Beer and the meaning of life

He’s been through personal tragedy, but as he explains to Paul Walsh, Palm’s Jan Toye still has a lot to be thankful for

As he sits down for our interview, Jan Toye counts his blessings. “To be a part of the beer world, to create a product that gives people pleasure, to have inherited all of this,” he says, nodding to the brewery across the street.

Toye – managing director of Palm Belgian Craft Brewers – is a fortunate man, I suggest. “That’s right,” he says. “Well, I lost a son…”

His son Christophe killed himself in 2004 at the age of 21 and Toye often speaks openly about the tragedy, and how it changed his life, not just personally but also professionally.

Today our discussion touches on his son’s death, suicide prevention and the meaning of life, but also hop varieties, wood ageing, beer distribution and a brewery that has changed radically since the glory days of the 1970s and 80s. Then, as Toye puts it, everybody had to have Palm Special Belge: his responsibility was to not so much to create demand but to meet it, through investment, expansion, innovations and, above all, hard work.

At the back of his mind, were there niggling apprehensions that this beer would fall out of favour? “Honestly, no. The train was just steaming ahead, and I found it wonderfully natural. One large brewing hall, another brewing hall, extra tanks, bottling lines, warehouses. As an engineer, I thought it was fantastic. It was exponential growth, and it wasn’t planned. It just happened. We did diversify: buying Rodenbach and buying fifty percent of Boon. But for a long time people couldn’t get enough of Palm Special Belge. I just needed to increase production. Streamline it. That’s how I saw my role.”

But during this frenzy of growth, tastes were slowly evolving. Palm, once the homegrown alternative to industrially produced pils, was starting to look old-fashioned. People wanted to expand their horizons to Trappist beers, strong blond beers and even traditional sour beers. This evolved to today’s phenomenon in which people are attracted by everything that’s small and local.

Now, however, Palm – or, I should say, Palm Belgian Craft Brewers – aren’t going to miss out. Toye and his team are making their brewery smaller so people can participate in creating beers through tastings and focus groups.

“I have a very clear picture of our raison d’être,” he says. “The bottom line is that everyone who works with us – our brewers, our sales people, marketers – should all be innovative and creative. They should be able to interpret our story, and to talk about how we work with our ingredients to make great beer.”

The flagship beer of the new Palm Craft Brewers is Cornet, a drinkable beer brewed from pale malt with the addition of Saaz and Target hops. In the brewing process they use oak as ingredient, which brings soft vanilla touches.

Another innovation is Arthur’s Legacy, a range of limited edition beers, each based on one particular discipline: hops, fruit, herbs or wood. The name refers to Jan’s great-uncle Arthur Van Roy, a brewer who always believed in the success of high fermentation beers.
The brewery is also innovating in how it interacts with the market. “Our pub owners are our ambassadors; we don’t evaluate them on volume. We’re looking for people with passion for beer, people who can infect others with that passion. Money isn’t coming easily but we’re learning a lot and becoming much more connected with the consumer.”

Listening to Toye, it’s tempting to be cynical about his attempts to restyle Palm as a local, craft brewery. After all, these days everyone seems to want to be craft. But he appears entirely sincere. Does his tragic story mean we should give him the benefit of the doubt?

In an interview with a Flemish trade union organisation in 2012, Toye mentioned his son’s belief about consumerism being a new form of slavery. “That’s what he thought. The Western model is a predatory model. We plunder mines, forests and seas. We use fossil fuels without thinking what we’ll do when they’re exhausted. Meanwhile, we’re heating the earth with predictably destructive consequences. Moreover, nature is increasingly concentrated in the hands of power structures that exploit them so they can sell expensive products to consumers. And people just keep on consuming; creating their own, accelerated destruction.”

Bleak as it may sound, this is not end of the story. The answer, according to Toye, is to return to local production. “Flowers and beans that can be grown in Belgium are in fact flown in from Kenya. It’s quite incredible,” he says. “So we have to evolve into a model in which we can reach high prosperity with a low carbon footprint: a new eco-economic model, which again will be more local.”

He could go on all day. This is Jan Toye the optimist, the idealist: the 67-year-old entrepreneur who still feels he has to prove himself as a businessman. It remains to be seen whether he will turn Palm Craft Brewers into a successful venture that’s also ethical, local, ecological and credible. But given everything that he’s been through, you can’t help but admire the effort.