Succession in Belgian Beer

Most of the twentieth century saw brewery after brewery close in Belgium. Two World Wars and the invasion of international pale lagers forced hundreds of breweries out of business. Of the estimated 3,000 breweries operating in Belgium at the beginning of the twentieth century, fewer than 150 were left at the lowest point. Things began to change slowly but surely when new breweries started opening again. New breweries and blenderies such as Boon, De Dolle, and Achouffe joined the storied names of Belgium’s breweries at a time when opening a brewing operation was a fool’s errand.

What happens when the founder is ready to retire? Who carries on the legacy? In the case of Achouffe, Duvel-Moortgat proved an interested buyer. But even the long-standing members of the Belgian Family Brewers Association, founded to promote the value of independent family ownership, are not immune to the uncertainty of the modern craft beer succession issue. Now that the number of breweries is on the rise in Belgium, the founders of these new enterprises need to look after their legacies.

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Some new breweries have already planned for the next generation thanks to the enthusiasm of the founder coupled with the spirit of inclusiveness that involved the family in the project from the beginning. Vincent Dilewyns & Brouwerij Dilewyns’ story follows a similar narrative to many new brewers in the age of craft beer. Vincent started out as a home brewer, had success with his efforts, and decided to turn a hobby into a profession. Brouwerij Dilewyns officially opened its doors in 2011 and upgraded to a new state-of-the-art facility only five years later. Now brewing operations are run by Vincent’s daughter Anne-Catherine while her sister, Claire, manages the business side. Anne-Catherine said she was involved “From the start, in 1999.” It was a family hobby and she started by “following [her father’s] actions, and then learning about the process itself.”

According to Vincent, his daughters became integrated into the hobby and business “…naturally. They were interested in what father was doing in his garage, and then, they became interested in the process too. When we needed to decide to take a next step – starting up production instead of continuing contract brewing – in 2010, they choose [sic] themselves to start up the production on a professional scale.” The transition happened similarly at Brouwerij Boon.

Frank Boon decided to get into the Gueuze and Lambic business in the mid-70’s when these beers were not only passé but nearly extinct. Four decades later, due in large part to Frank’s efforts, Gueuze and Lambic are more popular than ever with a worldwide audience. Now that Frank is in his 60s, Brouwerij Boon is poised to take the next step in its history with two of his sons joining the family business. Karel Boon, who started after finishing University at Leuven and an internship at Chimay, recounts how he and his older brother Jos became interested in following their father into the business: “For both of us, it was obvious at different times in our lives. Jos was always interested from the start to learn more about all the machinery, techniques and so on. As a kid, he helped in the brewery. We have a couple of pictures of him in family albums where he’s sitting on a forklift, picking up a small container with spent grains from the brewhouse…it was always obvious that Jos would do ‘something’ in the brewery later in his life.  I have always been quite ‘entrepreneurial’. I started a small online business with a friend and while it was fun, a little voice in the back of my head kept telling me to do something with beer. One morning during breakfast I was alone with my father at the table. I think I was 17. I told him then and there I wanted to work in the brewery together with my brother. Quite calmly, he replied ‘Ok, that’s good news,’ and continued to drink his coffee.”

Through integrating their families into the everyday life of their new breweries, both Vincent and Frank inspired their children to join the family business. But not every kid is interested in their parents’ business. Nino Bacelle & Guido Devos started Brouwerij De Ranke in 1996. Twenty-one years later, it’s time to begin planning for the future. According to Nino, “Guido does not have kids who are interested in the brewery.” Fortunately for De Ranke, it looks like the next generation will follow Nino: “I have my daughter, Lisa, and her friend, Sander Vermeersch, who both work at the brewery and are interested in continuing…”

Three of Belgium’s newer breweries are secure for at least another generation, but after that? “We shall see, anyway nobody will be forced to join the brewery, as we were never forced neither,” says Anne-Catherine. The success of the Boon, De Ranke, and Dilewyns breweries, while harkening back to the family businesses of the past, also feels very modern. The children weren’t pushed into the family business; the business was integrated into the family as it was built. Karel describes it nicely: “From my perspective, the brewery is like having a family farm next to your house. We’ve always lived next to the brewery. Our house was connected to it, so in fact we were able to enter the brewery in our pajamas if we wanted. That’s how we grew up. It was and still is part of us. The brewery was our playground. Quite literally as my brothers and I used to drive around with our bikes in and between the brewery buildings. So basically, the brewery is part of our DNA.”

by Christopher Barnes