Belgian Family Brewers: Traditionally Modern

It wasn’t too long ago that Belgian beers—beyond the country’s dominant mass-marketed pilsners, that is—were considered exotic. Then U.S. craft brewers started offering their own interpretations of classic styles that originated throughout Flanders and Wallonia. And then, the Americans actually got good at it—many say as good as the Belgians that influenced them.

For Belgian breweries that export, that dynamic shift might create some minor complications. It was easy when a Flemish sour from an actual Flemish brewery was the only game in town at a specialty beer bar or shop outside of Belgium. But that’s no longer the case.

So with that sort of international competition—and not just from the Americans, but from craft brewers in places like Japan, Scandinavia, Italy and South America producing Belgian-style ales—there’s been no better time for Belgian Family Brewers (BFB), a seven-year-old association of 21 of the country’s family operations—the largest and best known among them being Palm Breweries and Duvel Moortgat—to raise its collective voice and assert itself on behalf of centuries of brewing heritage. Finding that common voice was not the easiest task, some in the group privately acknowledge, as it was often a difficult task to get these proud, disparate competitors, who are akin to minor royal families, to collaborate and agree on many things.  

But the one thing the member breweries all could agree on was that they have a vested interest in their international profile, as, on average, they export around 60 percent of what they produce (as much as 80 percent for some) in a market dominated by mega-multinationals—after all, AB InBev calls Leuven, Belgium home.

Alain De Laet, CEO of Brewery Huyghe—best known for the Delirium Tremens brand—points out just how saturated the country’s domestic market is.

“Seventy percent of the market is blocked and limited to the big brewers,” De Laet says. “Thanks to exports we have money—and we don’t put money in our pockets we reinvest in the brewery.”

The BFB logo—a quality label of sorts—appears on about 80 different beers that member breweries produce.

‘Where Innovation Meets Tradition’
Back in November, the association hosted a media tour that criss-crossed the country to shed some light on these generations-old family businesses and how they’re brewing and marketing in the modern age.

The overall theme that the 21st century stewards of family brewing tradition sought to convey was “Where innovation meets tradition.” In other words, it’s a delicate balance between rich history and future-forward technology and quality control.
 
The one advantage BFB members have over craft brewers in the U.S. and beyond is that extensive history. Currently many of what are considered the oldest craft breweries in the states are starting to deal with succession issues—either selling or passing on to the next generation of the founding family. But, in most cases, the “next” generation among American craft players is only the second generation. By contrast, many BFB members have been brewing for six or seven generations—one even claims to have been doing so for 14 generations, with brewing activities commencing in 1545. The prerequisite for entry into the organization is a minimum of 50 years of beer producing heritage. The 21 current members represent combined brewing history of 3,500 years, an average of 167 years each.

And, where the U.S. craft beer scene has its “rock stars,” the loudest of the loud known for their outsized personalities and marketing stunts, the ruling families of BFB members are a bit more reserved but no less passionate in their roles as heritage guardians.  

“You have to have a story,” advises David Bossuyt, sales and export manager of Bockor Brewery, founded in 1892 and now known for the spontaneously fermented Cuvee des Jacobins, matured for a year and a half in large oak tanks (known as either foeders or foudres, depending on whether you’re in Flemish Flanders or French-speaking Wallonia), as well as Omer traditional blond, named for founder Omer Vander Ghinste. “Even when you go to an export country, the first thing they ask is, ‘Does your beer have a story?’”

However, fully aware that they can’t put all of their eggs into the “heritage” basket, the Belgian brewers have been investing significantly in the types of equipment and marketing best practices that make them competitive with world-class specialty producers.

For instance, when Bockor’s U.S. importer’s demand prompted the re-launch of Cuvee des Jacobins in 2010—it had beenpart of a past iteration of its portfolio—the brewery installed 11 new foeders to make it happen.

Many of the breweries still occupy the centuries-old structures they’ve been in for generations, but with some incongruously modern equipment upgrades. Some, like Huyghe, even have their old early 20th-century copper kettles intact, juxtaposed with stainless steel 21st century engineering marvels from the likes of Krones—sort of a physical manifestation of honoring the past while embracing the future. In a production office adjacent to its brew house, Huyghe even has the copper top of an old kettle suspended above work space, a flying-saucer-like source of both reflection and inspiration.

One hears much more talk of expansion and increasing capacity today—always constant conversation of U.S. craft brewers—than in years past.

