In early April of this year, Charles Leclef walked up the steps leading to the entrance of the Brewers House in Brussels’ Grand Place and through the tall, gold-trimmed columns of its grand, 16th-century façade. At the meeting of the Federation of Belgian Brewers which he attended inside, it was decided that Leclef—the fifth generation owner of Brouwerij Het Anker in the Flemish city of Mechelen—would conduct an investigation into the state of affairs of those brewers who had not signed up for membership to the Belgian Brewers Federation.
Between 2010 and 2018, the numbers of breweries in Belgium grew by almost 50% from 133 to 274 (the number of contract brewers grew from 42 to 191). The vast majority of these 270 or so breweries are not members of the Federation. Dominique Friart, the fifth generation owner of the St. Feuillien brewery in Le Roeulx, attended the meeting as Vice-President of the Federation and openly admitted that there was a disconnect between the larger traditional breweries of the Federation and the smaller contemporary breweries outside of it.
“We know they are on the scene,” she says. “But we don’t meet them too often. Well, actually, never.”
In addition to an outdated system of membership fees based on archaic excise calculations of degrees of plato per hectolitre and large annual production capacities, the rules stipulated that breweries wishing to join should be at least five years old and first be proposed to the board for acceptance by two current members of the Federation.
Not everyone at the meeting was enthusiastic about the proposal to reach out. Both Leclef and Friart explained that some members expressed concern about these contemporary breweries producing beers of inconsistent quality, and how that was negatively affecting the credibility of “Belgian specialty beers” in certain shared markets. Some also argued that the different legal and economic priorities of these small, contemporary breweries did not necessarily align with those of the current members.
Several questions were raised at the meeting, few of which were answered. What is the quintessential contemporary Belgian brewery? What traits in production and values do they share with the members of the Federation? And is it possible to establish an inclusive Federation of Belgian Brewers that represents the full spectrum of beer in Belgium in 2018, both traditional and contemporary?
Despite some resistance, the meeting concluded with the decision that Leclef would drive around Belgium to meet those who were not members of the Federation. He would do so at their breweries, to see their equipment and to hear their stories, before reporting back to the Directors of the Federation on June 13, 2018.
“If we make decisions without meeting them,” Leclef argued, “then it’s just another clichéd discussion.”
Some on the Federation board believed that the reception among smaller breweries would be lukewarm and that the list for outreach would be short. It was agreed that visits to breweries would only be arranged if the breweries explicitly consented by responding to a formal request. Leclef returned to Mechelen and sat down to draft an email.
“I am presented by the Belgian Brewers with the chance to actively learn about all the new enthusiastic brewers and breweries that have emerged in recent years in Belgium at an accelerated pace,” Leclef—in French and Flemish—wrote in the email. “I would like to meet you, mainly to get to know your project better, and then, if desired and interested, to briefly explain for what the Belgian Brewers stand.”
On April 13, 2018, he pressed send, BCCing 196 addresses.
Being the voice of the Belgian Brewers Federation—a membership organization established as the Brewers Guild in the 14th Century and taking up residence in the Brewers’ House in Brussels’ Grand Place in 1951—is to be a voice that carries weight. Its members (which include well-known family concerns such as Duvel Moortgat and Brasserie Dupont, all the Belgian Trappist breweries, the majority of Lambic producers, as well as AB InBev and Alken-Maes) are responsible for what Leclef claims to be “over 99% of beer produced in Belgium.”
The Federation offers a platform for larger, more established breweries to pool resources for the generation of statistical information on Belgian beer as well as mutual commercial interests: the Belgian Beer World Experience currently being developed at the Bourse in the Brussels’ city center is likely to be a huge tourist attraction, the project managed by seven directors, together representing 30 of the Federation’s members.
Conversely, of the 270 or so breweries in Belgium, only 67—just less than a quarter—are members of the Belgian Brewers Federation. Separate groups such as the Belgian Family Brewers Association and HORAL (the High Council for Artisanal Lambic Beers) were established because it was felt among their founders, as Leclef admits, that the Federation wasn’t doing enough to represent their respective interests. There’s also an acknowledgement of the disconnect between the more traditional breweries and their contemporary counterparts.
