Before Belgium was even a country, there were breweries. And one of the oldest is Brasserie Dubuisson.
But before you start mentally painting a picture of some historical relic (although, to be fair, the place started in a castle prior to the Austrian Empire’s prohibition on castle breweries), know that this is the story of a family business that has continuously evolved to meet contemporary market factors—from Napoleon’s troops to the Saison-drinking, tattooed “cool kids” of 2018.
And that’s the thing: despite their global reputation for brewing traditions, Belgian family brewers like Dubuisson are mostly looking for a way to sell more beer. And they continue to look to the U.S. to do it. Following the upswing of Belgian beer in America during the past few decades, that premise is perhaps in need of updated strategy—and some new allies.
My experience with, and pondering of, Dubuisson’s place in the world began on assignment back in the early winter months of 2016 when we were tasked with shooting a short documentary of Dupont and Dubuisson for their importer, Total Beverage Solution, which is based in South Carolina here in the U.S. As inspired as I was with the experience of the brewery, I’ve been similarly disgruntled trying to reconcile them from a Stateside perspective ever since.
According to the family’s historical accounts, Dubuisson began its castle-based operation in 1769 under Joseph Leroy. For nearly 150 years, it brewed beer only for the estate’s farm workers and the town of Pipaix—a 10-minute drive from the French border. The operation survived a ban on castle breweries (who didn’t pay taxes) by the Austrian Empire, the march of Napoleon’s troops (who set up shop on the surrounding farm), two world wars that involved German occupation (for which they hid their copper brewhouse in a family well on the property to avoid it being commandeered), and eight succession plans (which, just, holy shit). A history like this one has a way of really putting all the megabrew consolidation and three-tier challenges breweries in the U.S. face today into perspective.
But perhaps the biggest challenge, as with many Belgian breweries, is adapting to the fashions of the everyday drinker—especially between their markets at home and abroad.
Beer, for all its tradition and heritage, is also a fashionable product. Which means that, as an industry, its susceptible to subjective, sometimes-arbitrary consensus on what makes for a good—or well-crafted or exciting—beer. Clarity or haziness, high gravity or sessionable, sweet or bitter—beer styles and their presentation have a way of shifting over time to suit what’s popular in the marketplace. And no one knows this better than a Belgian brewer trying to sell Saison for the last hundred years or so. Indeed, only recently—thanks largely to the U.S. market—has Saison become delicately positioned as a success story in a financial sense for these brewers.
Dupont, for example, just up the road in Tourpes, brewed Lagers to make it through the lean years that came in cycles as beers from Germany became quite popular. Only recently has Saison taken the prominence in their portfolio the way they’ve always wished it to.
Similarly, Dubuisson only recently brought back their Surfine brand, a light Saison with mineral notes and a fruity aroma which, according to their marketing, is targeting the new, “hip” craft beer drinker. The ads show a tattooed, bearded twentysomething more at home in a modern barber shop than in a Saison ad for a 250-year-old brewery in the Wallonia Valley. In some ways, this is the feedback loop created by young American drinkers seeking out the style for the first time. It’s a translation of a translation they’re hoping will resonate with both Stateside audiences and the re-invigorated Belgian drinker now shaping themselves in the image of U.S. craft beer back in their home market.
For their part, Dubuisson sees the move differently.
“The U.S. interest has nothing to do with this,” says Marc Lemay, the brewery’s lead in sales and marketing. “The oldest brewery of the Walloon region had to have a Saison in its range because the Saison is an historical and traditional beer of the Walloon region and of the farmhouse breweries. And it was not normal that Dubuisson, the oldest farmhouse brewery of the Walloon region, had no Saison.”
To that end, Dubuisson planted their own hops for the beer and resurrected the name Surfine—which was somewhat lost amongst the brewery’s long history of brands—to take the lead as a new focus for the brewery.
“The results are null,” explains Lemay about its impact on their American-side distribution footprint. “Our importer, who also imports Saison Dupont, the most famous and appreciated Saison in the USA, clearly does not wish to compete against his leading product with a new and unknown product.”
