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Belgium has already pushed its cherished libation heavily in Asia and the Middle East.
Now its sights are set on the American market. It’s a small country but it produces hundreds of different brands of beer, in all different styles.
Here in the United States, Belgian beer has gained a real reputation.
A Belgian company hopes to capitalize on that by opening several iterations of “The Belgian Beer Cafe” in American cities.
But there’s a hitch: Those Belgians who are so passionate about their beer, some aren’t so keen on the idea.
Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, is greenlighting a plan to open ten “Belgian Beer Cafes” in the U.S. over the next few years. AB-InBev makes a number of well-known beers, including Budweiser and Stella Artois.
The Belgian Beer Cafe tries to recreate the look and feel of a 1920s Belgian beer cafe. Sitting in one, you are surrounded by dark wood, tile and old beer posters.
The Belgian design firm Creneau International sold the industry giant on the Belgian Beer Cafe idea back in the late 1990s.
Since then, Creneau has overseen the building of dozens of Belgian beer cafes in Asia, the Middle East and across Europe.
Erwin Himpens, Director of Franchising for Creneau, said Belgian beer is a unique product.
“We have something that you cannot find somewhere else. And that’s something we have to export, we have to market,” Himpens said. “The Belgian brewers kind of think that if they produce good beer, it will sell itself. Obviously, that goes for Belgium and the neighboring countries. If you go father away, you have to do some publicity.”
Now, Creneau will bring the idea to North America.
At the Brunehaut Brewery, not far from the Belgian city of Tournai, it’s bottling day. The small brewery makes many different kinds of beer.
One, St. Martin’s Ale, is from a recipe that dates back to the year 1096.
Marc-Antoine De Mees saved Brunehaut from bankruptcy in 2006. De Mees said 20 percent of his business is exports to the United States. He loves visiting the U.S., he said, because Americans appreciate good Belgian beer more than the Belgians themselves do.
But none of his beers are on the Belgian Beer Cafe menu.
“InBev is my best friend, and my worst enemy,” De Mees said. “Best friend because they have marketed Belgian beer, and the concept of Belgian beer worldwide, and Belgian beer is known because of that. So, they have opened the door. Now the problem is that they are becoming so big that they are destroying the image, a little bit, of a good Belgian beer.”
Yvan De Baets is the co-author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers. He also owns the Brasserie de la Senne.
Sipping one of his brewery’s own creations, De Baets, who proudly calls himself “200 percent Bruxellois,” said he understands and supports InBev’s Belgian Beer Cafe idea from a financial point of view, but not from a human one.
“You don’t create a Belgian beer cafe in five minutes,” De Baets said. “It’s generations of owners and customers that build the place, and then give a soul to it.”
De Baets compared InBev’s Belgian Beer Cafes to the “Irish pubs” that sprung up around the world in the 1990s. It’s a gimmick, he said, and he wondered how outdated they will look in a few years.
The beer menu, he noted, features well-known InBev heavy-hitters like Stella, Hoegaarden, and Leffe. It also has Westmalle, and Chimay, two beers still brewed by Trappist monks.
And while those beers are part of the Belgian brewing heritage, Da Baets said, he thinks the Belgian Beer Cafe could do better.
“It’s beers in which all the angles have been rounded. There is no character, no real personality. I hope this is not the real image of Belgian beer,” De Baets said. “Don’t get me wrong, those beers are important, because they belong to our beer culture, but for me it’s not representative of what the real Belgian beer culture is of course: beers with a real personality, beers made by someone with something to say to his customer, not just ‘I want your money.’”
America’s first “Belgian Beer Cafe” is set to open at Newark Airport in a couple of months.
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