Belgian breweries: how long is a piece of string?

Too long, if it’s been measured by the government

A real brewery: Timmermans
A real brewery: Timmermans

Belgium has seen remarkable growth in the number of breweries over the last five years, from 145 in 2000 to 247 at the end of last year, an increase of no less than 70%, according to figures from the federal economy ministry widely quoted in the local media.

An impressive figure, no doubt, but is it true?

Not according to Zythos, the Belgian association of beer-lovers, which happens to keep tabs on these things. According to Zythos, at the end of 2014 Belgium had 168 active breweries, as well as four gueuze blenders.

So instead of a 70% increase in five years, the number of breweries in fact went up by just under 16%. How can the two figures be so divergent? Zythos explains:

The economy ministry groups together under tax code 11.050 all registered companies who produce beer as one of their activities. To be clear: when setting up a company in Belgium, you pick a main activity, such as freelance journalism, but for the sake of covering all possible future eventualities, you would also tick off all related activities, in the case of our example, things like online media, photo and video reportage, graphic design, ITC consultancy and so on. The list is a long one. You may never get around to doing any of the things listed, but it’s easier to include them from the start than to add them later.

The listing under tax code 11.050 doesn’t mean a company has the intention of ever brewing beer. In any case, Zythos explains, to do that requires not just a tax code, but also a licence from the Federal Food Safety Agency. Customs and Excise will also become involved if you’re making beer in more than home-brew quantities. The list of 11.050 firms on which the economy ministry is basing its figures also includes companies which are no longer active, as well as those who have the intention of operating a brewery at some time in the future.

That brings us to the question of what Zythos calls beer firms. Examples abound of small companies who claim to be brewers – there’s nothing whatsoever in the law to prevent anyone doing this – but whose beer is in fact brewed for them, on contract, by an established brewery.

Zythos keeps careful count of the numbers of brewers and of beer firms for the simple reason that the distinction is not always clear to the consumer, a situation which the organisation finds potentially misleading. Some beer firms make clear where their beer is brewed and by whom, but many do not. Not only does the consumer have the right to clear information, a statement issued by Zythos explains, but those who are prepared to take the risks involved in setting up and running a brewery themselves deserve recognition and respect.

On the Zythos website, then, you can find a list of Belgian breweries, and another list of beer firms. Both lists are kept as up to date as possible, and while there may be the occasional delay in recording changes in the numbers, nothing explains the economy ministry’s huge over-estimate. According to Zythos’ authoritative view, as of April 1 this year, there are 168 breweries in Belgium, as well as 91 beer firms, and four gueuze blenders. No more, and no less.

The two lists are free to download from the Zythos website.
Beer firms: