A Report from #EBBC15, Darkly

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The following is a piece of fiction, inspired by a thought that occurred to me earlier in the year: what if the monasteries of England were never dissolved, and our brewing history remained as strongly associated with monks and abbeys as it is in Belgium? What might change if England remained Catholic, and if Belgium became its greatest brewing rival? What might the 2015  European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference in Brussels be like, if history was different?

 

From the other side of the glass, it was a dark view.

Among the journalists and bloggers in the conference centre, there was conversation, warm greetings, a sense of community: a bustling, thriving discussion of Belgian brewing. It’s what we came for. But as I approached the Chairman, eager to put to him some stickier questions than he’d faced in the far-too-polite press conference itself, the dark side of the famous Anglo-Belgian brewing rivalry showed its face. I witnessed first hand the segregation, the suspicion and the prejudice.

Excusez-moi, monsieur – sorry – please, sir, you must step this way.” A polite voice in my ear and surprisingly firm grip on my arm turned me away from the relieved-looking Chairman. “You will be far more comfortable, we are sure, with your countrymen and colleagues in the viewing gallery.”

I glanced up at the dim-lit room behind smoky glass on the balcony above.

“Will there be any opportunities to-”

“Please.” An implacable smile, an extended hand gesturing to the top of the stairs. Inside the ‘viewing gallery’ I found fellow bloggers from the British contingent, looking as peeved as me. Unwelcome guests, tidied away to a place out of sight. “Typical bloody Belgians, eh?” one asked aloud, to no one in particular. “What have we done to deserve this?”

The answer was obvious, but uncomfortable. We had done the same thing to them on several occasions. This was the first time the European Beer Bloggers and Writers Conference had been held outside of the UK, and naturally our longstanding brewing rivals were first in line to welcome the EBBC organisers with open arms. Whilst colleagues from across Europe and the world were given full access, we were treated with cool suspicion, even overt contempt. Had we really been so frosty towards the visiting Belgian bloggers at the previous EBBCs?

Until now we had only seen the representatives of the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) – dusty and opaque corporate bodies with their roots in the ancient Trappist monastic breweries – in the pages of the business press, but from the viewing gallery of the Hotel Orval’s conference centre, the people below seem no different to our own British Abbey Brewers Association (BABA). Their habit-inspired suits were tailored with longer, wider cuffs, the collars broader and looser, the branding more intricate, but they were largely the same white middle-aged men talking about ‘beer as it should be’.

The BABA’s Council may choose to wear, over their robe-like uniforms, the stylised stoles appropriated from the faith from which their fortunes historically stem, but the appearance was largely the same. They even seemed to share their Belgian counterpart’s fondness for sprinkling their speech with Latin to make themselves sound reverent and important. Links to the past. Eyes on the future. The similarities were stark, and quite surprising, to those of us from the UK. These men who spent fortunes on outperforming each other were actually quite alike.

In the UK, only the handful of independent brewers outside of the jurisdiction of the BABA’s ‘Designated Monastic Brewing Regions’ display any form of transparency or open dialogue with the press and blogging community. Still, gaps in the overlap of DeMBRegs have encouraged unlikely artisanal brewing scenes in areas of post-industrial decline such as Grimsby and Rhyl. Not so in Belgium. Here, the established Belgian brewery conglomerates (some four companies owning over 3000 brands between them) make up over 99% of the domestic market, with the scant remaining few hectolitres produced by private individuals and sold on the black market, much of it to private British collectors. Belgian beer covers the counters and shelves of bars across France, Italy, Spain and beyond, yet, like British beer, unable to break the German market, which has grown ever more stagnant and inward-looking. Still, its hold in North Africa, Asia, and South America makes for eye-watering volume figures, with the soaring demand met by ‘Supervised Trappist Breweries’, plants built abroad to meet domestic needs. Growth seems to continue apace, driven by the sheer choice of brands Belgian brewers are able to offer.

British brewing seems more rigid, its markets unchanged over hundreds of years, output spread along historical trade channels, to the remnants of the Holy Empire in the South East Asia and New English States, throughout the Baltics and Nordic Federation, and as far south as South Africa and Australia. Britain’s world-famous Aged Pale Ales (APAs) astonish palates on every continent, but despite unparalleled scientific achievement, lack the magic and mystery conjured by the Belgians.