“The Federation is not really sexy for new breweries,” Leclef admits.
Leclef’s daughter Elise, from her office in the family brewery in Mechelen, assisted with facilitating the email responses and managing the visits. Leclef expected to receive a few replies, perhaps reaching the double figures. Within three weeks of the email having being sent, Elise had received 115 positive responses from breweries wanting Leclef to visit them.
Using a wall-map of Belgium on which she made color-coded notes, Elise began geographically sorting the breweries to efficiently organize her father’s trip. During the month of June 2018, Leclef would be driving to every part of Belgium visiting a diverse range of breweries, most of which he had never heard of, some producing tiny quantities of beer and many of them brewing styles never considered at Het Anker or any of the other large traditional family breweries.
Some days would involve visiting as many as eight breweries in a row and sleeping in hotels in a range of locales to maximize the journeys.
“To be honest,” admitted Leclef before setting off, “I have no idea what I’m going to see.”
When the progressive post-rock band arrived to set up at Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage on a Friday in March, the three founding members of the small Brussels brewery stopped what they were doing to help carry guitars and amps onto the raised “stage” area of their taproom.
Nacim Menu, Henri Bensaria, and François Simon jumped behind the bar to grab Rastal Craft Master Glasses in which they served eight large pours of Lanterne, a bitter, hoppy, and dry Pale Ale of 5.5% ABV that showcases Mosaic and Cascade hops. The three brewers and five musicians exchanged kisses on the cheek and clinked their glasses. Even though they were running late in their setup for the evening, there was still time for a beer.
The Lanterne—which L’Ermitage describes as its “flagship beer”—was brewed for a time by Menu, Bensaria, and Simon at Brasserie Bastogne in Vaux-sur-Sûre before they opened their brewery in the summer of 2017 on Anderlecht’s Rue Lambert Crickx in the heart of south central Brussels. They say online that the “lantern” in question will “guide us in the first steps of the brewery.” In order to finance their brewing equipment and generate capital for rent and ingredients, L’Ermitage—as many contemporary breweries across the world have done—crowdfunded their starting capital, raising €30,290 ($35,400) from 284 contributors in just a few weeks.
The four members of the band—Walking Ghost Phase—set themselves up on a raised platform just in front of the bar area in the taproom, a large space with tables constructed from wooden pallets and seats made from used kegs. People were already starting to arrive, prompting a freneticism that seemed normal. There are 11 beers on tap here, 80% of what L’Ermitage produce is packaged in keykeg, and almost all of their beer stays in Brussels, a large quantity being sold through their taproom.
It’s a model known internationally to maximize margins and generate community, and it’s now increasingly deployed in Belgium by those starting up. DOK Brewing Company opened in Ghent in May 2018 with a 10-hectolitre brewhouse and 30 taps. Brouwbar, also based in Ghent, opened in January 2018 with a 4-hectolitre kit and six taps, pouring styles ranging from Saisons and Hefeweizens to Porters and NE IPAs. Estaminet De Brouwerij in Izegem—owned and operated by Jef Pirens of Brouwerij D’Oude Maalderij—opened in September 2015, and was awarded RateBeer’s Best Brewpub in Belgium in 2018.
At L’Ermitage’s home at 26 Rue Lambert Crickx, there’s a brand new beer in the tank most months. L’Ermitage hosted Burnt Mill Brewing from the UK in May, brewing a Spelt Saison called Ignus Fatuus using the French hop Barbe Rouge and aging part of it in white wine barrels. The following day, they’d travel to Sweden, where they’d collaborate with Gothenburg-based brewery Beerbliotheek, and pour their beers at the Belgian Craft Beer Festival in the taprooms of Malmö Brewing Company.
As Walking Ghost Phase set up their instruments, Menu, Bensaria, and Simon discussed their upcoming activities. They’d been invited to pour at the Zythos Bierfestival during the last weekend of April.
“It’s not for us,” Simon said, dismissing Belgium’s biggest beer festival at which 200 volunteers help more than 15,000 people taste as many as 500 different beers from more than 85 Belgian breweries, the majority of which would be considered traditional.
