Beer in Brussels: Midway between Evolution and Tension
The quality of Belgian beer is from now on known worldwide, especially since UNESCO has officially recorded the Belgian beer culture in the International Intangible Cultural Heritage List, this has however highlighted some of the challenges met by Belgian brewers. “Unfair” competition, ‘fake brewers”, boycotts, … In Brussels, the tension is palpable. Reporting.
The handcrafted beer industry is booming. The microbrewery concept began in the United States and Canada in the 70’s, then the phenomena arrived in Europe, France and Italy. In Belgium, the process started a little bit later. For example, Brussels had 120 handcrafted breweries in the 18th century. At the end of the 90’s, only Cantillon Brewery established in 1900 survived. It took until the beginning of the year 2000 that other players would set up in Brussels. There was first La Senne Brewery (established in 2003, it started its activites in Brussels in 2010), Brussels Beer Project (2013), En Stoemelings (2015), No Science (2016) and l’Ermitage Brewery, which is about to acquire its own production device. According to Jean Van Roy, owner and brewer at Cantillon, the new players’ arrival on Brussels market is an opportunity: “I am very happy to see more and more breweries being implemented in Brussels, whatever it is En Stoemelings, No Science or l’Ermotage Brewery. This concerns very motivated young people who work excessively well”, he says. A shared feeling with Yvan De Baets, cofounder and brewer at La Senne Brewery: “No Science, En Stoemelings, l’Ermitage… We are very excited they are here because it is fresh and revival. We try to help them as much as we can. I tremendously respect En Stoemelings, particularly because they know what they like, want and do. That is what is like to be a brewer.
Nonetheless, a name is usually left aside: Brussels Beer Project (BBP).
The ire against “fake brewers”
Olivier de Brauwere and its partner Sébastien Morvan inaugurated Brussels Beer Project in 2013 presenting their first creation: the Delta. The idea of the two entrepreneurs was to elaborate beers which stand out from the crowd relying on participative financing and co-creation. “Belgium is known worldwide thanks to its brewing heritage but there is still a traditional side… Beer culture is a very sensitive and sacred in Belgium, we are not allowed to do whatever we want. Personally, we knew that we could do many things. We came up with a new approach focused on co-creation. Our communication is more daring, more creative as well.” Very present on various social media outlets the BBP has benefited from launching an advantageous media coverage campaign. Nevertheless, the fact that they do not own a brewery in Brussels, the co-founders have faced a lot of discontent from several Belgian brewers. In 2014, carte blanche was granted to several handcrafted breweries to denounce the “fake brewers” phenomena, among which there were La Senne and Cantillon.
Even if BBP is not explicitly stated, it is still part of the different players pointed out. At the beginning, Oliver de Brauwere and Sébastien Morvan brewed their beers by Anders Brewery in Limburg. And even though they currently have a brewing establishment located at Antoine Dansaert street in Brussels, most their production is still brewed by Anders.
But is BBP really to be blame?
Nowadays, BBP is brewing 2,000 bottles per day.
“Our standard beers are brewed by Anders, but this is not a secret for anyone as it is explicitly written on our website and labels. Furthermore, all our experimental brews, beers of the month, are brewed on site, so we can’t say I am not brewing by myself!”, defending Olivier de Brauwere at BBP. “La Senne Brewery reproached us a lot about it – they are even boycotting us in some bars – while they had been doing the same thing during five years at De Proef and De Ranke without indicating it on their label. This is like the pot calling the kettle black!”
Interviewed about this matter, Yvan de Baets at La Senne explained: “Before opening our own brewery in Brussels, we wanted to have the necessary funds. We rented our brewing locals, but we always brewed by ourselves. Our beers have never been brewed by someone else. We were real brewers without any brewery and proper device. Subsequently, we made all the major decisions and risks: if we failed a brew, it would have been at our cost, which is not the case for the “fake brewers.” This is also one of the main reasons of our discontentment; unfair competition. If the competition were fair made by people taking the same risk as us, there wouldn’t be any issue.”
One thing is sure, there is clear litigation opposing La Senne to BBP. “To be honest, we don’t really care about what La Senne is saying about us. We don’t pay attention and we go on”, Olivier de Brauwere says. Nonetheless, on the 1st of April, BBP published on its Facebook page a sarcastic video announcing its reconciliation with La Senne and their first collaboration.
“How funny is this! Indeed, we’d rather laugh than start a pointless war. I think the real fight is against taste standardization, the sweet side, and the beverage monopoly built by AB InBev. This is a better fight than having to fight between each other”, he adds.
An opinion shared by several Brussels breweries.
“In Brussels, each with its own identity”
According to Jean Van Roy at Cantillon, the “fake brewers” phenomena is more than ever a current issue: “There clearly still is a problem, liars, and people presenting themselves as brewers, which isn’t the truth.” However, according to him, BBP is no longer part of that:
“I think they are making efforts and they are now honest about the beers they don’t brew themselves, even if their Brew Pub is more an appearance.” He also adds: “The beer industry has become really profitable. It makes sense then that the industry has attracted individuals from different backgrounds. Some, not pointing out BBP, don’t care at all about beer and the process behind making a good beer because all they want is to make profit. This is a pity.”
