There’s an increasing trend for Belgian breweries to cork and cage their bottles like the producers of Champagne. Breandán Kearney speaks to the largest global producer of wire hoods to find out what the French think.
Sparflex is a company based in France that produces wire hoods for the sparkling wine producers of the Champagne region. But half the wire hoods on show at their customer trade events aren’t attached to Champagne bottles. They’re on bottles of Belgian beer.
“The Champagne producers are amazed with the quality of packaging of Belgian beer compared to what we see in Champagne,” says Sébastien Rouillaux, Marketing Director and part of the family that owns Sparflex. “It’s a bit conservative in the Champagne world and in the wine industry in general, but the Belgian brewers are really open to innovation.”
It’s not just in the showroom that Champagne producers are finding a new-found admiration for Belgian beer. “The view of the Champagnois has changed a lot over the last five years,” he says. “Before that, beer was just beer and they didn’t pay attention to it. Now they see there are so many different styles of beer and that it is close to wine in terms of its complexity. Sometimes it’s even more complex. I know some of the cellar masters in Champagne are crazy about Belgian beer.”
If there’s a growing awareness of, and burgeoning respect for Belgian beer amongst the producers of Champagne, then the Belgian brewers are increasingly looking to their counterparts in France for inspiration on how to add value to their brand. “We see a tendency now for Belgian brewers to invest in a natural cork finish with a more customised wire hood,” says Sébastien. “We work with many brands including Leffe, Chimay, Palm, Rodenbach, St. Bernardus, Timmermans, Alken Maes, Kwak and Tripel Karmaliet. It’s been a growing market for us over the last five years. We follow the growth of our customers and we’re happy to see that Belgian beer is really booming worldwide.”
Wire hoods – metal cages designed to withstand pressure and hold corks in the bottle –were developed when producers of Champagne wanted to start distributing their bottles to other countries on ships. “In the 19th Century there were strings attached to the bottles,” says Sébastien. “But rats on the ships would start eating the string and the corks started popping out from the bottles all over the place. It was very messy.”
Rats couldn’t eat through wire as easily and the metal was more resistant to pressure. “With wires, you could ship the Champagne without risk,” says Sébastien. “At that point it was possible to drink the bottles in places other than the production site.”
It was Alfred Jacquesson who registered the patent for the wire hood in 1844 and the invention sparked huge commercial growth for Champagne. “Since the 1960s there’s been more of a focus by the Champagne houses on marketing,” he says. “They wanted colour, texture, embossing and printed technology. When you open a bottle of Champagne, the wire hood is the first thing you see. It’s crazy, but there are even people who are fanatical about collecting them.”
Sébastien’s parents started the company in 1984 and it’s a family owned business to this day. The first products were Champagne foils but soon they were accumulating small producers of wire hoods and turning the brand global. “The key moment was in 1998 with the acquisition of Le Muselet Valentin,” he says. “They are known world wide for wire hoods. We put that brand forward because it’s so famous in the world of sparkling wine.”
Sparflex’s diversification began with cider in Brittany and Normandy and soon moved to Belgian beer. “It started with traditional Belgian icons like Duvel or Chimay in their larger format bottles,” says Sébastien. “They were aiming for the Champagne standard. We’re able to offer wire hoods to both huge brewing companies and microbreweries. You can buy one box or several million from us. That’s driven by the Champagne market. All the small producers in Champagne need to show off their brand. We give the same opportunity to the different types and sizes of Belgian breweries as we do to those Champagne producers.” Sparflex now have a global staff of 450 people with production sites in Spain and California as well as France, although the wire hoods are only produced in the Champagne region.
The increase in use of wire hoods among Belgian breweries has brought new customers to Sébastien’s family business. “We have brewers from different parts of the world who want to do what the Belgian breweries are doing,” he says. “In the same way that sparkling wine producers in the UK come to us because we are the benchmark for quality wire hoods in Champagne, breweries from the U.S. come to us because they are inspired by the look and feel of Belgian breweries.”