The Session #129 - A Plea for a Brussels Pils

The Session, a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday, is an opportunity once a month for beer bloggers from around the world to get together and write from their own unique perspective on a single topic. This month it is being hosted here, at Brussels Beer City, under the theme "Missing local beer styles".

It is a muggy late summer evening in Brussels and I have just hauled my body and my bike up and down the hilly streets to meet a friend at Place Ferdnand Coq. It’s hot, I’m sweating, and panting for a drink. Perfect conditions for a thirst-quenching and uncomplicated pils.

I settle into my seat with a draught glass of Redor Pils from Brasserie Dupont, contemplating my lot, and the lot of pils in Brussels. This is a beer style (or at least a family of beers made using bottom-fermenting yeasts at low temperatures) that defined brewing in Brussels for half a century, but has since vanished along with the breweries that made it. As brewing undergoes a revival in the city, it is time for the new generation of Brussels breweries to do justice to the city’s beer history, and brew it anew.

Brussels is a pils town

Pils and other bottom-fermented beers are not native to Brussels. Nor do they share the ties of tradition and romanticism that bind Brussels and Lambic beer so closely. It is true as well that the turn towards “German-style” beers foreshadowed the eventual decline and disappearance of industrial brewing in Brussels. But, it is not blasphemy to say that Brussels is just as much a pils town as it is a Geuze town. The only difference is, Brussels pils has not had its proselytisers and pilgrimages from abroad to keep it alive despite its rich history.

Bottom-fermented and lager beers have a long history in Brussels, their emergence and rise to dominance coinciding with the modernisation and industrialisation of brewing in Brussels. Imported beer from Central Europe had a major impact on brewing in Brussels and Belgium from the mid-19th century, as brewery owners sought to replicate the styles from Munich and Bohemia, bringing in brewers, knowledge and equipment from the region.

Brewing in Brussels, medals in Munich

The first pils proper to be brewed in Belgium is considered to be Cristal Pils in 1928, but Brussels breweries were already aping these foreign styles from the second half of the 1800s onwards. Grande Brasserie de Koekelberg launched in 1887 with three beers – a Munich, a blended beer called Petit Baviere, and the Bock de Koekelberg. The brewery was originally founded under the full name of “Brasserie de bieres allemands de Koekelberg” and by 1899 they were winning medals at a Munich beer exposition for their “Munich-Hahnenbrau”. Bock (“crystal clear and frothy”), Munich (“darker but less alcoholic”) and Pils (“a crystal clear beer with a promising future”) formed the basis of their output. Five years after its founding, Grande Brasserie de Koekelberg was producing 50.000 hectolitres of beer a year. To put that in context, Paul Cantillon opened his eponymous lambic blendery in an Anderlecht back street in 1900, and only started brewing their own lambic in 1937.

Shifting from tradition to modernity

Two breweries were emblematic of a shift away from the beer types traditionally made in the city towards foreign styles. They had originally started brewing lambic and faro in the centre of Brussels, eventually moving out to Molenbeek and Vorst. Each had their flagship bottom-fermenting beer and huge brewery complexes that dominated their neighbourhoods – Brasserie Vandenheuvel and Ekla Pils, and Brasserie Wielemans-Ceuppens and Wiel’s Pils.

Vandenheuvel moved to Molenbeek in 1920 and erected a series of buildings to house their brewing and bottling facilities, building the brewery out into one of the largest producers in Belgium. Sven Gatz, current Flemish Minister for Culture, remembers the impact of the brewery on the neighbourhood of his youth: “…my life as a toddler in Molenbeek was very sweet. Every afternoon from school to home, a few streets away. The sweet, malty smell from Brouwerij Vandenheuvel, on the corner of the Ninoofsesteenweg and the Vandepeereboomstraat, hung in the air and my mother made Macaroni with brown sugar. More wasn’t really needed.”

The sweet, malty smell from Brouwerij Vandenheuvel, on the corner of the Ninoofsesteenweg and the Vandepeereboomstraat, hung in the air and my mother made Macaroni with brown sugar. More wasn’t really needed
— Sven Gatz

Vorst - home to the largest brewing hall in Europe

In their search for a competitive edge, Wielemans went straight to the source and hired themselves a brewer direct from the heartlands of lager beer – brewmaster Johannes Bottzer from Wurtzburg. By 1930 they had built what was then the largest brewing hall in Europe, in a landmark art deco brewery complex. Wielemans would eventually reach a peak production of 500,000 hectolitres a year by the 1970s, a brewery empire built on the back of pils. 

