INGELMUNSTER - The inhabitants of West Flanders are known as entrepreneurs. The region around Kortrijk is considered to be the ‘Texas of Belgium’. Exaggerated? Read the story of Castle Brewery Van Honsebrouck and you will be convinced of the entrepreneurial spirit people here are born with.
CEO Xavier Van Honsebrouck also has it in spades. Xavier dares to dream and he pulls up his sleeves to realise his dreams, just like his father Luc before him.
Plenty of action
Xavier is telling me his life story over a glass of Passchendaele (for him) and a Gueuze Fond Tradition (for your humble servant). We’re having this chat at the bar of the brewery’s tasting room. Xavier kicks off: “At the age of eighteen I started a marketing course in Kortrijk. My Dad would have preferred to keep me close to home (laughs).
But I didn’t want to spend my time with my nose in a book; I wanted to go out into the world with my friends, re-invent the world and above all, plenty of action!”
Xavier’s studies came to an untimely end. He bade farewell to the school and departed for Düsseldorf to take up a traineeship with the Gatzweiler brewery. “Over there I was a jack-of-all-trades.
Up at four in the morning every day, sanding down wooden barrels, doing all sorts of odd jobs. We were filling wooden barrels of two or three hundred litres. Over there they pour directly from the barrel into small lemonade glasses”.
In Düsseldorf the young Xavier discovered the Germans’ great love for their local Altbier. Also, how important tradition and experience are when it comes to beer. The traineeship was followed by the obligatory military service in Cologne and Bonn.
Service completed, Xavier returned to Ingelmunster. There was no well-defined job waiting for him and he clashed quite regularly with his father Luc.
Off the beaten track
It was not long before Xavier exchanged Ingelmunster for Heineken France. He worked for the Pelforth Brewery in Northern France when it doubled its capacity without disrupting production. Xavier: “I learnt to appreciate the importance of safety. In those days, France was ahead of us in that respect. The Head of Safety was at the same level as the CEO, it was a shared responsibility”.
After a few months he received a proposal from Paris HQ. Did he fancy overseeing the introduction of specialty beers for Heineken France?
This request did not fall on deaf ears. Xavier took on responsibility for building the range of specialty beers throughout France and for promoting them. He was to stay there for two-and-a-half years. Xavier: “It was a brilliant time.
I developed a plan for the 130 sales representatives. They were the pioneering years. I enjoyed a lot of freedom and huge responsibility and learnt a lot”.
Father Luc did not fail to notice that Xavier enjoyed living in the City of Light. One fine day he asked his son whether he saw his future in Paris or in Ingelmunster. Twenty-two years ago Xavier opted for the family brewery.
Quality as a selling point
Initially he focused on the development of the hotel, café and restaurant trade, with around a hundred cafés owned by the brewery in West Flanders and the Ghent area. He then started refreshing the assortment step by step. Xavier: “I was a rookie and had to prove myself withexperienced brewery reps. They asked themselves what ‘sonny boy’ was planning”.
Xavier’s management style was businesslike, based on firm objectives (targets) coupled with bonuses and more bonuses. The sales representatives came on board quite quickly when they saw that their efforts were rewarded.
In the meantime, Tripel, Rouge and Blond were added to the Kasteel range and the St-Louis premium fruit beers were launched.
In addition to the standard beers, the brewery now also offers niche beers such as the Cuvée du Château and the wood-matured Trignac. “Quality is our selling point.
Once a month we meet with yeast expert Filip Delvaux to conduct technical analysis and blind tasting”, Xavier emphasises.
No ordinary beers
In 2008 Xavier was promoted to Vice-Manager. He has been CEO since 2010. Xavier has an unshakeable belief in the future of niche beers. “The consumer has changed. Take people in their teens and twenties, for example. They have a genuine interest in beer. But they want to make their own discoveries, taste new beers.