Besides, this creates a problem among new arrivals, as En Stoemelings has stated:
“La Senne Brewery supports us and Cantilon is a friend of ours now, but we cannot deny that it was hard at the beginning and for some time, they have been watching us to see if we had the same values and ethic, which was the case as we wanted an urban brewery from the neighborhood, close to the customers and of course, quality is primordial to us”, Denys Van Elewyck admits, master-brewer and director at En Stoemlings.
Regarding BBP, “They are our peers. We don’t necessarily have the same motivations nor customers, but I find them more respectful than some others, even if this is true that most of their production is brewed in another subsidiary in Limburg… There are pro’s and con’s, but globally, I think they are investing to push the beers upwards. Before, people bought Duvel. From now on, they start getting interested in new tastes. I don’t say that they have to pick up BBP, but at least they are making efforts to diversify the panel. And there is an added value as each beer of the month is brewed on site.”
He also adds: “What is funny in Brussels is that each acquires its own identity: concerning La Senne, this is through their special yeast and hops, Cantillon through their spontaneous beer, BBP through eccentric flavours, things that have to be discovered. Concerning our brewery, we are focusing on malt and spices. No Science tends to identify itself through oaks and the table bitterness and l’Ermitage, these are people who have a lot of potential so we can not wait to see what they propose as a range.”
Finally, a bit like the existing conflict between taxi drivers and touring car drivers, these are society’s distinct visions that are facing up to each other.
Modernism and Impertinence
Appearing on the Brussels brewing scene, the BBP cofounders wanted to rewrite the traditional codes. They are not hiding themselves:
“Since the beginning, our motto is not to be shy whenever it concerns the creation of beers or the communication. We don’t want to be involved in a sluggish consensus. Of course, we want to attract as much people as possible, so we definitely want to grow”, Olivier de Brauwere says.
To reach their goals, the BBP cofounders are focusing on an innovative business model. By brewing most of their beers by Anders and by suggesting people to contribute financially to the project, the duo doesn’t have to invest a lot into the industrial infrastructure. Besides, the project attracts consumers by favoring co-creation.
And the results are promising. In the future, BBP hopes to expand abroad. Consequently, it opened its first collaborative bar in Tokyo last May.
“The Japanese love more and more the American ‘craft’, it is then urgent to propose an alternative”, Olivier de Brauwere explains. “Belgian traditional beers play an important role and are essential. They made the reputation of Belgium. Nonetheless, we must hurry and offer an alternative to people looking for something more ‘craft`-like, with tastes a bit more extreme, a slightly different communication, and less smooth. We have to jump on this occasion and start entering into that niche, otherwise the Americans, the Spanish, or Scandinavians will take our place.”
… Facing the authenticity and tradition
Defending at the heart of the business, local anchorage, slow growth… Here are the opposites of the most traditional model more or less supported by Cantillon and Le Senne breweries.
“We have in mind to open a new brewery on the Tour & Taxis site”, explains Yvan de Baets. "The problem is that it is expensive. To pay back the bank loan, we will have to produce twice more. Once this stage is reached, we will stop there and it will be good for us. Personally, growing without any reason doesn’t make any sense. I don’t have any growth fantasy, I only want to be a better brewer, to be the one who can afford the best equipment to see if I can make better beers.” He adds then: “60% of our production goes to Brussels and less than 20% to foreign countries and we want this made locally.”
To Cantillon Brewey, specialised in Lambic and Gueuze since 1900, growth is not on the agenda either: “For 8 years, we don’t serve new professional customers because we don’t have the necessary resources in terms of volume. Nonetheless, we have just acquired a new building. The idea is to focus on the new production in Brussels in order to reclaim the city, because currently 55% of our beers are exported abroad. In the future, our wish is to continue to be very careful with the quality of our product and to elaborate new recipes. We are currently producing almost 3000 hl per year, which is not bad for something spontaneous.” Jean Van Roy says.
Concerning the young generation of brewers, they are not really opposed to this model.
“We want to keep this handcrafted, local and small-size spirit”, affirms Denys Van Elewyck of En Stoemelings. “The aim is not to grow infinitely, to have tremendous tanks, or to work 24/7. We are likely to aim at proposing a stable range of products with quality, to listen to the customers and to remain our heritage.”
Quid about the future of handcrafted beers in Belgium?
Has everyone had the chance to find and make a name for themselves prospering in the brewing environment? Which models and which breweries will be able to successfully penetrate the market? According to Jan Van Roy, one thing is for sure, the Belgian market is almost saturated.
“The golden years when we opened a brewery, where we were making beers really without a good marketing plan is (almost) over. The United States is saturated, Canada soon will be, Italy and some Scandinavian countries already are. Belgium will certainly follow” he says. He concludes: “I think we are going to experience once again a chaos in the brewing world.”
According to BBP, this is not the case, the ‘craft’ in Belgium has a bright future:
“The consumers’ interest in different tastes, label communication and which have a local anchorage, these are all the beginning” affirms Olivier de Brauwere. “Of course, not everybody survives because of quality, personality and coherence-about-who-we-are conflicts. This is not easy. But I tend to think that in Belgium and Europe, we are only at the beginning of the ‘craft’.”
What about you? What do you think about all that?