The State of Belgian Beer

There has been a bit  of an explosion in both numbers of brewers and creativity within worldwide in recent years (if you hadn't noticed, where have you been?!). One country that has been surprisingly slow in the uptake, given its prominence in the resurgence of interest in decent beer is Belgium. A recent visit to the country (largely to attend the European beer bloggers' and writers conference) has given me some insight on why this might be.

Belgians are a proud and independent people, this pride is evident when you meet family brewers who talk of which generation of the family they are from (Roman are on their 14th generation of brewers!) Brewers see themselves as custodians of a brewery, "We are not owners we just take care off breweries for the next generation", maintaining and preserving centuries old beer recipes for handing down to future generations. This is a good thing, far too many unique local styles have been lost through consolidation and closure in the brewing industry since the first world war. A downside to this however is that these breweries are more cautious, more risk averse when it comes to serving the market. Indeed the importance of the brewery reputation means it can take years to develop new products for the market. An de Ryck of De Ryck brewery gives an example of the importance of consistency: "People have begged us to make our beers available in keg or on cask but they will inevitably end up disappointed as they find it has declined slightly. We have more control over bottle consistency which is why we stick to bottles only. We have 7 products now and in ten years time they will probably be the same, it can sometimes take years to make the recipe exactly as you want it". She did however acknowledge that sometimes you can be too careful at the expense of progress.

"Fake brewers have slowed down the growth in craft beer because its easier to start up without building a brewery and you're therefore less careful about how you go about business resulting in more bad beers on the market reflecting badly on the whole marketplace" Jean Hummeler

Its perhaps not surprising then that the changes taking place in the brewing industry causes some conflict amongst the more established brewers. Many of the newer entrants to the market do not have breweries of their own, they contract other brewing kits and often other brewers to brew for them. This flexibility allows for more experimentation but the accusation in some quarters is that this leads to a more rushed approach to brewing, with no concern for consistency of product and no real longevity. Jean Hummeler, owner of Moeder lambic is one such critic. He believes such ventures should not be referred to as brewers as he explained in a colourful tirade during a lively conference session on beer marketing: "I checked in the dictionary for the definition of brewery, the definition of brewer and nothing there describes what these "gypsy brewers" are doing. The only way Mikkeller is a brewer is when he gets home at night and brews a cup of tea for himself." This incendiary statement was more of a call for greater critical journalism within beer writing which I fully support (topic for another post) and he was at pains to point out that he enjoys a number of Mikkeller's beers but it does underline a common opinion amongst the established Belgian beer community.  (My opinion: "Gypsy brewers", "cuckoo brewers", "contract brewers", "beer architects"; who cares about the semantics or who does the physical brewing, if the beer is of good quality and tastes good it can only be a positive. Contract brewing brings benefits for both the contractor and contractee and there is space for this type of operation in the brewing world. )

Brewchitects (courtesy of TwattyBeerDoodles)
An De Ryck is of a similar opinion; "Unless you sleep in the brewery, live in the brewer, wake up and smell the mash in the morning you lose your link to the product, you're not a real brewer but a commercial company". Not everyone has the good fortune to be born in to a brewing family however and hiring someone else's kit is a great route to market for those whom the overheads would be prohibitively expensive otherwise. A number of brewers who begin by this route do go on to purchase their own breweries, with Struise being a well-known example.

"For us we work for the beer and not for the brand, we are not showmen...newer craft brewers are rarely original" An De Ryck

When asked by an audience member is imitation not the greatest form of flattery An replied; "yes its nice to know you've produced something that others want to copy, but the market is a fixed size and if we are copied and they take our market share because they can spend more time on marketing then we lose out". Its this remark that is most telling about more established brewers' feelings towards brewers sans breweries they are worried they will lose market share, they feel threatened and are perhaps jealous that with lower overheads, contract brewers can focus more on promoting their product and perhaps have a bigger reach than some of the more established brands.

