Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Belgian Beer Cafés, Faux and Real. And Other News and Congratulations.

A long post today. Lots of meat to it, though.

Go here to read or hear The World's radio report on the AB InBev/Creneau International plan to extend an international chain of faux-Belgian beer cafés to the U.S.

Some disclosure may be in order: Clark Boyd contacted me and I pointed him in Yvan's direction. My initial rant is here if you're interested. I still find the sample beer list depressing, weighted with saccharine and fakery, but the most common reaction from beer lovers seems to be "Hey, at least they have Westmalle." Given, more drinking options are always welcome, and these establishments may yet have the freedom and good taste to stock better beers... real lambics, for example. However, I won't hold my breath.

Regarding The World's report: I like the written version, and not just because it plugs our book. It's also because there is an insightful comment there, down below, from a Mr. Barney M. who says he managed a Belgian Beer Café in Australia. There were "over 4000 people through the venue on a busy Friday or Sunday, an average of 8000 litres of draught beer per week," he says. He also says that the plan is not just to expand the concept to the United States but to China as well.

Mentioning China and seeing those numbers puts things in a bit of perspective. This café chain is a very effective and efficient vehicle for exporting AB InBev beer -- lots of it. Why rely on independent specialist shops and pubs, who might or might not like your beers, when you can just open a bunch of your own? (In the U.S. there are legal reasons why you cannot, but I guess they aim to get around them with the design firm, Creneau, in charge. AB InBev, meanwhile, holds the license to the "concept." Whether one can really own the concept of the Belgian beer café is an interesting question, but it's worked for them so far.)

Barney M.'s take on the American venture:

So, a Regular Joe walk’s into a bar, a Belgian the U.S......what does s/he get? What’s the experience? Well, its going to be a formula fit out, dark wooden panels, trinkets from a bygone era, mussel pots on the menu, vis en frites, well groomed staff in full-bodied bib aprons, well-versed in the ‘authenticity’ and ‘superiority’ of Belgian Beer. What’s incredibly ironic is that one of the most historically important beer countries in the universe will be selling beer to THE most avant garde beer country currently in existence! Belgian beers are great....Orval is in my top three. But the entry of the Belgian Beer Cafe concept into the U.S.A. is a waste of time. There are already so many great bars offering not only awesome U.S. craft beers but great beers from Belgium, Germany and the U.K. on a regular basis.
Finally: How cool is it to see Café Verschueren in an international news report? It's the perfect counterpoint.

Some Brussels news, with a lot more to come in the near future: I had reported that the very bruxellois Warm Water café in the Marolles may yet be rescued by new owners. It's safe to say that has happened, although the name has changed. Zabo specializes in simple breakfast and lunch -- tartines, soups, terrines and quiches -- with an organic bent. New owner Isabelle tells me that she currently stocks Zinnebir and Taras Boulba and aims to add several more next month. Let's all pay her a visit and help demonstrate that it's a wise business move on her part.

Last but not least: Congratulations to Don Feinberg and Wendy Littlefield of Vanberg and DeWulf for 30 years of importing Belgian beers. It would be difficult to overstate the influence they've had on the Belgian and American beer scenes. For those less familiar with their history, it might be epitomized in the (true) story that's become mythology for Belgophiles: It was Don Feinberg who, on the suggestion of Michael Jackson, visited Tourpes and learned that Saison Dupont was possibly on the verge of extinction. He insisted on importing her despite the brewery recommending he take big sister Moinette instead. See? A Cinderella story.

Given the pleasure that Saison Dupont in particular has given me, and many of you, over the years, Feinberg and Littlefield deserve our deep thanks. (Last night, tots in bed, on a cool and wet night in central Costa Rica, I joined the coast-to-coast toast with a glass of Dupont-inspired homebrew.)

Pictured: The line that once separated smoking from non-smoking at the Verschueren. It went across the tables, floor, wall, ceiling, windows and back round again. I assume that the place is non-smoking now, but I also assume the line is still there.


  1. AB Inbev's Belgian Beer Cafe concept is a crock of shit. I agree it is more or less an attempt to control a distribution channel for their mediocre portfolio of "Belgian" beers. Earlier this year I did a US cross country tour visiting craft breweries and notable beer bars everywhere. We spent a day and half in Toronto, Canada and ended up at a Belgian beer cafe/restaurant called Biermarkt. The beer list was long but not all that special. They had all AB Inbev's and then some others. The waitress heavily pushed a Belgian pale lager on us by the name of Jupiler, which she claimed only they had. It was bland, nothing special, and it was heavily advertised throughout the cafe. Honestly, after drinking that crap and having a Delirum Tremens I decided to stick to local and I drank repeated pints of Beau's All Natural Lug Tread Lagered Ale, which was actually quite good.
    The prices on the drinks and the food seemed way too high, and I found myself spending well over $100 in a matter of 2 hrs on a handful of beers for me and some friends and two plates of poutines. A couple days before this I had been in Chicago and ventured to Goose Island's Pub on Clybourn only to get pissed because prices had gone up 25-30% since the acquisition. I started having flashbacks and wondering if AB Inbev owned Biermarkt too. Then I noticed the "Jupiler" umbrella on the patio where we were sitting with the letters "InBev" on it. That was enough evidence for me that even if AB InBev did not have an ownership interest in this restaurant, the two were at least naked in bed together, and i wouldn't be venturing back anytime soon.
    Hopefully the launching of the concept in the US won't cloud too much consumers' opinion of what is good beer, especially good Belgian beer.

  2. If InBev does to Belgian beer bars what they've done to beers then their 'mass produced' approach won't go over. Beer geeks will see through them. The un-educated won't want to pay for overpriced Bud. As it is, they'll probably just stock it with their own labels and one or two toss-ins such as a trappist. No selection at all.