Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Belgian beer

In a high-ceilinged wood-panelled room, tall windows overlooking the frenetic human chessboard of Grand Place, a man talks: ‘Belgium is a small country that likes to conquer with beer and food.’ There is then talk about Pils being on the decline in the country and craft beer sales starting to grow; the backslapping continues with news of the success of beer exports. This then starts me off thinking and recalling several other strands of thought from people I had tapped into over the past couple of years: is Belgian beer sitting on a time bomb? The following couple of days judging at the Brussels Beer Challenge while talking beer and drinking beer and being beer reminded me that there might be something in the future of Belgian beer that needs to be addressed in the near future (or it might even be addressed now, as those in the Belgian brewing industry in that room were well aware of the issue). 

For those for whom beer is an infrequent source of either refreshment or liquid pleasure, I would guess that for them Belgian beer rests on a nest of laurels laid there by the likes of Leffe, Chimay, Stella and Kwak (nice glass, that would look good on the sideboard mum, perhaps next to the faux wineskin gran brought back from Spain in the 1970s) plus whatever sweet gueuze you can get in those tiny shops that dot the centre of Brussels (this is Belgian beer in the same way visitors to Munich during Oktoberfest probably see Paulaner as representative of Bavarian beer). Outside the city, beyond the trails of tourists checkmating their bodies around the Grand Place, more enterprising brewers are throwing in hops, inculcating yeast strains, aging and withering their beers, turning them inside out and op, applying a variety of grains and spices and then selling their wares to America and other parts of Europe rather than to the local café, where the regulars like their Jupiler. I think I first was aware of this trend when visiting one small brewer in 2006 and learning that the majority of his beers went to the US.

There are some great Belgian breweries, both craft and longer established, but I sometimes feel that the country is eclipsed by what is happening elsewhere and that some of its more established brewers are happy to sit back, look at their fob watches and think ‘we are Belgian’ in a German or Czech manner, but after my sojourn in Brussels I’m starting to have these thoughts: might Belgian beer find itself in a bit of a pickle if overseas’ markets collapse?


  1. Yes, I'd say so. It happened to the booming Irish whiskey trade when the US introduced prohibition.

  2. It's funny that many people believe that Belgians are the most "beer cultured" people in the world, when the truth is that the average Belgian beer drinker isn't all that different to the average Czech, German, Spaniard, Italian, Austrian, etc.

    That said, I don't think there is that much of a risk of the international markets suddenly collapsing, at least not for a luxury item like beer. Besides, there are still many markets that these smaller Belgian breweries haven't seriously reached yet that could have a lot of potential, though I believe it might require a joint effort by several companies to do it properly.

  3. I can not write long because a nice girly driver is driving me to an interesting PUb fair in Ghent .
    But it also that we Belgians have been spoiled with all these different rather nice beers and that for us the real craft and home brewing scene , witch we didn't have anymore when a lot of small brewers also from noble families couldn't compete aganst the succes of the real big and medium sized .
    and Now with the success abroad the families that survived and still owned their business chose to float on the interesting export flow
    when I was in London I discovered Fruli or something and I called the guys from a brewery i worked with to ask him whether he knew where this strawberry , YES strawberry beer was made and now there are more of breweries that because the location is there ....
    But Know the Beer cafes are booming in Belgium as well and the special beers show up everywhere.
    Sorry to drop in on you people here but I will definitely be back to talk here , This is also for me a new world (literally ) opening .$
    I was a Bar owner manager dj, you name it , since I was 18 and had ....... got to go , CHEERS ,got to run & sorry for barging in like that

  4. An export market is more resilient than a domestic market being not one market but a collection of foreign markets, so from that score more resilient.

    Of interest is the degree to which they may be expanding beyond traditional markets like America and Europe into Asian economies with an increasing middle class, growth and prosperity.