BRUSSELS - Open Sesame. I disappear through the archway of the imposing 'Brouwershuis', one of the architectural pearls of the Grand Marché in Brussels. This prestigious location – the Brewers’ House in English - is home to the Federation of Belgian Brewers, or in short, the Belgian Brewers.
I have come to see its Managing Director, Sven Gatz. In a previous life he was a politician and worked for the Department of Social Services; now he looks after the interests of the brewing industry in Belgium.
A balancing act
“Can you do this job without having a passion for beer?” I ask him straight off. “I certainly wouldn’t be able to,” he responds. “I cannot imagine having the same passion for a similar job in the wood, plastic or concrete industries. Beer is a product with a soul. It evokes many connotations, most of them positive, luckily for us.”
Unsurprisingly, Burgundian Sven is often to be found brewing and cooking away from the office and he likes to elaborate on beer pairing, one of his favourite subjects. He feels it is important to visit breweries and, where possible, to be present when a brewery has an open day or inaugurates a new brewing hall. But what, exactly, does his job entail?
“First and foremost, we provide services to our members. This is the task of the Secretariat,” he says. “My job is to defend the interests of the brewing sector and work with politicians at various levels.
They want to address certain issues in society and rightly so. Together we try to reach an acceptable compromise. And just to make it clear: we are not striving to sell more beer to fewer people in a shrinking beer market. What we would like, however, is for more people to enjoy our product responsibly. By the way, we are convinced that modest beer consumption fits into a healthy lifestyle.”
Beer is a multi-faceted drink. In your local café or after an exercise session it is a thirst-quencher, but it is also a drink to savour slowly, with or without a meal. And therefore there is a beer to fit any moment. “On the one hand, there is the emotional vibe centering on Belgium as a beer country and where possible our own unique beer culture” Sven explains.
“We recently submitted a proposal to UNESCO to have our beer culture included in the listing of intangible aspects of World Heritage.
Also, the 'Biertempel' (Beer Temple), which will open its doors in 2018 in the former Brussels stock exchange, fits this cultural perception perfectly. But we are also looking at an important part of our economy. In our country the beer industry is the largest investor in foodstuffs.
Last but not least, the brewing trade does not shirk its social responsibilities. As an example, we are promoting the BOB campaign, or ‘bobbing’. [BOB stands for 'Bewust Onbeschonken Bestuurder' which means something like designated driver]. Before going out you must appoint a designated driver who will remain sober throughout the evening and often people take turns in being ‘BOB’. All of these elements come together in my role. I’m forever lobbying but I am also an ambassador for the beer sector.
I was involved inthe development of the “Fier op ons bier” [“Proud of our beer”] campaign that aims to make Belgians proud of their liquid heritage.” Sven Gatz is pleased to be able to promote a product that he can support wholeheartedly as well as contributing to measures that have a real impact on society.
Brewer tries, drinker decides
The brewing sector has been expanding recently thanks to growing exports. Also, brewers in Belgium are making huge investments to expand their capacity, which benefits local employment in no small measures. The beer landscape is forever changing, not just in Belgium but around the world.
“There are two unique aspects to our country,” Sven says. “On the one hand, there is “a great diversity” and on the other hand, our traditions are found nowhere else in the world.
“Admittedly, the beer scene is just as diverse in the USA and our neighbouring country Germany also has a rich tradition. However, there is no other country that combines these two strengths in the way that Belgium does. We need to pay attention to tradition as well as innovation.
For example, you can refresh your design while remaining true to an original recipe or beer style. Or you could leave the beaten track and introduce an entirely new beer or beer style. In this respect, we are lagging behind the Americans but have a head start on the Germans. After all, that fits in with our national character.”
Belgian Beer World
The Belgian beer world has great variety. There are large market players as well as those of medium size and plenty of small and very small brewers. This diversity has to be preserved, although the laws of economics apply to beer as well as to any other business. “The brewer knows his trade, but he is a trader as well,” Sven argues. “The image of a brewer is often that of an artisan, but you cannot escape market forces.”
A current heated topic of discussion is whether beer firms who outsource their production should have to inform the consumer.
Sven Gatz tones down the debate. “We are not even talking about 1% of total production. Moreover, consumers aren’t bothered. They just want a good beer and are less worried about who produces it. Let the market play itself out,” is his advice.
“A bad product will receive its comeuppance sooner or later.” There is nothing new under the sun. Brewers have been using a variety of business models for many years. They go for high volume production or try to establish themselves as players in one or more niches. But the proof of the beer is in the drinking, as Sven Gatz knows only too well.
As Managing Director of the Belgian Brewers he wants to be the conductor for this brewers’ choir of many voices - the big pils makers should be balanced by the new sounds of the micro brewers.
A Ministry of Beer?
“In no way are we a Ministry of Beer,” Sven laughs. “But we do act as a catalyst. It is important, for example, that we promote trends in beer pairing by encouraging top chefs to use beer as part of their gastronomic efforts. But when it comes to this, it is really down to the brewers, the restaurant trade and the distributors to make it happen. And it has to have the backing of the consumer.”
Glasses proudly bearing the slogan “Fier op ons bier” are now being distributed to Belgian embassies and government agencies. “You can only use them to serve beer during an official reception,” Sven says with a wink.
Another initiative is the promotion of unbranded, smaller glasses to consumers having a beer with their meal. In this way Belgian Brewers aims to give an impetus to blind tasting so customers will discover tastes that they are not familiar with.
“Belgian beer culture is multi-faceted and comes with many layers,” Sven Gatz concludes. “There are any number of stake holders: brewers, pub landlords, chefs, zythologues, beer professors, collectors, beer museum owners… Our aim is to point all these different noses in the same direction as much as we can; to unite rather than divide.”
One final note; our congratulations to Sven Gatz, who, before midnight on July 24th 2014, was announced as the new Flemish Minister of Brussels, Media, Culture and Youth. He has stepped down from his position at the Federation of Belgian Brewers. Thank you for your great service to Belgian Beer Sven and best of luck in your new role from all of us at BeerTourism.com and the Belgian Beer Company bvba.