It’s easy to be cynical about Belgian beer’s appeal, when they hide so much and yet continue to trade on a monastic heritage all but sterilised by corporate governance, but the opportunity to discover more about their brewing industry was irresistible, especially for British bloggers used to a similarly homogeneous beer scene. We came to learn, not to spy, but the chance to dish out some of the prejudice served to Belgian visitors to the UK must have been too tempting.

The hubbub below that we were now excluded from had begun following the BFB’s press conference, which was used to announce its latest campaign promoting the superiority of Belgian beer. It was all very run-of-the-mill stuff, a good way to burn through 20 million francs, but didn’t really add much beyond a slick new font and sharper photography. The message remained derivative of previous campaigns, this time using the form of words ‘Belgian Beer – The Pinnacle of Brewing Excellence’ with a series of images depicting giant glasses of Sixtus and Orval towering over the Alps, Andes, Kilimanjaro and so on. The Q&A session was a joke; nothing but fluff questions from pocketed journalists about how they can keep up with the growing demand and how they live up to such constantly high expectations. The answers were right out of the scriptbook, as expected. Raised hands from non-vetted journalists, mostly the people I now stood with in the viewing gallery, were ignored.

It wasn’t as though we were trying to catch anyone out. We had questions because the amount of detailed information about the Belgian brewing scene in our home country is near non-existent – a smattering of specialist forum threads, piecemeal and highly dubious encyclopedia pages. Social media provides images and opinions, but so few facts. I’ve attended a number of tastings of Belgian beers (held in relative secrecy of course, in private groups) and been impressed with a number of beers, but, like with so many ‘classic’ British monastery styles, wondered if something has been lost in the battle for global brewing supremacy? The nationalistic fervour imbued in each of our brewing cultures, celebrated by many as a link to our past and powerful indicator of our place in the world, seems increasingly narrow-minded, even totalitarian, in a nation like ours where the cuisine of the world arrives on our doorstep.

Belgian beer bloggers interacted with us cautiously, as if unsure whether they will be tainted by association. Some, however, approached us enthusiastically in private, like us, eager to learn. We were pleased to have our suspicions confirmed on one issue though: the key battleground is in the New English States, where the gradual institution of federal democracy (with His Catholic Majesty the Prince of New England remaining as constitutional monarch) has seen the emergence of real diversity in the beer marketplace. The much-discussed grassroots movement of homebrewers starting, incredibly, their own brewing companies separate of BABA control, has undoubtedly set in motion a excitable reaction in the BFB, and confusion in the BABA.

Complacently assuming that brand loyalty and history would ensure superiority, no provisions for industry regulation such as the DeMBRegs were written into the Colonial Charter. The States could potentially be a clean slate, or rather, a blank canvas upon which a wholly different brewing industry could be set out. The BFB is naturally hoping to capitalise on this (the new ad campaign notably contained a version with Rochefort looming over the Rocky Mountains). Belgian bloggers may be able to access more privileged information on this issue. For now, we can only speculate on how the battle will play out, but as the last remaining free market to conquer, it’s be expected that both the BABA and BFB will be spending considerable resources. The real unknown element here is the the growing number of so-called Independent Craft Brewers in the States, whose beers are are reported to be quite unlike those from either Britain or Belgium. If they produce beers that capture the public’s imagination, the BABA and BFB might that money alone won’t buy them victory. Here’s hoping there’s a Conference in the States one day so we can try and find out for ourselves.

#EBBC15 – Belgian Family Brewers and the Future of Belgian Beer Culture

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At the European Beer Bloggers & Writers Conference (EBBC) in Brussels today, glasses of gueuze, tripel and blond clink and gurgle as they are filled. Conversation rolls in waves, and each one covers the same issue: the Belgian Family Brewers (BFB) have announced a new campaign to define Belgian brewing as a family tradition on a par to those around the world. The campaign will include print and online advertising and in-trade events, seeking to educate consumers about just how seriously the profession of brewing is seen in Belgium, but also seeks to secure, in a roundabout way, a common understanding of what a ‘proper’ Belgian brewer is: one that is a BFB member – an historic, family-owned business.

