Dad drives the forklift
The Lefebvre brewery in the village of Quenast occupies a setting most other breweries can only dream of, at least on the labels of their bottles: picturesque, rural, green and peaceful. It’s only a short taxi-ride from the town of Tubize, a rather run-down place that clearly used to be more prosperous, in the way of so many towns of the French-speaking part of Belgium.
There’s nothing of past glories about Lefebvre, however. Paul Lefebvre is the sixth generation of the family, too young to my eyes to be in charge of such a bustling concern, but I feel that way about more and more CEOs these days. Fifth-generation Philippe is semi-retired, but he’s still busy around the place, driving a forklift and shifting pallets as we visit.
As with so many brewers in Belgium, family is as much a component of their history as yeast or hops is a component of the beer. We’ll let Paul tell the story in his own impeccable English.
“The story of the brewery is closely linked to the story of the village, like many breweries in fact. In Quenast there’s a large stone quarry which produces a very hard stone called porphyritic granite, which has the property of containing no water and therefore being immune to the effects of freezing. Thanks to this property the stone was very much in demand at the beginning of the last century for making paving stones, called pavés de Quenast. The paving stones of the Champs Elysées, for example, come from Quenast.
“Paving stones cut by hand don’t exist any more. Nowadays they use concrete, but in those days it wasn’t possible to do everything mechanically. So the factory where the paving stones were made had more than 4,000 workers, and when the first generation of the Lefebvre family in Quenast decided to start brewing, it was because they knew there was that market for their beer. It made no sense to send beer all around the world as it’s done today, so every brewery was selling very locally. No bottles, only wooden casks. So it was very important to have a local market for your beer, and this is what we had.“Jules Lefebvre is the first of the family to make beer as a business. Before him, my family comes from Ronquières, and they brewed beer in the way that every family brewed beer at that time. So Jules was the first professional brewer. He had a farm, so he had the raw materials to brew.
“So he had a market of 4,000 thirsty stone-workers. The story of every brewery starts the same, with this same story or a story like that.
“Auguste was the second generation. He developed the business by buying up houses right up to the exit of the quarry, so there was hardly any need for distribution. It was all very local, only light beer, but very successful. Then World War I came along, which put a stop to production altogether. The brewery was dismantled by the Germans, and anyway it was impossible to obtain the raw materials to brew.”
Fast-forward three years. The shut-down caused by the war has been a death blow to many Belgian brewers, who will never start up again. Lefebvre did, and not only that, they bought up a house and brewery in Quenast which had had less good fortune, and began brewing again in both places in 1921, making the move to their current premises complete and permanent in 1923.
For a relatively small local brewer, Lefebvre has an unusually wide range of beers, from the Floreffe range of abbey beers – blond, double, triple and the wine-dark Prima Melior – to fruit beers, wheat and pils, and special beers Barbar and Barbar Bock, brewed with honey, and the extra-hoppy Hopus and Hopus Primeur. In Auguste’s day they brewed only light beer, perfect for the captive market of thirsty stone-workers.
Hopus has an interesting origin story, again firmly anchored in family. “I brewed it once in early 2008 for my wedding party, it was supposed to be a one-shot.”
Instead they decided, since they had been thinking about a hoppy beer, to add it to their range.
“It’s a hoppy beer for the Belgian market. The bitterest beer we were brewing before Hopus was the Floreffe Triple, which is 32EBU, which is not very hoppy. Whenever one of the family wanted to drink something outside of our own range, we always went to a very bitter beer like Orval, so we wanted to launch this kind of beer. Hopus is 40EBU, which is a lot for the Belgian market but not for the American customer. But it’s a bitterness which is accessible because the beer has fruity characteristics from the hops but also from the yeast and the second fermentation, and it’s 8.3% ABV, which is very strong for us. With that level of alcohol you can create a balanced beer with 40EBU.”
No one knows exactly when brewers decided to switch from having one or two strong brands to developing a broad portfolio (not that all of them do, even now). For Lefebvre, there are both plus and minus points.
“It’s very important for selling beer on the international market,” Paul says. “You’re stronger when you have a complete range. In Belgium people are much more linked to the territory and not so much to the range. Diversification is in part the responsibility of the customer, who’s driven by fashion.
“I’m quite young, but in the time I’ve been in the business I’ve seen the Golden Age of Palm and Rodenbach at around the same time. Then it was white beer, Hoegaarden, then fruit beers, and now the accent is on small breweries and bitter beer. So things change very fast, and if you don’t want to lose your consumer, you have to adapt.
“Sometimes it’s a problem, because there are two traps. First trap: when you have a range with plenty of products, but you’re not strong in any one product. This is very dangerous for the health of your brewery. Second trap: even if you have a good range, the characteristics of your beer are the same as those of your competitors’ beers. This is a problem, because we have the knowledge to brew a beer on Monday with the taste of Leffe, no problem, or Grimbergen. Everyone is able to do that. Same thing with blanche, no problem. But what’s the point? Is it more important to have a beer that fits in with a certain style, or to have a beer that has its own personality? We strongly believe that personality is much more important.”