These days, Stella Artois is one of the most well-known beers worldwide. This, originally Belgian, beer, is a product of Ab InBev, a large beer conglomerate that owns hundreds of different beer brands. However, this is not the company that first invented Stella Artois. Let’s see how Stella Artois first came to live:
Stella Artois was first made in 1925 in Leuven, Belgium, and carried the codename ‘X’. The name Stella Artois was first registered in July 1926, the same year Stella Artois sales started. Stella Artois was invented by the Artois brewery, which was first recorded in 1717 by Sebastian Artois after he bought the ‘Den Hoorn’ brewery.
However, that certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. The Stella Artois beer and the Artois brewery that invented it have a long history extending well into the previous millennium. Below, we’ll explain the culture that made the invention of Stella Artois possible, who is exactly is responsible for inventing it, and how Stella Artois became the flagship beer of a beer conglomerate. Read on!
1366 – 1840
The story of Stella Artois begins in 1366 in Leuven, Belgium. At this point, Leuven had a vibrant beer brewing culture that laid the foundation for the beer that’s now sold worldwide. However, it took until 1466 to find a first reference to the brewery ‘Den Hoorn’, where Stella Artois would eventually find its origin.
This brewery had been brewing for almost 250 years when Sebastian Artois was accepted into the brewing guild of Leuven as a brewing master. In 1717, Sebastian Artois bought the brewery and changed the name to the Artois brewery. In 1726, Artois died at 45, and his wife took over the brewery.
Only seven years later, Artois’ only living son, Adrian, became the brewing master at the Artois brewery at 22 years old. He would hold this position for 50 years. In 1840, the brewery was owned by Adrians’ only living kid, Jeanne Marie. Jeanne left the complete family heritage of the Artois family, including the breweries, to be inherited by a family friend and manager: Albert Marnef.
Interestingly, this particular piece of history is that the brewery only made local white beer and an amber-colored beer (also referred to as ‘Peeterman’). Both these beers were top-fermented multi-grain beers. At this point, the brewed beer looked nothing like the Stella Artois we know today.
1840 – 1914
The first noticeable event after the passing of the Artois family happened in 1892. This was when a new brewhouse was added to the complex to make bottom-fermented German-style beers. The company bought a german brewing installation and hired German and Czech brewers to make this type of beer that was quickly gaining popularity in all of Europe. For example, Heineken also transitioned from top-fermented to bottom-fermented beer in The Netherlands around this time.
The quickly rising popularity of bottom-fermented beer was logical at this time. Top-fermented beers didn’t taste as good as bottom-fermented beers did. Furthermore, the Belgian beer laws were changed in 1885, which cleared the patch for these brewing methods. Light-colored Bock, the dark Munich, and the lighter petite Bavière were the most popular beers brewed by Artois.
Things continued in 1901 when the ‘Artois Breweries’ was officially established in Belgium. Initially, this was a big success since production doubled between 1901 – 1914. This was primarily because the bottom-fermented beer grew from 44% to 58% of total revenue within the company. The older white beer couldn’t catch up anymore. Because of this, Stella Artois became the second-largest brewery in Belgium.
However, bad luck struck once again when the brewery was destroyed in the first world war in 1914.
1923 – 1945
After the first world war, the brewery was rebuilt and opened again in 1923.
Two years later, Artois brewed a beer with the code name ‘X’. They described this beer as a bottom-fermented blonde beer with the highest Czech quality malt and Saaz hops (which is a decently tasting lager, as I found out). These days it’s clear that this was the original Stella Artois. The first reference of Stella Artois was eventually written down in July 1926. Artois had decided that the ‘X’ beer deserved to be in their portfolio.
Interesting to note here is that many people refer to Stella Artois as a Christmas beer. The story goes that the ‘Stella’ in the name stands for the star you find on top of the Christmas tree. This story is true. To introduce the beer, Stella Artois gave it away as a Christmas present to the inhabitants of Leuven, Belgium, in 1926.
However, evidence suggests that Stella Artois was sold all year long, and sales peaked in summer and dipped in the winter. Furthermore, international pale lager (which is the type of beer Stella Artois is), wasn’t a Christmas beer at all. That honor was reserved for dark Scotch ale.
Stella Artois as we know it today had finally been invented. However, the brewery couldn’t withstand the second world war and was once again severely damaged because of bombings in 1944. Then, Stella Artois made up 24% of production, Bock 50%, and the old-school top-fermented white beer made up 9%.
1945 – Present
After the second world war, the brewery was rebuilt, and production started again. It took a few years, but in the ’60s and the ’70s, Stella Artois was the flagship beer in the Artois brewery by a mile. The old white beer had vanished entirely, and also, the bock-variant wasn’t as popular as before.
Furthermore, Artois quickly started expanding its position in the Belgian market and also started exporting to other countries in Europe. They had already begun buying other breweries in the 1930s, but the ’60s and ’70s made a tangible impact on the company. They also bought two Dutch breweries: Dommelsch in 1968 and Hengelo Bier in 1974.
As part of its international expansion, the Withbread company got the rights to brew Stella Artois for the UK market in 1976 (in the UK it’s also known as ‘wife beater’).
In 1987 Artois merged with the Belgian brewer Piedboeuf (owner of Jupiler), forming a new company called Interbrew. From this moment onwards, Stella Artois became the flagship beer of a portfolio of different brands and beers instead of the leading beer of one company.
The final noticeable event is the introduction of Stella Artois to the American market in 1999, where it has an ABV of 5% and 143 calories per bottle. Stella Artois was imported from their brewery in Leuven, Belgium, for a long time. However, in 2021 a transition started, and Stella Artois is now also brewed in several locations in the United States.