Slides comparing brewing in Belgium to salsa dancing in Cuba, rodeo in the United States, bullfighting in Spain and even the Carnival dancers of Brazil reveal a slightly limited, awkward and stereotypical worldview, but the intention is clear. It’s a single-minded campaign, trying to show the heart and soul in Belgian brewing in way the country has not seen before, but one that raises many questions about the BFB’s long-term intentions.

So what is the BFB and how is this a change from its current campaigning? The BFB is a non-profit organisation and represents 22 Belgian, family-owned breweries and has existed since 2007, created with the aim of ‘passing on knowledge’, in real terms protecting the status of its members and marketing their credibility to consumers (in a way not dissimilar to the Authentic Trappist Product stamp on Trappist brewery beers). Most crucially, its members must have brewed beer in Belgium for at least 50 years.

This time criteria fascinates me, and it sets the BFB apart from many other such organisations of which I’m aware. The aim to preserve heritage has been made abundantly clear to EBBC attendees, but like any brewery in the past 20 years, many of them have adopted a number of recent fashionable styles and methods to benefit from the increased interest from consumers in speciality beer styles. Much of this heritage, whilst thought be many hundreds of years old, is often based on styles from the 20th century at the earliest. ‘Authenticity’ is another term which they are defining with their own set of criteria – unsurprisingly they choose that it means a family business owning its own brewery.

The conference has seen the BFB set its own narrative; explain in unmistakeable terms that it is the champion of ‘proper’ Belgian beer. The curiously grandiose phrase ‘Heritage Guardians’ has been injected quite deliberately into panel discussions, presentations and beer tastings. The phrase reminds me, in a strange sort of way, of something BrewDog might announce if was a 7th generation blond and oud bruin brewer. There can be no doubt that we have been carefully warmed up for this announcement: a smattering of words such as ‘preservation’, ‘innovation’, ‘passion’ and – inevitably – ‘craft’, have been deployed with press-release-like precision, put into the mouths of commercial directors and brewmasters with rehearsed annunciation and repetition.

Of course, as the leading Belgian organisation representing beer that bloggers would likely be interested in, the BFB’s headline sponsorship of the EBBC in Brussels is far from surprising. A representative attended last year’s conference in Dublin with the express intention of gauging the likelihood of 2015’s taking place in Brussels. But more interestingly, the BFB has timed its press conference for the conference attendees arrival. An obvious choice if they wish to best communicate their message, undoubtedly, but the events taking place throughout the conference have been designed to help convince attendees of the BFB member breweries’ artisan and craft credentials. The almost breathless pace of the conference so far has astonished many attendees, but also hinted at an agenda to represent the maximum number of BFB members and their beers in a shortest possible time for a specific reason; to make a specific case in time for the announcement of its new campaign.

Has the case been made successfully? My own personal understanding of the organisation and the Belgian beer industry has been greatly expanded, but the more I have learned, the more questions I have. There’s definitely a sense of banding together to preserve heritage, a laudable aim, but also a feeling that these are proud, inflexible dynasties clinging on to businesses that stretch back hundreds of years. They have every right to preserve what they have built, and they seem to feel they are being open by showing us their beers and their brewmasters, but there’s a clear discomfort about the growing popularity of brewers in Belgium who are not BFB members. ‘Gypsy’ or cuckoo brewers who contract brew on other brewers’ equipment, and those who make great beer but lack the 50-year-heritage to be members, are starting to gain acclaim, and are benefiting at home and overseas from the credentials and reputation of being Belgian.

This clearly riles the BFB, and this new campaign to enforce the ‘family tradition’ message may be the beginnings of a longer-term strategy to preserve their place among self-consciously ‘craft brewers’ in Belgium.

 

The pride in its achievements – and fear of being forgotten – motivating this organisation is a curious thing to observe and understand. BFBF members delight in reeling off the awards and history of one of their beers, but they clearly struggle to see how they fit into what is currently happening in the world of beer. If the BFB wants to convince the world that their version of Belgian brewing culture is primary, they must learn that traditions do not simply spring out of the ground. They are grown, and acting more inclusively towards newer brewers is an absolute must if they wish to be taken seriously, and if they wish for their traditions to survive, and thrive in the future.