Indeed, as the space on the shelves in the U.S. for imported Saison continues to squeeze, and newly competitive locally-produced Saison from U.S. craft producers increases that pressure, a new entry, even with such historical roots, is at an extreme disadvantage.
“On the other hand, the results in Belgium, France, and Italy are promising,” Lemay says. “We are still at the beginning, but the beer seems to be very appreciated.”
In the 1930s, the brewery was named Bush. Not after a family member, but after a sort of pseudo-lineage that made it sound more English (it’s a direct translation of du Buisson, or “of the bush”), precisely because English beers were becoming fashionable in Belgium at the time.
One of the first beers they brewed under this new leadership was Bush Ambrée, a caramel-malt-driven Amber Ale with a hearty 12% alcohol—sort of a hybrid of an English style and a Belgian “special beer.” It’s still brewed to this day alongside three others: Bush Blonde, Bush de Noel (a dry-hopped Amber), and simply Bush (which includes coriander).
While the brand was meant to appeal to English-beer seekers in both Belgium and export markets, the name Bush ran into some obvious trouble in the U.S., where it would compete with Anheuser-Busch. To accommodate, the brewery developed yet another persona, Scaldis, which they use on all America-bound exports.
“[Scaldis] is the Latin name of the Escaut river (in French) or Schelde (in Dutch),” Lemay says. “This river crosses Belgium from South to North and, in the past, it passed alongside the old Dubuisson offices in Tournai. Also, as neither the French name nor the Dutch name were suitable for the USA, we chose the Latin translation to satisfy everyone.”
The result is a bit of a personality disorder for American drinkers who might find tracing the brewery back to its roots difficult between the three names. Dubuisson, Bush, and Scaldis are being used quite differently to describe the same beers, after all. More than ever, beer drinkers are traveling to visit the breweries they love, and while in the U.S. we expect a somewhat challenging level of authenticity from our craft brewers, visiting a Belgian brewer can sometimes cause dissonance between the story and reality through something as simple as a name. And this is no small problem for the brewery considering roughly half of its total production is sent abroad. This means a lot of planning (and maybe more than a little luck) in the packaging and sales decisions for the beers themselves.
“It is extremely complicated for the beers in bottles, because we have to organize specific, different fillings with special labels and it disturbs our filling planning,” Lemay explains. “This also implies that our importer provides us with forecasts and orders well in advance. For the filling of the embossed bottles (75cl), it is even more complicated because we have to decorate bottles especially for the USA!”
The marketing complexities are likewise exacerbated. “We must have tailor-made glasses, coasters, and POS material,” Lemay says. “It forced us also to have a special website for the USA. In other words, it is very difficult if the volumes are not satisfactory.”
While Dubuisson is still trying to deal with the schizophrenic nature of its various markets and importers, recently popular U.S. craft breweries are making their way to Europe, Australia and, increasingly, Asia, based largely on the continuity of their branding and story, not an adaptation.
And the cracks in such a strategy may be showing signs of widening beyond repair. “The volumes have fallen sharply in recent years and, in comparison with 2013, we lost almost 40% of [them],” Lemay says. “However, since this year, the volumes appear to have stabilized. That said, I think it is the same story for almost all the Belgian brewers.”
In 1990, the brewery’s current heir, Hugues Dubuisson took over the operation, making perhaps the most profound changes to-date. In the course of the last 25 years, under his leadership, the team established a lab on-site, built an expansion focused on modern beer-making and sustainability (including heat capture and solar power), established a visitor center displaying the complex history of the brewery, and expanded the portfolio in a number of compelling directions. They even established a new pair of brewpubs in urban areas, which more than doubled production.
One of Dubuisson’s biggest bets is their standout brand, Cuveé de Trolls, a 7% unfiltered Belgian Golden Ale, somewhat common in its profile, but targeted specifically for college audiences. It was brewed at Le Brasse-Temps in Louvain-la-Neuve by Brasserie Dubuisson, a university town where they established one of those new brewpubs. The beer is marketed with much of the same gimmicks of U.S. macro brewers, focusing on a young, college lifestyle stereotyped by volume drinking (they sell fridge kegs for at-home consumption) and sex (you can buy Cuveé de Trolls thongs and condoms featuring the little elfish cartoon character). Cuveé de Trolls has landed Stateside as well, but is struggling to find its way outside the context of its invention.