Many brewers in Brussels shifted production away from spontaneous fermentation to pils and bock beers, or abandoning Geuze and Lambic altogether. These breweries migrated out of the centre of Brussels, taking advantage of cheap land, space to expand, access to rail and road connections, and national advertising to establish themselves and their flagship pils beers – Brasserie Leopold and Three Star, Grandes Brasseries Atlas and Atlas Pils, Caulier and Perle 28.

Bock is Boss

By the 1920s, bottom-fermenting beers were coming to dominate drinking in the city.  So much so that a visitor to the city wrote of his experience of trying to drink something other than a bock beer in the local bars: “I went to another café ‘bien Bruxellois’ after drinking my bock, and there again they did not have faro, there again I drank a bock…there was no faro for the good reason that faro is on the way to disappearing. The brewers who still make it stand out: they call it a speciality.”

There again I drank a bock…there was no faro for the good reason that faro is on the way to disappearing. The brewers who still make it stand out: they call it a speciality.
— Visitor to Brussels, 1920s

Why were these beers so popular? The popularity of pils brewers mirrored the development of Tripels and Belgian Pale Ales, as Belgian drinkers tastes moved towards sparklingly clear beers with a fine head of foam. Marin Vandenborre, technical director at Wielemans Ceuppens, put the popularity of Wiel's Pils down to the down to the quality of the raw materials: “Good malt, the choice of temperatures when brewing, the addition of hop multiple times with the final hopping a quarter of an hour before the end of the boil, with fine aroma hops, giving the beer less bitterness but more of an aroma. A cold and slow fermentation, with a long maturation time (seven weeks). The choice of the yeast strain.”

Expo 58 - the apogee of the Brussels pils

The age of the Brussels pils reached its apogee in the 1950s, exemplified by the Universal Exposition of 1958 – the defining event of early post-war Brussels, one that irreversibly warped the fabric of the city and pushed forward these brands as the champions of a modern, confident Belgium. The star beer of the expo was Vandenheuvel’s Ekla Pils, under the slogan “at the Atomium, drink a good Ekla”. That was as good as it got for pils in Brussels.

At the Atomium, drink a good Ekla
— Vandenheuvel advert, 1958

Mergers piled up on takeovers as the city’s breweries consolidated in search of financial safety and growth. In 1966, Brasserie Vandenheuvel bought out Koekelberg, which was already an agglomeration of now-defunct breweries. Vandenheuvel in their turn were taken over by British brewery Watney's in 1968.

Watney's revenge

Then, in the mid-1970s, it all came to an end. Watney's decision to favour Maes over its Brussels breweries at one fell swoop ended the production of Ekla, Bock de Bruxelles, Pils. Wielemans managed to survive in Vorst into the next decade, until they were taken over by Artois in 1979 (subsequently Interbrew and AB Inbev) and the brewery was eventually shuttered in 1988.

There was a short-lived but ultimately doomed effort to bring back a beer called Ekla Pils in 2003, in a brewpub in Ukkel. But since then, nothing. No brewery in the city produces a bottom-fermenting beer. Hoppy pale ales and IPAs? Sure. Cigar-infused mild ale? If that is your thing. But a Pilsener, Vienna lager or Munich Helles? Move along now.

A new outbreak of pils fever

True, these kinds of beer are expensive to brew and are merciless in revealing faults in the brewing process. Is the opposition ideological? Pils in Belgium is the purview of “big brewing”, a declining market which churns out 8 million hectolitres every year. Maybe pils just a foreign body, a virus that infected brewing in the city, fever that burned hard and so overwhelmed its host that it ultimately caused its death and destruction.

The last glass of Wiel’s was brewed in the old Wielemans brewery on Avenue Van Volxem in Vorst on September 29 1988.  Surely the 30th anniversary of the death of pils in Brussels is reason enough for a new outbreak of pils fever in Brussels?