Brussels Beer City - charting a city's beer revival

Brussels Beer City is a blog about Brussels and its beer culture. This is not an industry blog. Nor is it a beer review site. There are other, better websites if that is what you are looking for. That is not to say that I will not cover developments in Brussels’ brewing industry, or discuss and rate beers from breweries in Brussels. What it does mean is that I want to write about the city’s broader relationship with beer and brewing – its breweries, its bars, and its cultural, historical, and urban legacy.

Brussels beer city – the revival

Beer in Brussels right now is having a moment. It has become, as my Flemish family say to me all the time, “een hype”. And it is true; beer is “a hype” in Belgium, but particularly for Brussels. You can barely move at the movement for all the new beer-focused bars and restaurants, the new bottle shops, and the bonanza of new beer festivals in the city. And, of course, the return of brewing to Brussels as a commercial endeavour. In just over a decade, city has gone from having one working brewery – Cantillon – to at least seven either brewing here, or based here and contract brewing outside of the city. I say at least seven, because there are undoubtedly hobbyists and tiny breweries out there still working under the radar.

Brussels is a long way from its brewing heyday, but it looks to finally be recovering it reputation as a city not only where good beer is available, but also where good beer is made. For all the talk of Lambic, Geuze, and Cantillon, brewing at the crest of Brussels’ peak as a centre of European brewing was dominated by Pils and other lager beers. The household names of Brussels brewing of the 20th century are now largely consigned to history (Ekla, Leopold, Elberg) but their legacy lives on in the dominance that pils still exerts on the Belgian beer market, and in their architectural endowment to the city.

Brussels beer city – the new primitives

This emerging generation of brewers are, for now, primitives working in the rubble of a disappeared culture. But, they are following a different course to their predecessors, as independent and artisanal brewing in Brussels shadows the trends in beer elsewhere in Europe and in the US.

This resurgent interest in beer and brewing has come hand-in-hand with a new generation of bars and bar owners proselytising for independent and artisanal beers, eager to buy into – and promote – localism and “good beer”. Two actors stand out as among the key drivers of this beer revival – Brasserie de la Senne, and Jean Hummler of Moeder Lambic. The former were the first in decades to set up a brewery in Brussels, making the deliberate decision to set up their brewery here, and not somewhere else, somewhere easier but less emotionally resonant.

A Brussels beer mile?

Hummler, through his takeover and expansion of Moeder Lambic from Sint Gillis to the centre of town, is a passionate and uncompromising advocate of good, interesting – and independent – beer. Just listen to his interview with Belgian Smaak. He demonstrated that there was an alternative to the tourist-driven bars serving the Belgian classics and little else. I’m sure he wasn’t the first, but whatever the confluence of events and cultural change in Brussels, many have followed.

This flowering of beer interest has been concentrated in the newly hip and resurgent neighbourhoods in the city – Ixelles and Saint Gilles – but is now spreading slowly throughout the rest of the city. Laken is soon to get its own, scaled-down version of the Bermondsey Beer Mile when Brasserie de la Senne relocate to the Tour et Taxis site, next to new breweries No Science and En Stoemelings. Cantillon will no longer be the only brewery located in Anderlecht now that L’Ermitage have recently started brewing just around the corner. Only the north and northeast of the city – Schaarbeek being the exception – remains immune. New beer festivals, blogs, and beer concepts have added to the momentum behind good beer in the city. And Brussels Beer City is just one more on the bandwagon.

Brussels beer city – who is behind it?

Having lived in Brussels now for eight years, I have tried and failed to write about Brussels before, but found that it was too large a canvas for me to really dig into what I am interested in. Ever since I started a course in Brussels to become a qualified “zythologue”, or beer sommelier, last year I’ve thought about combining these two passions into one blog. This serves two purposes: allowing me to put some newly developed skills to good use, and freeing me to channel my interest in Brussels into a more manageable niche.

I want to approach the subject in ways that interest me – and maybe only me, who knows? Like, how is it that Brussels became home to Europe’s then-largest and most modern brewers of lager beers? Where did all of its breweries go? What is the difference between an estaminet and a café? How does Brussels’ brewing history impact and influence today’s generation of brewers and bar owners? Does it even? What is driving the contemporary beer scene in Brussels? How do Brussels’ many immigrant communities fit into this narrative?

Taking part in the beer sommelier course has meant that I have discovered a whole genre of beer writing, history and criticism I had previously only been vaguely aware of. This blog is my modest contribution to this. Please be gentle. I am only new to this.