John Martin's Brewery

21 August 2020

There are 4 parts to the history of John Martin’s group for as many generations as this British family has been residing in Belgium.

It all started in 1909 when the founder, John Vincent Bathyany Martin, had a disagreement with his father over the use of steam engines to power their naval fleet. The confrontation led the youngster (24) to leave London for Antwerp, one of the major ports on the continent at that time.John began to trade spirits from eastern Europe as well as developing his own lemonade brand “GLOBE” with fruits he imported directly from Sicily.  Given the nature of his family’s business, John was fluent in many languages including French, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, Turkish and the local dialect of the city he was living in (Flemish- a Dutch dialect spoken in the northern part of Belgium and France). 

In 1910, using his British connections, he managed to become the official importer and distributor of “Schweppes” in Belgium. Two years later he would land one of the major distributing contracts that would change the fate of the family for over a century: the Guinness deal.  John managed to become the exclusive distributor of the Irish Stout and he created a new company called “Martin & Co.” headquartered in Antwerp.  Since then, various innovations led to the family business to grow quasi exponentially (today the Martin family is the oldest surviving Guinness distributor in the world!).

In the 1930s, the construction of the Albert Canal linking Antwerp to Liège produced devastating effects on the quality of surrounding waters leading John to look for another spring source which could be used for his business. The choice fell on a major property in Genval (about 15 Km south from Brussels), which included two natural springs and a Norman style castle, known today as Chateau du Lac. This new location would become the family’s new headquarters (Genval1), until 1966 when another location a few hundred meters down the road was chosen to replace the former (Genval2). 

Following John Martins retirement plans in 1937, the firm was gradually taken over by his sons: Andrew and John James (both enrolled at Oxford University at the time in finance and marketing respectively). Unfortunately, the business transition lasted less than two years when the world entered a second world conflict.

Both brothers joined the army (Andrew the Royal Air Force) as the entire family return to the United Kingdom in September of 1939.  John James became a war hero and was decorated to the rank of Captain. He was even awarded the prestigious “Croix de Guerre” by French troops for his military accomplishments. Facing serious war injuries in Tunisia, he was later repatriated to London where he begun work for the British Intelligence.  Andrew, on the other hand would be awarded the “Order of the British Empire” by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1985.

During this difficult time, their father John Martin, continued to work for an English drink company and begun developing a new beer, the “Bulldog” pale ale. Later known in Belgium as “John Martin’s Pale Ale”.  Meanwhile, John Martin’s employees in both Antwerp and Genval provided minimal support to occupying German forces mostly to avoid foreclosure of John’s businesses or worst, executions.  John managed to keep his Belgian operations running by relying on key Belgian employees (the company’s interim managing director Julia Van Cleemput had a prominent role in this) and the red cross, by which he managed to smuggled his orders straight from England.  

On the 4th of September 1944, following the liberation of Antwerp, John Martin was the first foreign civilian to officially enter the city. The Founder’s reunion with his key staff took place at Julia’s home, his “guardian angel” over the war period. John regained access to the company’s keys, documents and cash registers. His business assets required some post war restructuring especially in Antwerp and Genval. Julia Van Cleemput, on the other hand, would continue to be part of the company until she passed away early in 2001 – well into her 90s.  

Both sons, Andrew and John James returned to their father’s business in Antwerp in May 1945 after being demobilised.   Andrew assumed a financial role in the production of beer while John James became a sales representative for the firm.



John James went on to marry Cécile Duray-Gombault, the niece of a Belgian State Security Service agent. From this union, Peter (1951), John Charles (1949) and Anthony (1957) were born. They represented the third generation to the family business.  John Charles, the eldest nephew of John Martin, was set to become the leading figure in the family’s business with Peter and Anthony to support him.

It was however Anthony to give a new direction to the company 1988 with the creation of “Finest Drinks Company”, an entity designed to entirely support the production, sale, and distribution of Belgian specialty beers.  With a marketing background developed while working within Nestlé in the UK, Anthony embarked on a mission to redesign the company’s brand positioning and priorities.  This would lead Anthony to become the only owner of the group as from 2004, and to change its strategic orientation to craft beers.

To this day he is currently the managing director and controls all aspects and businesses linked to the firm’s activities.  His major focus nowadays has shifted into preparing his two sons, Jonathan and Edward to take over the family business and propel it into the 21st century.





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