Various beers produced by Belgian micro-brewery Brasserie de la Senne
Brussels - AFP
To understand why the world's biggest brewer, the Belgian giant AB InBev, is tying up with rival SAB Miller look no further than a modest craft brewery tucked away in a working class Brussels district.
Brasserie de la Senne was founded in 2003 and churns out only a fraction of the hundreds of beer brands owned by AB InBev, which is headquartered in the Flanders town of Louvain, 20 kilometres (14 miles) away.
People "eat, drink, consume local more and more. It's a major trend in Europe as well as in the US," said Brasserie de la Senne master brewer Bernard Leboucq as beer bottles clinked by on a conveyor belt.
Leboucq and partner Yvan de Baets are holding up a Belgian tradition that dates from the time of the Crusades. Fortunately for them, urban customers in the world's richest markets are seeking the quirkier, more home-grown libations like theirs.
"We are not scared of the big multinationals, the big brands, because it is the craft brewers like us who are eating away at their market share," said Bouckville, who employs a dozen workers that help him manufacture five distinct Belgian-style beers.
Artisan ales and lagers are a booming business in Belgium, where strong beer is one of the few traditions that bonds a divided country split between Dutch and French-speaking communities.
'Beer rediscovery' -
"Six or seven years ago, we were down to 120 breweries, now we are up to 168," said Jean-Louis van de Perre, head of the Belgian brewers association and a former top executive at AB InBev.
But there are probably more, with some brewers too small and local to be properly counted, the former executive said at his association's ornate boardroom with its view over the Grande Place in Brussels.
Craft beer "is above all a beer rediscovery, of its variety and of its sophistication," van de Perre said.
Beer drinking in Europe when measured by volume is declining, down by 8.5 percent since 2008, according to data from lobby Brewers of Europe.
But the number of actual breweries is sky-rocketing and the newcomers are almost all craft or micro-breweries like the Brasserie de la Senne.
Taken together, they have sucked market share from the big players, but even so, analysts say the giants are learning the lesson.
"Craft beer is having an impact on brewers as consumer's tastes change in mature markets such as in North America and Western Europe, but also in emerging markets such as China, as some consumers see craft as premium and look for products with greater character and taste," said Jeremy Cunnington, Senior Alcoholic Drinks Analyst at Euromonitor International.
- Monks in robes -
This is very much confirmed here in Brussels: Beer is to Belgium what wine is to France.
"In the 19th century, there were about 3,200 breweries and you would have been hard pressed to find a town or village that didn't have one or many," writes author Jean-Pierre Baronian in his just published dictionary of Belgian culture.
Throughout the Middle Ages making beer was highly regulated with local rules dictating recipes for making the town brew. Versions of these rules are still seen in Germany, where the definition of what makes beer remains rigidly regulated.
Belgians have a freer rein and supermarkets throughout the nation are stocked with options that can overwhelm beer novices.
For specialists, Belgium's best known beers are the Trappist beers, such as Chimay or Orval, brewed in holy seclusion by monks in robes.
But drinkers also turn to the cherry-flavoured Krieks or strong pale ales with enough alcoholic content to catch even the everyday drinker off guard.
"The craft brewers are part of that tradition, all while innovating," said van de Perre.
Brasserie de Senne, like the thousands of other craft brewers arriving in bars and pubs, "are an opportunity for the big multinationals. They've woken them up," he said.