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A Letter from Belgium
TRENDS: ALARMING AND OTHER
September 30, 2006
You know, when one is active in the beerworld, one hears things left and right. Some of them are but rumours, some of them are a bit prejudiced, and a lot of them are “off the record”. That’s perfectly normal, and at least part of it is “one ear in, the other one out”. But then, some things keep hanging around, as they fit in with other things one might have remarked upon oneself. So, for the sake of keeping everybody happy, I will not give any names in following rant, not those of my sources (if I remember who it was), nor those of the subjects. You just have to see them as “trends”.
The Belgian beer scene is in movement. It might not look like it, but it is. The larger the brewery, the more optimistic their bulletins usually are, whether printed on glossy paper or professed orally to willing ears. Listening to them, one gets the picture they are selling all they like left and right in a booming beer market. Forget it, there isn’t one. We have one very large family brewer here, who recently admitted sales are levelling or worse and conceded they have to reconsider their aims quickly. Refreshing honesty: seen that a few of his fellow concurrents are touting figures, taken completely out of context, of mounting sales in order to paint a bleak picture rosy.
At least two of the major regional players are sitting on huge, unsold stocks they don’t know squat what to do with. They desperately search new niche markets (something not everybody is equally handy at) with series of new labels and different names, all just variations on a (boring) theme. Now the brewing profession – en bloc – might point to a threesome of winners. At random: export, fruitbeers and the duo abbey-Trappist ales. Let’s start dissecting those by the very last. Trappists, yes, no discussion. Their constant search for quality, plus their historic fame helping, they have simply no need to grow. With one exception, AFAIK, all Belgian Trappist breweries have limited voluntarily their output at a given level, and they will maintain this. It will only render their beers more sought after.
Their brethren, the abbey ales, they’re doing well. In export, mainly. Because, here again, the inner market is virtually stable (a few exceptions left); but the outside world is still avidly asking for those, in some cases even never mind the price. Even when in some countries, they want to pay with “bankguarantees”, rather, than with advance payment. And thus, if you name the abbey ales when speaking of Belgian successes, you’re more or less repeating the first argument: export. Yes, Belgian beer sells well abroad.
Sometimes despite government involvement. A small regional, exporting about half its annual production was fined savagely by customs recently. One does not pay VAT taxes for export. But in this particular case, the brewery has two different locations: one very small production unit, and one larger facility, mainly used for storage (so far). The problem: they are +/- 100 km apart.
“Impossible” says one Customs’ official: “once transported inside Belgium from A to B, VAT is due”. Full stop, fined.
And then, at last, the fruit beers. If you’ve looked at my Belgian ratings lately, a large part of them is an interminable list of “fruity” concoctions, I could have well done without. They’re the fad: they spring up overnight as a peculiar kind of mushroom. But certainly, we all know what it is with fads, no? They vanish as quickly as they’ve come into being (seen any Corona, lately?) And make no mistake: the signs of tiring are already there. A lot of these unsold tanks full of beer, containing basic beer, are destined to be primed (or watered down) with a battery of “flavouring agents” from about every exotic fruit, barring durian. Ah, I hear them yell: “Last years’ figures up 150%!” Oh really? Last year that brand didn’t exist, save for the last month.
“Mine DID!” Ah yes, but you found another distributor, delivering directly to a cheap supermarket chain, selling it under yet a different name. The original name is actually down 17%.
And last but not least: how much are you charging for your maracunha-flavoured witbier? € 12 a keg? Does that cover production costs? Some breweries are selling at give-away prices, being pushed themselves by supermarkets selling at minimal profits, and, of course, using the brewers to stop the haemorrhage. It isn’t even just the big players. A Flemish retail salesman, running around with a plan for a new shop with ALL Belgian beers, came up with this magisterial idea:
”I’m making you, small brewers, famous by putting you on the same level as the big’uns. So I suggest you start giving me x crates of every beer you produce for free, so I can start off your beer with a bang!” Authentic.
So, I’m being my usual pessimistic self, am I? Oh, there’s other things to rejoice upon. As said, export is booming, which means that abroad, our beers are regarded at their true standing (I hope). And around me, I see some smaller family brewers having found a niche, and being able to adequately and consistently increase their output, whilst not giving in on quality, rather the opposite. They have found their place. Still, should they really want to export – and expand – laws and controls (certainly in the northern part of this country) are so draconian that things as new beerhouses, up-to-date bottling lines etc., are almost a thing of the past. Let alone starting up new buildings from scratch. And here I’m moaning again. What do you want? I like good beer, and haven’t I recently not heard a world-known beerpubowner confess he’d gone long into receivership, if it hadn’t been for the tourists…?
Joris P. Pattyn
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