When is a Brussels beer not a Brussels beer?

Short answer: when it's brewed somewhere else.

Long answer: it's complicated

It is a simple enough assumption: that a beer with the name of a place would be made at that place. In Brussels, as elsewhere, reality is a little muddier. A new beer launched in June that puts Molenbeek at the centre of its branding raises issues of provenance and what it means to be a Brussels beer.

Molenbeek - under pressure

My curiosity was piqued a couple of weeks ago when I saw online news articles proclaiming a new beer from Molenbeek. “Molenbeek gets its own beer” said one. Odd, given that the commune already has its own beers, and its own brewery in fact – Brasserie de la Senne. The beer – “Molenbeek sous pression” is the product of an Italian entrepreneur living in Wallonia.

In an interview with Le Soir, Paolo Pellizzari says that the idea came to him as a way to counteract the stigma that has attached itself to the commune since the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels n 2015 and 2016. So far, so laudable. God knows the commune could use all the positive press it can take. In addition, it’s not his plan to sell the beer commercially, but to offer it for events and cultural activities.

I am not trying to impugn someone who clearly has good intentions. To his credit, he's not actively touting is as being made in Brussels. It his personal link to Molenbeek and the source of the beer that colour what is otherwise a good news story.  Pellizzari admits that he doesn’t really know Molenbeek, but that he likes to walk there and that it “fascinates” him. And the beer itself? Well, it is brewed at Brasserie de Marsinne, over 80km from Molenbeek. In mitigation, Pellizzari says that he approached breweries in Brussels to produce “Molenbeek sous pression”, but that he didn’t find what he was looking for. It’s a shame, and a missed opportunity. It could have been a nice farewell present from soon-to-depart Brasserie de la Senne, or a project to work with the local population to promote Molenbeek.

All the same, what does it matter where a “Brussels beer” is made?

Brussels and beer provenance is a long-running sore for some. Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de la Senne has been a vocal critic of so-called “beer firms”, that hitch their brand to Brussels. These companies do not brew themselves but can still call themselves breweries. They develop recipes that are brewed at someone else’s facility. For them, the link to Brussels is all marketing. For others like de la Senne, Brussels is central to the story that they tell about themselves. They don’t just happen to brew here; they wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. Which is important.

Brussels takes a lot of shit in Belgium, and it arouses strong emotions. In Flanders, it is often viewed as ungovernable, a crime-ridden haven for terrorists, with a venal political class and full of people who don’t look, think, or talk like you. Many of Brussels’ own inhabitants – read, eurocrats – portray the city as grey, dirty, provincial and a bureaucratic mess. The city’s complicated governance and unfriendly administration doesn’t help.

A growing pro-Brussels movement

And yet, there are many who live here that are committed to making the city better, who see integrating in Brussels as a badge of honour. They like its creativity, its diversity, and its energy. They are proud of the city, and want to champion its successes. Yes, these people are often middle class interlopers excited by Brussels’ exoticism. And, it is probably reflective of a wider towards localism, but this growing and active pro-Brussels identity can also been seen in the support for local businesses, bottom-up urban projects trying to make the city more liveable and fight back against the more damaging stereotypes of the city. The city’s breweries are just one more example of this.

In this light, it’s easy to see the appropriation of the Brussels brand for what it often is: the opportunism of speculators and entrepreneurs. That is why it matters whether Brussels beer are really beers made in Brussels.

Provenance – it’s complicated

“Molenbeek sous pression” is not the first beer marketed with a connection to Brussels. The provenance of most beers is simple. But not always.

The most egregious example of this trend is Brasserie de la Cambre. It is named after Abbaye de la Cambre in Brussels and a blonde and tripel are sold as “Brussels Abbey" beers. The brewery’s website leans heavily on the abbey and its links to Brussels. Except, there isn’t really any Brasserie de la Cambre, and it doesn’t brew beer anywhere near Brussels. They do pay royalties to the abbey, but the La Cambre beers are actually made in Flanders by contract brewery Brouwerij Anders.

A couple of years ago you could have bracketed Brussels Beer Project with La Cambre, as it’s the beers in its core range (Delta, Grosse Bertha, Red My Lips, etc.) are also contracted out to Brouwerij Anders! In Flanders. Now, however, they have their own presence with the microbrewery and taproom in the centre of Brussels. If you want one of their true Brussels beers, then best try one of their collaboration or experimental beers, made in their Dansaertstraat brewery.

Then there are breweries who themselves brew their own recipes someone else’s equipment – a vital difference to the beer firms – for capacity or equipment reasons, while committed to setting up their own brewery in Brussels. Brasserie de la Senne, at De Ranke (in between their very early years in Sint Pieters Leeuw and the opening of their brewery in Molenbeek), and Nanobrasserie de L’Ermitage at Brasserie de Bastogne until their own place in Anderlecht was operational in recent weeks, fall into this category.