered by the black market to establishments and families that could still afford it, constituted exceptions to the rules imposed by the occupier.
Also, the unofficial sale of beverages was a response not only to an economic or taste-related need, it was also a nationalistic act, sometimes akin to charity. Especially in the country, closer to the areas crossed by military troops, generous women would share, with the soldiers, drinking water, cider and floral infusions made at home, or even remainders of alcohol hidden in their cellars. For the passersby, these received alcoholic beverages were sometimes the only way of gathering one's strengths and continuing a war that everyone had imagined would be much shorter and less violent. Also, in the product list for military supplies, the importance of alcohol was comparable with that of soup! Within the overall Belgian civilian population, the consumption of alcohol was often a way to make the day-to-day experience of the war more livable. This is what they had to say about alcohol in the manual entitled Utilisation rationnelle des déchets ménagers in 1916: "Alcoholic beverages, consumed with moderation, contribute to raising the morale that has been beaten down by the depressing character of our rainy and interminable winters!"
Within the overall Belgian civilian population, the consumption of alcohol was often a way to make the day-to-day experience of the war more livable.
The war and beer
Beer, one of the symbols of Belgium and the most widely consumed beverage in the country, has been brewed since ancient Mesopotamia. Its production began in Belgium in the Middle Ages. The changes in its preparation techniques since the 19th century have resulted in improved quality, and have correspondingly increased its consumption. At this same period, the number of breweries multiplied throughout the country. Unfortunately, after the German invasion in 1914, the entire brewing industry was affected by the consequences of the occupation. The general sourcing of cereals was less and less guaranteed, and Belgian brewers who managed to maintain their production despite the difficulties of the war had to adapt while turning to new raw materials.
The CNSA (National Relief and Food Committee) and the Commission for Relief of Belgium (CRB, international commission with its head office in London) in charge of providing supplies to the Belgian population, had to deal with difficulties importing and distributing basic necessary foodstuffs. Despite the position held by beer in the range of daily Belgian flavours, the distribution of cereals for breweries was not one of the priorities in the initial months of the German occupation. As confirmed by this CNSA communiqué from 1915: "The Committee has decided not to intervene for the moment. The Chairman, Mr. Francqui, has indicated that he has advised brewers, maltsters and manufacturers of chocolate to seek to resolve the questions involving them by their own means, with the National Committee unable, for the moment, to consider undertaking the import and country-wide distribution of the products needed for these various industries." However, even while not considering beer as a priority food until early 1915, the CNSA recognised this beverage's popular value and implemented several mediation strategies between brewers and the German authorities. However, the export of Belgian beer was prohibited for the entire duration of the occupation, and it was through the black market that a few litres of beer managed to cross the borders.
The Committee has decided not to intervene for the moment. The Chairman, Mr. Francqui, has indicated that he has advised brewers, maltsters and manufacturers of chocolate to seek to resolve the questions involving them by their own means, with the National Committee unable, for the moment, to consider undertaking the import and country-wide distribution of the products needed for these various industries.
Given that the production of beer was already part of the repertory of national products before the war and that there were a large number of breweries at the end of the 19th century, the Fédération Nationale des Brasseurs Belges (now the Union des Brasseurs Belges) had to adapt to the series of orders limiting the production and – especially – the distribution of beer. One of the reasons for which the German authorities authorised the operation of the CNSA and of the CRB was because the food distributed by these organisations was intended solely for the non-militarized Belgian population. For this reason, the same principle was applied to the sale of beer. In November 1917, the need to prohibit the distribution of basic foodstuffs to foreigners was made official and, first and foremost, applied to the Germans themselves:
We will therefore require all brewers wishing to participate in the distribution of barley or malts to provide a written commitment to comply with the conditions imposed by the government of His Britannic Majesty, failing which any brewer infringing them will be deprived of merchandise; meaning: A) that they will not share the delivered raw materials with anyone, B) that they will not sell beer to any German or to anyone acting on behalf of a German, C) that they will only supply establishments that have obtained the necessary licences and that only sell beer for on-site consumption.
With this limitation on sales and the consideration of the need to support the few remaining national breweries, a 1917 communiqué decrees that the Fédération Générale des Brasseurs Belges must henceforth reimburse the CRB for all expenses incurred during the import of raw materials for production purposes. Traditionally prepared using malt barley, the shortage of cereals compelled a few brewers to also use rye – in certain cases, this consisted of mixtures – and, as in all food -related domains, a totally new ingredient, specifically corn. Known and used only on a sporadic basis, brewers as well as consumers therefore had to include corn, of American origin, within the repertoire of war-related flavours.
A large percentage of European breweries still uses corn on a regular basis. Indeed, its addition contributes to the smoothness of the beer since it produces sugar. Without being able to identify exactly how and in what percentage corn, rye, barley and hops were used in the brewing processes in Belgium between 1914 and 1918, this was undoubtedly part of manufacturing processes on the basis of substitutions and mixtures of available cereals.
During the 19th century and the years preceding the occupation in 1914, beer was the symbol of popular consumption. While the higher social classes distinguished themselves from the rest of society by drinking wine, beer was the beverage of the working and peasant classes. These associations did not change after the war, and even into the 1930s. Unlike in France where wine was consumed on a much more widespread basis, at the start of the 20th century in Belgium, wine was a luxury product that was primarily found on bourgeois tables like that of Mrs. Germaine Servais, a native of the Charolais region, where Mouton Rothschild du Médoc was a part of several shopping lists that she included in her book of personal recipes.
While the higher social classes distinguished themselves from the rest of society by drinking wine, beer was the beverage of the working and peasant classes.
Today, the alcoholic beverages available on the market are very numerous and in great variety; the continuous creation of new products is competing with beverages that have a long tradition. They also vary in terms of both their price and their quality, and not always proportionally. Let us nevertheless remind the reader that the trenches of the 1914-1918 war were a place of discovery for many young Belgian soldiers of popular origin, where they were able, for the first time, to try the particular taste of grapes transformed into wine!