Instead, they talked about the beers they’d be pouring a few weeks later with their closest brewing neighbor, Brasserie Cantillon (it’s only 150 meters away, door to door), in an event called Quintessence. They’d share the stage there with Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead.
At the gig that night, fans of L’Ermitage would have the opportunity to taste beers showcasing a range of ingredients and flavor profiles, including a Pale Ale with green tea and jasmine called Théorème de l'Empereur and a version of their Porter, Noir du Midi, which had been aged in whiskey barrels. While traditional Belgian breweries have never shied away from ingredients considered off-limits in other countries, their more contemporary counterparts have become known for the sometimes-extreme experiments they undertake. Brasserie Du Brabant, a small brewery in Baisy-Thy owned by Frédéric Magerat, produced a sour ale in 2018 made with tomato juice and cucumbers which he called Gaspacho. It received an overwhelmingly positive response at Zythos this year.
Leclef—if his invitation to L’Ermitage was accepted—would get to see firsthand the collaborations, the taproom, and the barrel-aging. Leclef considers himself open to the spirit of collaborations generally, referencing arrangements he has made with importers in various countries and several partners in the city of Mechelen. He also understands the power of margin at the taproom for young businesses, having opened a restaurant on the site of his family brewery in 1990 which serves his beers on tap.
That evening, Walking Ghost Phase cranked out their saturated guitars, syncopated rhythms, and evocative synthesizers to a packed taproom full of mostly young Brusseleirs. Menu, Bensaria, and Simon, tired after a long day’s work, talked enthusiastically to fans of their beers and danced all night in their gritty-but-vibrant industrial space. Things had become so busy—with tanks to be cleaned, events to be managed, and emails to be answered—that they didn’t always have time to relax like this.
Leclef’s visits eventually took him to Brussels, a 30-kilometer drive from his home city of Mechelen. He re-started Het Anker brewery here in 1990 when it was in financial ruin, updating the old brewing equipment and transforming it into a flourishing company with 85 people on staff.
“I know the challenges for a lot of the small breweries who are just beginning,” he says. “When I re-started Het Anker, I had to do so from scratch. And with nothing.”
Inhabitants of Mechelen are called “Maneblussers” (moon-extinguishers). The story goes that some townsfolk saw the moonlight shining on the unfinished St. Rumbold’s Tower and mobilized the whole city to try and extinguish what they thought was a fire. The beers of Het Anker—the Gouden Carolus range (as well as the Maneblusser, a Belgian Blond of 5.8% ABV)—are found in cafés throughout the city, enjoyed almost by way of civic duty in the same way the beers of De Halve Maan are synonymous with the city of Bruges and De Koninck lays claim to the city of Antwerp.
“The brewery has long ceased to be mine,” Leclef says of Het Anker. “It belongs to Mechelen.”
St. Feuillien Brewery is similarly proud of its origins in the small Walloon village of Le Roeulx. Dominique Friart—the Vice-President of the Belgian Brewers Federation and one of those to whom Le Clef would be reporting at the end of June—is the fifth generation owner there with her brother Benoît, their great-great-Aunt Stéphanie Friart starting the operation in 1873.
The brewery is best known for its complex bottle-conditioned ales, particularly the Tripel and Grand Cru. When Friart gave a tasting of St. Feuillien beers at Pressklubben bar in Stockholm in 2015, the respected Swedish bar manager and Belgophile, Jens Skrubbe, introduced her to a packed room of Belgian beer enthusiasts as the owner of “one of the classiest traditional breweries in Belgium.”
Breweries such as St. Feuillien, in contrast to their more contemporary colleagues, have been less active in changing how they operate over the years, particularly when it comes to communicating with consumers. At the time of that Swedish tasting, St. Feuillien had very little presence on social media, having started a Facebook page in 2013 and a Twitter account in 2015. (The latter, to this day, has posted only 13 times.) Seven months ago, St. Feuillien logged in to Instagram for the first time.
“The younger brewers were born with that in their hand, so it’s much easier for them,” she explains. “We don’t have that kind of spirit.”
There have, however, been unexpected initiatives. In 2013, St. Feuillien released its Saison—the classic beer of their region, Hainaut—in 11.2 oz cans for the American market and, with the help of Artisanal Imports, will do the same for its Grisette Blanche, an organic Belgian wheat beer.
