Haacht brewery is responding to the decline in pils drinking by investing and diversifying. Alan Hope reports
The Haacht brewery is one of the largest in the country, though it’s relatively unknown outside Belgium. However, it’s definitely worth discovering, especially now as it tackles the decline of the market for pils in Belgium by innovating and investing. Indeed, this sense of innovation is, here perhaps more than anywhere, in the brewery’s DNA. For the very establishment of the brewery here in 1898 involved an act of transformation of such audacity, it would make MBAs today weep with envy.
How it all began
The site where the Haacht brewery stands (which is not in Haacht, oddly enough; see below) was originally a dairy. The production manager, one Eugène De Ro, was a fermentation engineer by training, and had recently become interested in the arrival of small-scale brewing of pilsner-style beer in Belgium, imported from Germany and Czechoslovakia where it was already well-established.
So why not start brewing pils right here in the dairy, De Ro asked himself, and proceeded to do just that. “We didn’t invent it, but we were one of the first to do this on a large industrial scale here in Belgium, and this made our beer very popular,” explains Benoit Fobe, quality systems manager, who’s taking me on a tour of the site.
De Ro, then, was essentially the founder of the brewery, and as well as a bust of monumental size in the reception area, he’s remembered here in a more fundamental way. “He was an employee at that time, and he and his sons and grandsons afterwards bit by bit bought back all the company’s shares,” says Benoit. “So we’re now owned by the Van der Kelen family; De Ro’s grandson Frederick Van der Kelen is our current managing director. He and his family own about 85% of our shares [84.42%, according to the latest annual report] and the other 15% is quoted on the Belgian stock market.”
De Ro’s visionary gamble paid off, and by the time of World War One Haacht was producing more than 500,000 hectolitres – and this at a time when Brouwerij Artois was decades away from merging with Piedboeuf to create Interbrew, which would go on eventually to become AB InBev. Pils was a great success, and the company started to broaden its range, into lemonades and mineral water. Haacht also went on a shopping spree, taking over a string of other breweries across Belgium, as well as Brasserie Le Coq Hardi in Lille in northern France, and Brouwerij De Leeuw in Valkenburg in the Netherlands.
“By acquiring these breweries, Haacht also took over their pubs. The group is called Co.Br.Ha., and in this you have the Haacht brewery, and also a company that controls all the pubs. We have a lot of opportunity to cooperate with pub owners. There are independent pubs to which we only deliver, and contract pubs to whom we supply equipment, and then there are the pubs which are owned by the brewery and we supply the beer. So there are all types of model. Financially it’s a big part of the business.”
It matters little today when we’re in a global market for everything, but since InBev was taken over by Brazilians and then merged with the US and the world, and Alken-Maes sold to the Dutch Heineken, Eugène De Ro and his descendants might yet comfort themselves with the thought that Haacht, the former dairy which he transformed into a radical new brewery, is still the one of the biggest Belgian breweries in Belgian hands.
Since 1975, Primus has been the name of Haacht’s pils, widely available across Belgium, described as grassy and floral, but drier than the more common pilsners in Belgium.
Consumption of pils in Belgium is steadily decreasing, especially in cafes and pubs, as drinkers take advantage of supermarket price wars to stock up at home with pils, and reserve going out for one or two glasses of special beers. Haacht has tackled this trend by pushing its special beers, “shifting from quantity to quality,” as Benoit says.
“In the 1990s we reached an agreement with the Norbertine monks of the abbey of Tongerlo near Antwerp. In the beginning we brewed according to their recipe but that has evolved a lot over recent years. We have a blond, a brown, a Christmas and the Prior. Until a few years ago it was called the Tripel but we changed the name to Prior, the head of a monastery. That’s very strong, 9% ABV, and it won a major prize in the USA, the World Beer Award as best European blond abbey beer in 2011. It’s a very strong, very rich abbey beer. These are all refermented in the bottle.”
The Charles Quint or Keizer Karel range includes a gold-blond that’s herbal and slightly bitter, a ruby-red that’s fruity but also slightly tart, and the Ommegang, a dry beer with floral and herbal notes, and lively carbonation, named in honour of Charles’ arrival in Brussels (see below).
As well as these, Haacht also produces the Mystic range of fruit beers made with wheat beer and fruit juices: cherry, lime and peach, as well as the basic White by Mystic wheat beer.
The naming of Belgian beers is usually a straightforward matter: take the family name of the brewer and add the type of beer. Not so with Haacht, which uses geography for the brewery name and history for many of the others.
Haacht is the name of a town in Flemish Brabant, but the brewery is actually in the neighbouring town of Boortmeerbeek. It has to be assumed that the original dairy took the name of Haacht (or Hatchet in the old spelling) because the name of the neighbouring town was more recognisable; Haacht was a more important centre, and many towns including Brussels still have streets pointing to Haacht. No such honour goes to Boortmeerbeek; understandable if one imagines a street sign reading Boortmeerbeeksesteenweg.
The train station almost immediately adjoining the brewery grounds is Haacht station, but it’s Boortmeerbeek that earned the honour of a memorial set up by the station in 1993, commemorating the attempt in April 1943 by three young men from Brussels to save the lives of a transport of Jews bound for Auschwitz. The three, armed only with a revolver and a lamp, managed to block the train, allowing 231 of those on board to escape. Sadly, 26 of them were killed in the attempt, and 90 more were recaptured later, but 115 remained free, including 15-year-old Simon Gronowski.
Primus, the Haacht pils, means simply ‘first’, but in this case the name refers specifically to Jan I, Duke of Brabant and Limburg in the second half of the 13th century. Jan, known in English as John the Victorious, was a beloved noble, said to be generous, accomplished in sport and battle, brave and clever, feted by poets and balladeers and renowned for his many bastard children. The Dutch-brewed beer Hertog Jan is also named after him, as is one of Belgium’s three-star restaurants, in Bruges.
Charles V, also known as Charles Quint or (in Dutch) Keizer Karel, was born in Ghent in 1500, and from the age of six was ruler of the Low Countries, with his aunt Margaret of Austria acting as regent. She got into a war with France over the question of paying homage to the French king, which later saw France give up any claim to Flanders – part of the reason Charles V is still highly regarded in the region.
He became King of Spain at the age of 16, and Holy Roman Emperor three years later, and in that role was successful in fighting off the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire, but not that of the Protestant Reformation, to his lifelong regret.
Charles had numerous titles, including Duke of Burgundy, Count of Holland, King of Naples and Archduke of Austria, and spoke several languages. He is reported once to have said, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to my horse.” His Spanish, however, was never quite perfect, as it was not his first language, and although he spent most of his adult life in Spain, he never quite felt as if he fitted in.
An Ommegang in Dutch is a traditional procession, usually religious in nature and usually in honour of a saint. Some, including in Amsterdam, Breda, Mechelen and Hasselt, have become major events. The one that gives its name to the Haacht beer, however, takes place twice a year, in June and July, in Brussels, and was initiated by Charles V in 1549, when he entered the city in grand procession with his son, later Philip II of Spain (Charles would abdicate the Spanish throne in Philip’s favour in 1556), and his sisters Eleonora and Maria, respectively queens of France and Hungary. The point of the procession, which included the mayor of Brussels and the local nobility, was to present the Crown Prince to the people of the Low Countries. Philip would later cause the breakaway of the Seventeen Provinces to the north – what is now the Netherlands – leaving the southern Netherlands – now Belgium – under Spanish, and later Austrian, Habsburg rule.