Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Belgium's Worst. Inquire Now About Franchising!

"EXPERIENCE THE WIDE VARIETY OF BELGIAN BEERS," trumpets the headline atop the beer selection on the Belgian Beer Café's website. It would be a joke, if it were funny.

Maybe you've heard the news that Belgium-based Anheuser-Busch InBev aims to open a chain of 60 or so Belgian Beer Cafés in the United States, besides 55 already open in other countries. If there is any justice in this world, this cynical attempt to profit on Belgian beer's ever-growing cachet in America will fail spectacularly.

Oh, go on and defend it if you want. Go ahead and say that bringing the Trappist ales Westmalle and Chimay to more people who may never have tasted them can't be all bad. To that I would say: OK, but did you see the other 40-odd beers on the sample list? They are a better primer than I could have written myself on the over-sweetened, over-spiced, over-boozed or otherwise just plain insipid direction of most Belgian "special beer" makers. Twist my arm and I might start naming names.

"Special beer," by the way, is Belgium's phrase for "not lager." It has nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the leftover scraps of yet another pils-loving national market. But why be content with scraps when you can sell your sweetened concoctions to much larger markets abroad, add a charming accent to your sales pitch, some stemmed glassware, and a bit of snob appeal? When we are talking about markets in North America and Asia and beyond, the scale becomes immense. He with the biggest production capacity wins, period.

When the Belgian Brewers Guild, a.k.a. the "Beer Paradise" Marketing Campaign Inc., puts on costumes every year and anoints certain people Knights of the Mashstaff, they are usually honoring folks who have helped promote "special beer" exports. In many cases, those exports are said to be the only thing keeping some of these "smaller" breweries alive. A closer look reveals a couple of things: Some of those breweries are not so small, in the Belgian scheme of things. Others should have had the plug pulled on them long ago, but for Americans curious about Belgian beers in general and often enticed by anything with high alcohol and an exotic name.

If only that beer list were just plain old mainstream. If they were just 60 Stella Artois bars I wouldn't have raised an eyebrow. But it's worse than mainstream. That beer selection features some of Belgium's sweetest cough syrups and parades them as "local beers." Essentially A-B InBev has partnered with just a few of Belgium's not-so-small breweries to ensure that the beer list provides a wide range of colors--all of this from a shameless caricature of Belgian culture and atmosphere replicated 100 times over. It's a cookie-cutter for industrial speculoos.

I suspect that most beer aficionados will see through it. It's everyone else I worry about, those hapless folks excited about trying Belgian beer for the first time, because they've heard so much about it. Will Mommy pull the trigger on a Floris Mango? Will wine-loving Dad order a Belle Vue "Gueuze" after reading something about lambic in the New York Times? No doubt much Kwak will be sold on the merits of the glassware alone.

My main fear, I suppose, is that clumsy A-B InBev is going to capitalize on Belgian beer's reputation and flush it rapidly down the toilet. You think my fear is exaggerated? If this thing really takes off, let's take the temperature in a few years and see if Belgian beer is as "cool" as it used to be.

The Belgian thing would be to laugh this off. So why do I feel like weeping?


  1. Not only will I laugh it off, but I'll be cautiously optimistic. First of all, it's capitalism (monopolism?). Whattayagonnado? But there could be benefits in the long run. Kinda like what Starbucks did for the American coffee culture. The zillions of independent coffee shops most likely wouldn't exist if it weren't for Starbucks. They got people interested in the many coffee options and got people used to willingly signing over their paychecks for something that should cost under a buck. Maybe, just maybe, these bars will do something similar for the average Joe (haha) beer drinker. The bars will make more accessible what these guys and galls only heard about. First they get a little taste of it, then they start seeking out the rarer stuff and before you know it, they're making pilgrimages to Belgium and becoming regulars at the ZBF.

  2. I see your point, but to me, whatever can take people away from the usual stuff they drink (and I mean a brand of pale lager) it's only positive. Chances are that it'll open their minds a bit and will motivate them to explore a bit further.

  3. Hey, there is obviously truth in what you guys say. But it ignores some of the possible consequences on the ground.

    I should start with a frightening confession: My first Belgian beer was a cloyingly sweet Belle-Vue Kriek when I was 21 years old, visiting Europe for the first time and staying at the Sleep Well hostel in Brussels. At the time I thought it was the greatest thing ever -- until I tried another beer. So you have a point.

    There are two things that worry me here. The first is that A-B InBev and these "Beer Paradise" syrup factories like Van Honsebrouck and Huyghe are getting a bigger toehold not just in the U.S. but internationally in emerging markets. There is a lot of money to be made, and up-and-coming brewers who want to survive and thrive can see that. Inevitably, many are going to be told by importers to make the same sort of nonsense. Give the people what they want, thus the cycle of gimmickry perpetuates itself. That is not a new trend; it's just one that continues to disturb.