In 2010, in what, at the time, seemed to be an unpredictable collaboration, St. Feuillien started brewing a series of collaboration beers with San Diego brewery Green Flash, eventually resulting in a new beer in St. Feuillien’s permanent line-up: Belgian Coast IPA (7.5% ABV).
“We did it once but we won’t do it again,” Friart says of collaborations. “It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of time. We’re not really open to it.”
As existing members of the Federation, it was not necessary for Leclef to visit Cantillon and De La Senne, so his first visit in Brussels was with Maxime Dumay at Brasserie No Science on Rue Dieudonné Lefèvre. He then met with Denys Van Elewyck and Samuel Languy of Brasserie En Stoemelings, right next door. At 3pm, he attended a meeting with Arthur Ries at Beerstorming on Chaussée d'Alsemberg in the borough of Saint-Gilles.
Scanning his list, one Brussels brewery was conspicuous in its absence. L’Ermitage had not responded to Leclef’s email. “If a brewery does not answer, we make a point not to send any follow-ups,” Leclef says. “We’re not going to force anyone to talk to us.”
For his final meeting that day, Leclef walked up Antoine Dansaert street to number 188, an urban space with a glass front dominated by branded stripes, colors, and fonts, a stark visual contrast to the tall gold-trimmed columns and grand 16th century façade of the Brewers House barely a kilometer away in which he had met with the Federation the previous month.
L’Ermitage may not have replied, but Brussels Beer Project had. In their email, the Project’s owners, Sébastien Morvan and Oliviere de Brauwere, had mentioned they had much to discuss.
Inside, a long narrow bar boasted 15 taps, most of which served rotating or one-off experimental beers from BBP, but some of which were devoted to guest beers from breweries in other parts of Belgium or other countries.
“Immediately once you come in, you feel something very different,” Leclef says. “It’s got more of an international feel. More of an American feel.”
Along one side, in bold sans-serif typeface covering a large section of the wall, was a defiant call to action: “Leave the Abbey. Join the Playground.” It’s the type of language utilized by other breweries who are not members of the Belgian Brewers Federation to communicate what they see as contemporaneous values.
Kerel, a brewery which opened in Temse in 2017, is proudly “untouched by monks.” Alex Lippins left large, five-generation family brewery Omer Vanderghinste in 2016 for his own initiative Brouwerij ‘t Verzet, a brewery whose name translates to “the resistance.”
“Our biggest downside is that we originated in Belgium,” says Jef Janssens of Brouwerij Hof Ten Dormaal, a young farmhouse brewery in Tildonk. “It’s the most boring of the ‘traditional’ beer countries on the planet. If we would have the audience for it, our beers would be so fucking over-the-top. But the sad truth is that 99% of the market in Belgium is scared to drink the softest IPA.”
Leclef was greeted in the taproom by De Brauwere and Morvan, the friends who together started Brussels Beer Project in 2013 with the idea of crowdsourcing ideas for beers from their community and having the chosen beers brewed under contract in Brouwerij Anders in Limburg.
“When the Belgian Brewers Federation contacted us, we were surprised,” De Brauwere says. “We don’t have the best relationship.”
After a quick tour of the 10-HL brewhouse and fermenting vessels which were installed in 2015, the BBP owners invited Leclef into the office space above the brewery for what De Brauwere describes as “an informal chat over a beer.”
De Brauwere and Morvan laid out the reasons why they founded Brussels Beer Project—believing that international influence and more experimentation with flavor was badly needed in Belgium—but explained to Leclef that they didn’t think tradition was bad:
“It wouldn’t make sense for Dupont to start making West Coast IPAs,” De Brauwere told him. “But Belgium needs some freshness. If you come into the market as a new player, it doesn’t make sense to claim your brewery was born in 1600 and pretend that you have an old recipe from a local church.”
The discussion touched on issues such as types of beer being produced in Belgium, the use of different ingredients and process, communication with consumers, and business models and routes to market. “Leclef’s approach was humble,” says De Brauwere of the visit. “He was clearly there to listen to us. He is an open-minded person. He realizes that the market is changing. He realizes that consumers are changing.”
