Belgium’s craft brewers sound the alarm

rankeThe following is the translated text of an open letter published by Le Soir newspaper from a group of Belgian brewers:

 Belgian beer, supposedly one of the last of our national treasures, is in great danger. A number of businesses, which seem to have purely commercial interests, are placing its reputation in serious jeopardy.

 We’re talking about fake brewers, as opposed to authentic brewers.

 These are marketing enterprises, who sell beers they have not themselves produced, while passing themselves off more or less openly as real brewers. Their beers are in fact manufactured by breweries specialised in brewing for third parties. A small number of these contract brewers (for whose owners we have every respect, seeing as they, like us, are actually brewers) have monopolised this business in Belgium.

 The fake becomes the norm

 These days, thanks to a growing interest in beer at home and abroad, a new “brewery” opens up in this country roughly every 15 days. We estimate that around 75% of these businesses are breweries in name only, and that no beer is actually produced by the businesses themselves. A natural conclusion: none of them possesses the equipment required for brewing beer.

 In most cases, these so-called brewery businesses are made up of people who are not brewers, lacking either experience, or training, or both. The first sign of their enterprise is usually a splendid website. They are, not surprisingly, adept at social media, networking of every kind, and their stories are lapped up by the media. In return, they are treated to TV coverage or press articles providing them with free publicity. One cannot deny their talent in this; marketing is for them of prime importance.

In some cases, these fake brewers go as far as to present to the TV cameras a beer they may have brewed in tiny quantities (as small as a large cook-pot sometimes) while the beer they are marketing was in reality produced by a contract brewer. Others buy equipment which suggests to the viewer an artisanal production workshop where beer can be produced, again remaining silent on the fact that the vast majority of what they are selling is made elsewhere by someone else.

 There is nothing new about this phenomenon. Beers with names that are familiar to the general public have been sold by fake brewers for years. But the situation has become more serious in recent years, with the manipulation of the consumer through the media reaching unprecedented levels. This should be considered a fraud on the consumer, which ought to be the target of those associations who are supposed to be defending the consumer’s interests.

A denial of the brewing profession

 One of the things which shocks us most is that these people are denying the very notion of craft, which in their hands becomes devoid of any meaning. The world they inhabit has no need of the brewer in the traditional meaning of the word: on the one hand they have experts who manufacture in their factories; on the other the salesmen who pretend to be something they’re not. There is, in this scenario, no place for the craftsman, the creative spirit, whose ideas are his or her own, who possesses real skills, and who makes his beers himself and chooses the technology he wants to use. By contrast, all that the fake brewers do, behind the exterior of often disingenuous openness, is to try desperately to predict market trends in order to sell their product more easily, and to make bigger profits. We might sum it up in one pure and simple word: marketing.

 It is interesting to note how much they also contradict the whole notion of entrepreneurship, which contains the notions of risk-taking and even sacrifice. No sign of that here; no question of investing in equipment. Simply a matter of feeling for the market, and waiting patiently for some millionaire, some bank or some credulous crowd-funders to come along and drop the necessary funding in their laps. These non-entrepreneurs have another advantage: if one brew is ruined, it costs them nothing. Clearly we are dealing here with a case of unfair competition against genuine brewers.

 It goes without saying that these practices have the additional detrimental effect of standardising the taste of Belgian beer, since the breweries who produce these contract beers inevitably put their own stamp on everything they produce.

 Skills and knowledge left unprotected

 These practices are a real threat to Belgian beer and its reputation. In time, the words “Made in Belgium” on a label will be stripped of all meaning, since the beer in the bottle may well have been manufactured by experts who might as well be situated anywhere on the planet, and marketed by salesmen who have turned impersonation into an economic model. Genuine brewers are in danger, whether large or small. Had the situation arisen in the world of wine, we would already have witnessed a major wave of outrage. Can we conclude that beer – which is after all more complicated to make than wine – is considered unworthy of such a reaction in this country?

 It is at this point that we realise that this so-called Beer Paradise does absolutely nothing to protect the profession of brewer, let alone the notion of what is a brewery. We are therefore issuing a call to the politicians and institutions concerned for new legislation to protect our profession. One of the important points that should cover is the duty of transparency. In concrete terms, the clear and visible mention on each label of the brewery where the beer in question was actually made. Along similar lines, only those enterprises who possess their own equipment for the brewing of beer, which is used to manufacture the entirety of their production, should be permitted to use the term “brewery”.

 Beer is very much in fashion nowadays, and we certainly do not intend to complain about that state of affairs. But the other side of the same coin is that our industry is beginning to attract a great many imposters who cynically exploit the credulity of the public to make a profit. We would argue that the profession of brewer is the finest in the world, but it is a tough and demanding one, requiring many various skills. It is time the authorities gave it the protection it deserves. The recent proposal to apply to have the Belgian beer culture included in the UNESCO list of world intangible cultural heritage is a fine idea, but its realisation will have no point unless the beer of genuine makers is protected from the beers of imposters. Sending the message that just anyone can pretend to be a brewer and put a beer on the market is not only a fraud against the consumer, but also an insult to the centuries of tradition, culture and knowledge that we represent.

Signed by:

Yvan De Baets and Bernard Leboucq (Brasserie de la Senne), Jean Van Roy (Brasserie Cantillon), Catherine and Philippe Minne (Brasserie de Bastogne), Kris Herteleer (Brouwerij De Dolle Brouwers), Pierre Tilquin (Gueuzerie Tilquin), Alexandre Dumont (Brasserie Jandrain-Jandrenouille), Pierre-Alex, Marie-Noëlle and Kevin Carlier (Brasserie de Blaugies), Jef Van den Steen (Brouwerij de Glazen Toren), Pierre Jacob (Brasserie Saint-Monon), Marc-Antoine De Mees (Brasserie Brunehaut), Luc Festjens (Brouwerij Den Toetëlèr), Pierre Gobron (Brasserie Les 3 Fourquets), Gregory Verhelst (Brasserie de Rulles), Kristof Vandenbussche (Brouwerij Fort Lapin), Laurent Agache (Brasserie de Cazeau), and many other genuine brewers.