    The second thing is that the U.S. already offers ample opportunities to "take people away from the usual stuff." There are loads of micros everywhere these days... certainly anywhere one of these "Belgian Beer Cafés" is bound to appear. There are ample opportunities to drink locally made quality instead overpriced, overspiced Belgian cack. For my part, I don't think a variety of higher-alcohol colors and flavors is any better than a technically decent pale lager.

    Now: If the franchisees of the Cafés have a free hand to bring in other beers than what we see on that list... to connect with serious importers like Shelton Brothers or Vanberg & DeWulf, stock some Cantillons or some Duponts... Then I would shut my big fat mouth.

    Until then, we've got to stop giving bad Belgian beers a free pass just because they're Belgian.

  4. I think that the Cafés will be a success. You mentioned many reasons for that in your post...and life and the world are not fair. I think that the Cafés will not only pleasure the US beer drinker but also the average Belgian beer drinker! Last week I was in Belgium and while I had a wonderful Oak Aged Embrasse from Brouwerij De Dochter van de Korenaar, almost all the Belgians that were inside the Café were drinking pale lager. A guy next to me started to talk with me about Belgian beer, and he mentioned Stella, Leffe and said that his favorite was Brugse Zot. All of these are in the menu of the AB Inbev Café. Surely if my fellow Belgian is in the US and find the AB Inbev Café he would feel at home.

  5. Oh Joe, Say it ain't so. We have been through the spectacular collapse of Belgo at the hands of Applebee's and now this. How can this even be legal given us beer regulations? Some very special abasements at Canossa must be in the works. Can we talk Wendy

  6. Hi Wendy, the legality issues hadn't occurred to me. I don't know the history on Belgo's U.S. (ad)venture, but could it be that distributors are providing a greater selection than 12 years ago? In other words, maybe one of these cafés could open up in any big city and reasonably expect to stock most or all of those beers the usual way. Sort of the like the Dogfish Head Alehouses in northern Virginia... IIRC, Dogfish sells the beer to a local distributor and the Dogfish pub has to buy it back at a higher price. Or maybe those are officially separate companies?

  7. Also should add that the owner of the Belgian Beer Café concept in the U.S. is Creneau International, which bought the license from AB InBev, which still owns it everywhere else in the world. So, apparently, separate companies. No doubt they hope to avoid any issues with three-tier laws.

    And this news has generated quite a bit of discussion at BeerAdvocate and elsewhere, positive and negative, either way it's probably more free publicity than they deserve.

  8. For what it's worth, in Australia the individual bars seem to have some say in what they serve, and a couple of them are going pretty hard at the good stuff.

    I was at one in Melbourne last weekend and they had Saison Dupont Dry-hopping magnums, Boon Oude Kriek, Arabier and a few others. Far from the best range in town, but not too bad.

    Of course most aren't like that, and none of them are places that are particularly inviting to drink. They mostly fill up with corporate types (probably because of the prices!) and the decor is to Belgium what dodgy Irish pubs are to Ireland.


  9. I was approached by them a couple years back in Brussels but something about my reaction when faced with the Stellas, Leffes Hoegaardens, Deliriums & finger down the throat Floris may have taken them aback slightly. That said, the beer list does include around 20 beers that range from the acceptable through the very good to the St-Feuillien Grand Cru which is stunning, like a cross between Duvel & Westmalle Tripel that takes on the best aspects of both. Unfortunately the concept depends on keeping the crap beer to the fore.

  10. I feel what you mean. I am from Brussels, but now I own a (try as much to be as close as possible "Typical Belgian Bistro" with a almost full Belgian Menu) in an Asian capital...Not easy. When the most popular question I am asked is "When is Happy Hour?" but not what we have. We just been open a year now, I try to offer "Good Belgian beers" as of today we can only offer 18 beers, and none from In-bev. Sadly due to the huge liquor import taxes I have difficulty getting more beers. Getting the beers that I want. Yet alone the local market would not really go for it. Cantillon or De Struise at what price? more than a some wines, people would laugh. I would end up drinking them, but at the end its business. I have on my beer list a few very sweet fruity beers that I would not drink, I think some ice tea is better, but they are top seller here, so I will keep selling them even if I personally prefer a Cantillon or Boon. Its almost impossible for my to have like 40-50 beers, I am not a corporation, I am small and its just a familly run business. At the end of the month we need to pay the rent and bills. My dream would be to "offer" more "good Belgian beers" but at this time its almost impossible. BTW, I am still the only bistro in that city that does not offer any Carlsberg (Because I fight not to have it). I will keep fighting, but its not easy. I need to make sales to buy beers, any Belgian beers at this time.