Less than a month after Leclef’s meeting with Brussels Beer Project, Brouwerij Het Anker launched a new beer: The Gouden Carolus UL.T.R.A., described in marketing materials as a low alcohol “blond special beer” of 3.7% ABV. “Maybe they are a little bit right,” said Leclef of the decision of Brussels Beer Project not to brew only classic Belgian Tripels. “What’s the value of more beers which are the same. If you make a copy of a copy of a copy, it won’t be very good.”
It would be another important remark to include in Leclef’s presentation to the Board of the Belgian Brewers Federation, which was fast approaching the following week.
Nacim Menu, wearing a brightly-colored Hawaiian shirt, baggy shorts, and a black truckers cap, quickly darted around the large room in the Oval Space at London’s only Belgian Beer Festival, Ales Tales. Leaving his L’Ermitage stall for just a few moments, he wanted to talk to others pouring at the event about use of wood, canning lines, dry-hopping rates, and other festival plans for the year.
In conversation with a group of Belgian brewers—most of whom were not yet members of the Belgian Brewers Federation—the email from Leclef came up for discussion. Menu furrowed his brow and cocked his head. “What email?” he muttered.
After a few moments of prompting, the penny dropped. “Ah, yes,” he said. “I remember something passing through. We’ve been incredibly busy and I didn’t get a chance to reply.”
As he moved towards his stall in a flash of aloha-shirted glory, the brewers asked what Menu’s response to Leclef’s email would have been.
“Yes, yes, absolutely yes,” he replied. “Leclef is absolutely welcome to our brewery at any time. We would have loved to hear more about what those guys are doing.”
With that, he turned and was gone.
On June 13, 2018, Leclef stepped back through the doors of the Brewers House in Brussels’ Grand Place and through the tall, gold-trimmed columns he had entered just more than two months earlier. He had managed to complete visits to 94 breweries in that time. Drained physically and emotionally, he was prepared to present his findings to the full board of the Belgian Brewers Federation.
Three of Leclef’s observations were of particular interest to the board. Firstly, Leclef communicated how surprised he was by the professionalism of the brewing systems that smaller breweries had put in place.
“Most of the board thought it would be a guy stirring a small pot in their back garden,” he said. “That wasn’t the case.”
The second observation was about attitude. “I couldn’t help but be impressed by the amazing passion of everybody,” Leclef reported.
Finally, Leclef noted how much the brewers he visited had expressed appreciation for his visit. “That told me that it was definitely time for us to do this.”
Every single one of Leclef’s proposals were accepted by the Board of the Belgian Brewers Federation.
They’d scrap the rules requiring the need for a brewery to be at least five years old before it became a member, as well as the requirement for members to have a minimum annual production amount. Breweries wishing to join the Federation would no longer need to be proposed by two existing members. Instead, it was decided that different categories of membership would be created. Breweries producing less than 1000 HL per year could be considered a “toegetreden lid” (“passive member”) without the right to vote or participate in the Belgian Beer Weekend. Otherwise, annual membership fees would be tiered: 0-300HL (€250); 301-999HL (€350); 1,000-2,999 HL (€750); and 3,000-10,000 HL (€1,250). For categories of breweries with an annual production capacity between 10,001-200,000 HL and above 200,000 HL, the more complex method of hectolitres per degrees plato would remain.
“I don’t know what impact these changes will have or whether breweries will necessarily join,” Leclef says. “But I hope that this can bring us more together and push everyone to a higher level.”
This October, Leclef is running as an independent candidate in the Council elections in his home city of Mechelen. “I want to reinforce my commitment to the city,” he says, “but without choosing a party.” Leclef says that he wants to commit himself to concerns which he believes are important for Mechelen.
He will focus on “youth issues,” which he believes “are important, not just in Mechelen, but all over the world.” He wants to equip young Mechelaars with the resources they need to succeed. In so doing, Leclef argues, they can contribute more to the city.
“You have to listen to young people,” he says, aware of the current lack of communication. “It’s the mentality of the youth that will make a difference for what comes. Whether you like it or not, young people are our future.”