Antoine Bosteels of the Buggenhout-based Brewery Bosteels, says his company, which dates back to 1791 and is known for Pawel Kwak (not to mention Kwak’s unique glass), Tripel Karmeliet and DeuS Brut des Flandres, in the past two years has invested about 8 million euros on 12 new vessels, a wastewater treatment system, new clean-in-place (CIP) equipment, coolers and yeast and sugar-dosing systems for its line.

Even the smallest among the BFB members, Brewery De Ryck—with 3,000 hectoliters of annual production—has been focusing a great deal on facility upgrades. Founded by Gustave De Ryck in 1886 as De Gouden Arend and reopened after World War I under its current name, De Ryck in 2007 invested for the first time in its own bottling plant to take advantage of new opportunities at home and abroad.

“The bottle has saved us,” says Mieke Van Melkebeke, daughter of Anne De Ryck, fourth-generation owner and first woman to run the brewery (and first female brewing engineer in Belgium). “It certainly changed the way we approached things in our brewery and enabled us to dream of new realities.”

Hop to It
In addition to making mechanical adjustments in the plant, many of the breweries haven’t been afraid to tinker with what have been considered traditional styles in the country and incorporate some decidedly non-Belgian flavors and techniques. For instance, the popularity of über-hoppy beers—thanks to U.S. brewers’ success with American-style India Pale Ales and such—has encouraged many producers throughout Flanders and Wallonia to up the IBUs in their brews by ramping up the lupulin enhancements. Sure, hops for centuries have been essential ingredients in beers produced within Belgium’s borders, but they always lurked in the shadows, flavor-wise.

When a Belgian brewer did release a hop-forward beer prior to the worldwide craft beer boom, it was considered something of a rarity. One notable family operation that launched a product that tilted toward the hoppy side was Watou-based Brouwerij van Eecke (founded in 1624!), which, in 1981, unveiled Poperings Hommelbier (“hommel,” being the local dialect for “hops.”) Poperinge, to which Watou is adjacent, is known for its hop farms. Local farmers had demanded a special beer for the triennial Poperingse Hop Festival.

Now, hoppier offerings are becoming more widespread throughout Belgium.

Stylistic evolution to survive and thrive is something with which brewers across the country have a great deal of historical experience. Most of the world-class styles for which Belgium is famous lay dormant for generations. The brewers actually had to reach back into the past to rediscover the classics, as it was only the monastery-based operations that were brewing their traditional styles all along (mostly for monk consumption only). Most of the family breweries were producing pilsners, which had become the standard European variety in the 19th century. But some time around 1960, the companies realized they couldn’t compete with the large brewers that were only getting larger through consolidation. To survive, they needed to revive local and regional styles that the big players weren’t producing.

Diverse Styles for Diverse Consumers
“Why is there so much diversity? Because there are no Belgians. There is a country called Belgium. Every region has its own history,” says Jan Toye, owner and managing director of Palm Breweries, whose portfolio includes not only its namesake brand, but those from Brewery Rodenbach. “Why are there so many diverse [beer styles]? Because we are a diversity of people…We fight for diversity and innovation. Tradition is never static; it’s dynamic.”
And it has to be, especially if the brewers want their products to skew younger. Wooing millennials is a worldwide phenomenon and, in many ways, one of the keys to survival.

“Different consumers have different tastes, not only in this country, but worldwide,” notes Marc Schrauwen of Castle Brewer Van Honsebrouck in Ingelmunster, best known for the Kasteel brand. Van Honsebrouck also recently started brewing Passchendaele, designed to commemorate the World War I Battle of Passchendaele, at the centennial anniversary of the start of the Great War in 1914. Part of the revenue is donated to the municipality of Zonnebeke, which maintains the battle’s memorial.

“Consumers, especially young consumers, like to try new things,” Schrauwen points out. “The average consumer of Kasteel was above 60 years [old]. When your consumer is above 60 years, someone dies every day…So we need to find a beer for every possible moment and place…We need to grow to survive.”

But young or old, there is one thing that binds all consumers together: the quest for quality. And a desire to maintain the quality of the brands produced generation after generation is the most common thread among all Belgian brewers. It’s also going to be the most critical key to their continued competitiveness in the international arena.

“I think we’re the perfect example of what running a family business stands for,” says De Ryck’s Van Melkebeke. “Treasuring our tradition and knowing it’s all in favor of outstanding quality.”

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