The other reason for conservatism within the brewing community is perhaps due to the desire to maintain a handful of well-established brands rather than a slew of specials; with fewer beers they need to appeal to a wider group of drinkers to ensure a good chunk of the market can be served. The physical brewery is as important if not more so than the recipes and brewing team. This opinion has perhaps pervaded the Belgian consciousness to keep the actual number of breweries in Belgium to a fairly small number of 150, This perhaps leads to recipes remaining similar, though with the calibre of beers produced there is certainly something to be said for focussing on quality rather than quantity. 
In recent years this number has more than doubled with the addition of contract and rebadged brands and you can begin to see where some of the tension arises. 
Belgian brewers (and some beer drinkers) see what overseas brewers release as "Belgian" beers and despair because they fall a long way from the best native examples, often mono-dimensional due to a pervading "more is better" mentality. As Allain Delaet of Huyghe points out "hops are the spice of brewing they should be in balance with the rest of the brew, you want to be able to taste the meat as well as the spice"

However its not just imitation as It is amongst these contract brewers we see the most experimentation and whilst a number of brewers do look to the US and UK for inspiration, others are looking back in the history books to revive old recipes or create a confluence of traditional styles using modern techniques. This needs to happen to prevent stagnation and attract new drinkers to Belgian beers - the increase in the number of breweries can only be a good thing for consumers, increasing choice and rousing the more established brewers from their routine to compete for their share of the marketplace. Older established breweries are aware of their weaknesses, but are perhaps not focussing on the right areas; a much touted press conference with the Belgian Family Brewers during the main conference was a little lacklustre looking inwards and aiming to maintain the status quo, peppering their presentation with buzzwords about what they should be doing, with less focus on how they'd go about doing it. Chris Hall has summarised this well here. It remains to be seen whether there will be much change.

One thing the established breweries do have going for them is their expertise, years of experience bring with them the knowledge and ability to produce some wonderful beers. They are in a unique position to be able to share this knowledge with each other to develop in new and interesting ways and perhaps this is where they need to focus in the future, rather than griping about losing market share to newer players. Business journalist Ina Verstl has witnessed some change in attitudes over time however "20 years ago you could visit a brewery and never meet a member of brewing staff, they'd be hiding them in the cellars. Now they're wheeling out the brewmasters at every opportunity. The brewers have had to learn a new skill-set"

The family brewers are at pains to point out that they're not sitting on their laurels and all of the brewers were keen to present to us their more innovative products including Brettanomyces re-fermented ales (Wild Jo from De Koninck, Saison Surfine from Dubuission, Straffe Hendrik Wild from De Halve Maan ... more info here) the use of unusual ingredients (pink grapefruit in Pink Killer from Silly and basil in Lindemans' collaboration with Mikkeller). Not all of them work, but the willingness to try new things can only bode well for the country's brewing future. 

Centrifuge at "traditional" farmhouse brewery Dupont
More so than recipes it is new technologies where the real innovation is happening. Whilst some of it is for cost saving (which is important too, if breweries cannot make a profit they will not continue to exist) others are genuine improvements leading to more consistent and better tasting brews. Take Lindeman's use of stainless steel for lambic maturation for example. Foeders are prohibitively expensive, around ten times the price of the equivalent volume stainless vessel, limiting the rate of growth and given the current demand reducing the availability of the beer. Use of stainless steel with wood chips allows for increased capacity at a fraction of the cost and whilst a tasting of both revealed noticeable differences in flavour after a year, the increase in batches available for blending has led to improved consistency. This innovation and the beginnings of a spirit of collaboration amongst more established players alongside an explosion of newer entrants to the market can only bode well for the future of Belgian brewing and consumer choice but there is still a long way to go.

This post is based on observations prior to, during and after the  conference in Brussels last month  I received a number of beer samples on a subsidised trip around Belgian family breweries prior to the conference, plus of course many more during though I don't believe these influenced my opinions on the beers. Some were excellent and would happily part with my own money for them. Others were not so enjoyable (and a few downright disgusting!) Yes we were plied with beer with a hope that we would write about them (with a number of brewers following up by email post-conference) and whilst it might be argued that even mentioning the breweries in this post helps to raise the profile of the brewers, I'm not sure criticism of their opinions is what they had in mind.  The opinions reflected here are largely of the Belgian Family Brewers, who make up just a small proportion of the 150 breweries in Belgium, but due to their profile do have a more prominent voice than many others. Your mileage may vary, am happy to discuss. 

Up next: a focus on the brewing scene in Brussels as a microcosm of Belgian brewing as a whole.


  1. Are you sure An De Ryck said they do not keg beer? When I was in Herzele the last time (end of 2013), I believe I had draught Special at the brewery and definitely at several cafes in town. Also, their website lists Special, the four Arend beers, and their kriek as being available in keg.

    1. Was definitely De Ryck, they've either stopped kegging or were maybe referring to sending keg out of their area wher ethey can't keep a check on it