By Eoghan Walsh
Is there a better seal of approval for a newly opened Brussels brewery than for your taproom to become the post-work haunt for Jean Van Roy and Brasserie Cantillon? For Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage it helps that they are just around the corner, but it’s also a reflection of the reputation the brewery and its hop-forward beers have made since opening in July 2017. As they celebrate their first year, co-founder Nacim Menu talks about the inspiration you can find in bottleshops, the importance of Brussels to the brewery, and how good art can sell great beer.
Menu and his friends François Simon and Henri Ben Saria founded Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage, graduating from home-brewing to gypsy brewing in 2016 at then-Brasserie Bastogne (now Brasserie Minne). One crowd-funding campaign later their Anderlecht-based brewery, in a former cigarette factory, started production in July 2017. The taproom followed in October the same year. Their inspiration as brewers and drinkers came from whatever they could get their hands on. “When we were home-brewers, we were drinking beers from Brussels and were trying to get some inspiration from outside. So, yeah, everything that can end up in a bottle shop in Brussels, we managed to try it!” says Menu.
What that means for their beers is a core range that owes a debt to contemporary US and English brewing trends. It includes an IPA (La Lanterne), a Jasmin-infused Pale Ale (Théorème de L’Empereur), a wheat ale (Soleil), and a hoppy porter (Noire du Midi). They also brew experimental or one-off beers for the taproom, as series which has included a new world pilsner, breakfast IPAs, and saisons made with any number of different malts and grains.
They have also taken their lead from breweries closer to home, particularly when it comes to sales. “We were influenced a lot by Brasserie de la Senne, we share a lot their philosophy.” They are, Menu says, ““like the godfather for us”, and L’Ermitage has followed their business model closely. “We really want first to be settled in Brussels. If the market can grow (elsewhere), then why not (but) it’s not the priority at all…. our philosophy is to be brewed in Brussels, and drunk in Brussels.”
Their numbers make this clear. Of the 1,000 hectolitres of beer L’Ermitage produced in their first year, around 95% of it stayed in Brussels. Sales have been strong but getting their beers into non-beercentric bars has been a challenge. The brewery has had to fight tap space with established big brewing interests and has to compete with the glut of new breweries that have opened in Brussels in the last few years. The competition doesn’t worry Menu too much. “We like it that way. I hope that more and more breweries are coming up and spreading the good word about beer!”
Despite these issues, they are struggling to meet demand and will double their tank capacity by the end of 2018 to meet their second year target of 1,500 hectolitres. Their taproom has been central to this growth strategy, and 15-20°% of their beer is sold there. As a concept it still has a whiff of the exotic in Brussels, even if aesthetically it has the same post-industrial look as any urban taproom – bare walls, street art, filament bulbs. “We really wanted to be an urban brewery,” says Menu. They were “very influenced by the North American and English scene. That’s the model we wanted to do: a taproom as a vitrine, a window, into the brewery.”
The taproom, as much as the brewery, has become their anchor in Brussels. It’s the city where they met at art and film school, where they have all settled, and which features heavily in the brewery’s identity. So when it came to finding an artist to visualise this identity, they naturally chose a local, graphic designer and former classmate Julien Kremer, better known as Krump.
The brewers have given Kremer given carte blanche to run with his imagination, and the iconography of the city features heavily in his artwork for L’Ermitage. Often, they are absurdist or surrealist visions of Brussels influenced by filmmakers like Alejandro Jodorowsky.
They stand out on shop shelves for their colour, their vibrancy, and their originality – particularly in a country where beer labels can be insipid rehashes of out-dated tropes. As graduates of film and art school, this focus on the look of the brewery was a way both to visualise their appreciation for Brussels, and to keep in touch with their past lives. It has also helped them to sell beer.
“We don’t have a marketing department obviously, so we just do what we like,” says Menu. “It helps the sales actually. People come to us sometimes and say ‘I love your labels, I just bought your beer because of it!’ That’s not the goal, but it’s cool, so why not! It also gives us an opportunity to go further than just the beer…you have a great looking object, and that’s cool.”
c. Rob Mitchell