On their travels they are always told that Belgian beers are up there with the best. On their return their expectations are high. We want to surprise them, make beer special for them, offer new experiences, turn them into true brand ambassadors”.
The brewer is looking beyond the borders of his own country. Notably the American craft brewers are a source of inspiration. On top of offering their standard range, the micro brewers are offering a ‘beer of the month’.
There’s always something new to discover with them. The American micro brewers are leaving the well-trodden paths and are fighting prejudices.
“The days where existing beer styles were copied are well and truly gone. Once you have mastered a particular beer style you can start experimenting and develop your own style. And take it from me, they are very good at this in America”. He convinces me with a glass of Allegash White, fragrant with American aroma hops.
Between the trenches
The market for Belgian pils beers is shrinking all the time. The quality of the pils is going down as well: often brewed too quickly, not frothy enough, badly poured… Van Honsebrouck wants to take pils back to a higher level. His idea: to produce a tasty, hoppy, quaffable, blond high fermentation pilsner. Impossible, the experts said.
I still wanted to give it a go, Xavier responds. The journey ended up taking thirteen months. Finding a suitable yeast was far from easy. And when the beer was finally ready it still has to be given a name that resounds internationally. “I found my inspiration in the First World War”, Xavier explains.
“The Battle of Passchendaele near Zonnebeke never fails to stir the imagination. Over one hundred days, half a million soldiers lost their lives”. Xavier got in touch with the Passchendaele Foundation, responsible for the maintenance of the war cemetery and monument. The idea immediately fell on fertile ground.
“They like the fact that this is far more than a marketing ploy. Our co-operation is grounded in mutual respect. The poppy logo says it all: respect, remembrance, revival”. Part of the proceeds flow back into the Foundation. The Passchendaele beer (5.2% ABV) is now available in British pint-sized bottles. Passchendaele is brewed with Belgian hops grown where the war front used to be.
Like father, like son
Entrepreneurial blood flows through the Van Honsebrouck veins. Xavier is keen to innovate. Copying has no added value for him. “We should be able to come up with something better”. These thoughts undoubtedly went through father Luc’s head when, in 1953, he made his first steps into the small family brewery. Annual production in those days barely reached 6000hl.
Luc made a conscious decision to start producing specialty beers as there was no future in pils beers for small market players. In 1954 he introduced Bacchus, a West-Vlaams oudbruin beer.
Geuze was to follow later. But how do you transplant the wild yeasts from the valley of the Zenne to Ingelmunster, one hundred kilometres away? Luc Van Honsebrouck purchased lambiek wort from Van Halen Frères in Ukkel. The wort with the micro flora already present was transferred to the cooling basin and arrived in Ingelmunster one day later.
There, the wort from the Zenne Valley was pumped into the foeders used for maturing the Bacchus and mixed with wort brewed by the brewery itself. Luc transplanted the yeast culture from one foeder to the next and was thus able to produce, with a relatively small amount of wort, enough lambiek for his own geuze and kriek.
Building a castle
The essential micro flora – the wild yeasts – did not take long to arrive, as within the brewery a micro biotope had developed through the long-term presence of the Van Halen wort. Consequently there were sufficient wild yeasts to start off the fermentation of the wort.
The St-Louis gueuze and kriek grew into strong competitors for market leader Belle-Vue. The battle was fought out on the football field. The Anderlecht shirt sponsor was Belle-Vue whereas Club Brugge wore the St-Louis logo.
The match between Anderlecht and Club Brugge acquired the sobriquet ‘the duel between the gueuze brewers’. When Club won the championship, the city of Bruges was in danger of running out of St-Louis…
The range of specialty beers was later complemented with Brigand, Kasteelbier, Geuze Fond de Tradition and Trignac. Luc can look back on an interesting and successful career.
“I built an obscure village brewery into a large company and I am very proud of that”. How do you achieve that? “By working hard during the day and dreaming of it at night”. Xavier will undoubtedly agree.