The trouble with innovation

For Yvan De Baets, not everything that’s new is good

In the Brussels craft beer landscape, Brasserie de la Senne, once the upstart disrupters, now seem more like tribal elders, but they continue to plough their innovative furrow, though soon that’ll be from a brand-new brewery near to the Tour & Taxis site. But Yvan De Baets, one of the two founders, has strong views on the question of innovation, and they’re not what you might expect.

(c) Tobias Goth

“What does innovation really mean?” he asks. “It’s a question for the philosophers, not for the brewers, and even less for the geeks.”

Yvan is one of the more scholarly of Belgium’s brewers, a student of brewing history and beer literature, which helps place so-called innovation in perspective. “When you dig into brewing history, one of the first things you realise is that almost everything has been tried already. Many times, something that seems to be new has been made or attempted already, back in the old days. And that’s true for beer types but also for techniques and technology.”

As he explained to us back at the outset of this venture, his brewery was founded on – and operates by – one guiding principle: they make the beers they would like to drink. Of course there’s plenty of room within that idea for variety, but the principle is unwavering. The beer is paramount. “Innovation for itself should never be a goal,” he says. “Making a good beer should always be the goal. For this reason, being innovative should never be seen as a quality in itself for a brewer.”

And the road to great beer is littered with good ideas – with the road-kill of what he refers to as “Beer Darwinism”. “It’s not for no reason that some trials have been abandoned and that some styles have been favoured by time. It’s easy to pretend to be “innovative” in countries where the people don’t really know what happens in the beer world. Belgium is surprisingly one of them. A lot of beer firms or breweries simply copy and paste what has been done in the US for about 20 years. They look “innovative” only because the Belgians are unaware of that.”

The issue of beer-firms – companies which market beer brewed for them by contract brewers like De Proef and Anders – is a sore-point for him, especially when the firms in question are content to allow customers to believe they’re actual brewers themselves.

“Proposing a new beer style every week to please the geeks is not being innovative: it’s being arrogant, as those “brewers” seem to believe they will master every possible style at once,” he points out. “Related to that point, some beer firms or breweries claim they are innovative because in week one they launch a porter, in week two an IPA, in week three a dry-hopped lager and in week four a gose and so on. These styles date respectively from the mid-18th century, mid-19th century, mid-19th century and 16th century, so where is the innovation?”

“When a beer firm or brewery “innovates” adding, for instance, some industrial waste like unsold bread from supermarkets or industrial candy (like marshmallow) to a beer, they don’t show innovation, as an innovation is supposed to bring something better. They just show a total disrespect for the beer itself and, of course, for their customers.”

By Alan Hope