And that could be because, despite its relatively youthful appearance in Belgium, it still reads as “Belgian” to U.S. drinkers, all the way down to its bottle shape and the illustrations of the trolls themselves. Rather than the mischievous irreverence it holds in the brewery’s home market, it’s almost quaint by the standards of modern U.S. craft branding.
How to correct that slide is an ongoing conversation. Continuity or adaptation? There’s a lot of negotiation between Dubuisson and its U.S. importer, Total Beverage Solution, with regards to determining the right way forward.
“The marketing approach in foreign countries is determined and carried out by our importers— we just provide the support [through] images, ideas, layouts, logos, etc.,” Lemay says. “In the USA, just like everywhere else, it is therefore our importer who carries out the marketing approach of our brands. We did try to convince them to implement promotional programs inspired by what we were doing in Belgium. According to our importer, this approach doesn’t work.”
From their side of the value chain, the pressure on the system is clearly from craft SKUs (stock-keeping units) that are flooding the system.
“The base business is solid and stable, but the trend changes have largely come from seasonals, which have suffered universally due to the explosion of new SKUs being offered within the craft segment,” says Tom Rose, Total Beverage Solution’s VP of Sales and Marketing. “Over the last three years, there has been a 50% increase in the number of beer brands available in the U.S., and there are now 15,000 individual beer SKUs, nearly 4,000 more than there were only three years ago. This places enormous pressure on distributor inventories and carrying cost, not to mention the incredible range of choices consumers face.”
In the process of writing this story, Surfine was discontinued in the U.S.
All of this growth, segmentation, and more than five million Euros of investment supports what might be Hugues’ clearest personal passion: the barrel cellar that tucks under the main pub. Down a short ramp, ducking below a low ceiling are a few rows of Burgundy barrels from French wineries just across the border.
It’s there that they pump Scaldis Amber wort into fresh oak for full fermentation and conditioning for six months. It’s refermented in the bottle and stored warm, creating a slightly cloudy 13% Amber with fruity sweetness and tannin in balance. It leads the Scaldis Prestige line.
Two other variations flank the Amber. There’s Prestige de Nuits, which is Scaldis Noël matured for six to nine months in Bourgogne de Nuits-St-Georges oak, giving it an incredibly bright, woody, port-wine-like character. And then there’s perhaps their finest beer, and indeed one of the greatest barrel-aged beers I’ve ever tasted, Prestige de Charmes—Scaldis Blonde aged in white Burgundy barrels from Charmes Meursault. A floral aroma, citrusy acid profile, and slightly buttery Chardonnay-like quality carries through the finish in a way I’ve never quite experienced in a wine-barrel-fermented beer.
Released once a year, these beers make their way to the U.S. in small quantities. And from what I’ve seen, they rarely leave the shelves they’re placed on. I find them years-old in the cellars of places like the Brick Store Pub in Georgia. Or dusty on the shelves of Binny’s in Chicago. Above all, they’re ignored and lost amongst the onslaught of American craft producers, which should come as no surprise. Twenty years ago, Belgian ales stood out amongst the homogeneity of America’s shelves. These days? They’re wallflowers amongst the party of American craft. And I’d be hard pressed to convince anyone that they should drink a Scaldis Prestige over a similarly-intended beer from Jester King or Hill Farmstead. We’re splitting hairs at the very top. But damn if I don’t wish there were sufficient hours in the day to give to both.
It’d be a personal loss if Brasserie Dubuisson was to fall by the wayside while tanks of Cuveé de Trolls empty into the streets of Belgian college towns. But if the history of Belgian brewing has any precedent to offer, beers like Prestige de Charmes will persist one way or another. Historically, the Belgians are nothing if not sturdy-but-adaptable brewers able to weather any shift in the fashionable winds, bringing along new drinkers and invaders alike.