Posted October 2015
Fortune favours the brave
Belgian brewers | Given that Belgian beer consumption has dropped almost a quarter over the past twenty years to 72 litres per capita while one in three breweries shut its doors over the past seventy years, an American delegate at the recent Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels could be forgiven for asking pointedly: “Are we supposed to be shocked or relieved by these numbers”? He got no reply. Which is no surprise as Belgium’s 160 brewers are so used to facing strong headwinds both domestically and in their export markets that “resilience” must be their middle name.
Times are a-changing and Michael Jackson, the late Beerhunter, would be pleased. From his earliest visits to Belgian breweries in the 1970s, when he toured the country on a bicycle, to his several Belgian beer guides published in due course, he was one of the staunchest and most vocal supporters of Belgian beers. In fact, without his tireless promoting, the world probably still would not know that for such a small country Belgium produces the greatest variety of styles and the most unusual beers in the world. What is still lesser known is that the country’s roads are literally paved with great beer stories that speak of tradition, heritage, ingenuity, catastrophes overcome and the future carefully planned.
Most beer lovers will be familiar with the Trappists’ stories, whose beers epitomise an almost unwordly transtemporality in the brothers’ rejection of mundane business considerations like growth, efficiency and flexibility. But you just need to go to Mechelen, a city north of Brussels, and stand in the courtyard of the Het Anker brewery to understand why its present owner Charles Leclef calls it a “project”. Situated inside a former medieval Beguinage, a semi-monastic community of women, who already brewed beer, the sense of tradition is so overwhelming that even Mr Leclef, a fifth generation brewer, feels strongly that he is just a custodian, whose task it is to keep the brewery going and pass it on to someone similarly minded.
Or take the Roman brewery in the Flanders village of Oudenarde, which lays claim to being the oldest brewery in the country. From the outside it looks like a veritable brewery castle, the way breweries were built in the early 20th century, although the Roman family has been brewing here since 1545. That's fourteen generations of brewers and always from father to son. The brewery today is led jointly by the Roman brothers, Carlo and Lode, who will tell you, though in passing, that they have every intention of still being around when the brewery celebrates its 500th anniversary, which is 30 years hence.
I must confess that when I set out this summer it was with some anticipation. Five years ago, on my previous Grand Tour of Belgium, I had got the idea from my many conversations with brewers that they felt outside their comfort zone. Michael’s much touted Belgian beer paradise was beginning to look a bit jaded as Belgian consumers were turning up their noses on beer. Making matters worse, the Belgian beer export miracle had begun to fizzle. In the U.S., one of their major export markets, craft brewers were eating their lunches all the while the newly-formed AB-InBev rejigged its strategy to push Budweiser instead of its Belgian heritage brands. With the old Interbrew gone, in whose wake the smaller brewers had sailed comfortably for years, I wondered what the future would hold for them.
For a while it seemed to me that things did not look all that good. True, most of the smaller breweries had shrewdly followed the domestic market trend and shifted their emphasis from lager beers to higher alcohol top-fermenting beer specialities. But I was unsure how many more Tripel Blondes the market could take since it appeared that everyone’s portfolio, ranging from fruit beers, red beers, brown beers to abbey beers, was resembling everybody else’s. And wasn’t AB-InBev already stretching its Leffe brand beyond recognition to include around a dozen sub-brands, all reflecting the latest fashion in Belgian beer styles? Besides, wasn’t the constant altiloquence about beer and food pairings turning beer into something like wine, to be talked over rather than enjoyed? More pressing even, what did this mean for the pils category, still dominating the market, but left almost exclusively to the Big Brewers and their bland brews? Why didn’t the smaller brewers try to offer more interesting tasting pils beers themselves?
Dissecting the export miracle
On the face of it, the smaller brewers’ flight into higher alcohol and more diverse styles has proven prescient. Younger Belgian consumers are re-discovering beer thanks to the many brands available. This may be why beer production has held up at around 18 million hl since 2006. But three brewers alone – AB-InBev, the private label brewer Martens and Heineken-owned Alken-Maes – continue to control over half of this volume. More troublingly, beer exports, which were long Belgium’s saving grace, have vacillated between 10 and 11 million hl for the past eight years. No wonder, Belgium’s brewers protested so loudly when France hiked beer excise by 160 percent in 2013. France is Belgium’s biggest export market with 3.2 million hl beer sold there in 2014. Their higher-alcohol beers would have been hit by a significantly higher levy. In the end, their fears were justified, although France’s demand for Belgian beers held up remarkably well under the circumstances. The second-ranked export market is the Netherlands (2.0 million hl), followed by the U.S. (1.8 million hl) and Germany (1.3 million hl). Together these four markets absorb over 8 million hl or roughly 70 percent of beer exports, which sheds quite a different light on the relevance of Belgian beers in the world in terms of total volumes, AB-InBev’s massive share of Belgium’s exports notwithstanding.
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