Disclaimer: Brussels Beer City is a media partner of the Brewers of Europe Forum. As a part of this, it will receive complementary ticket to enter the forum.
“[To] connect the European brewing scene and try to put a counterweight against the Americans. To shout out the message to the world: Europe is the cradle of beer!” That, according to Luc de Raedemaeker, founder of the Brussels Beer Challenge and now one of the organisers of the inaugural Brewers of Europe Forum, taking place in Brussels in June this year.
A European Craft Brewers Conference
De Raedemaeker has teamed up with the Brewers of Europe - the lobby group that represents the brewing industry in Brussels - and the European Brewery Convention to organise the forum, which they are pitching as a first-of-its-kind event in Europe dedicated to beer and brewing. The organisers take as their reference point the Craft Brewers Conference (CBC), the annual week-long event organised in the USA by the Brewers Association that brings together brewers from all over the world: “The Americans are saying American craft beer is the best beer in the world,” says De Raedemaeker, “and you're creating market share in the rest of the world, and you’re doing it very aggressively.”
On the other hand, de Raedemaeker thinks that the European scene is too fragmented, too inward-looking, and as a result too weak to counter the hard sell of the Americans. His hope is that the forum will bring the disparate European markets together “to reunite the brewers… to speak with one voice to the world.”
Educating against the dangers of "bad beer"
The forum takes place in Brussels over two days in early June, across three streams: a conference on the state and future of the industry, covering issues around regulation, brewing science and technical aspects, marketing, and food pairings; a social programme, the “fun part”; and a trade show, which will help to pay for the forum and host exhibitors predominantly from Europe. After Brussels, the forum will travel on to Antwerp in 2019, the plan is for the event to be hosted in a different Europe city in subsequent years.
The main added value for brewers, from de Raedemaeker perspective, is educational. There will be sessions for those getting started and ‘lay people’, through to more technical workshops, and on to niche sessions about recent scientific developments and research, “not for the common people”.
"If you’re just in it for the money, forget it. You won’t last long."
Given the influx of new actors into Belgian beer in recent years, education and training is essential if this new gold rush is not to damage the brand value of Belgian beer: “If the brewers brew a bad beer, and it says ‘Belgian beer’ on the label, and you have the consumer thinking, ‘oh, that’s the famous Belgian beer?’ You will be disappointed, and you will never try another brand.”
Is he worried that an influx of bad beer will burst the nascent bubble in Belgian brewing? “I am sure, like, the good guys, if you have good beers you will survive,” says de Raedemaeker. “It’s not going to burst, it’s like a balloon, it's going to fizzle out, and then it’s going to normalise… Everybody tries to pick a piece of the cake. Some people are in it for good reasons, some are in just for the money. If you’re just in it for the money, forget it. You won’t last long.”
Learning from the wine industry
He likens it to the collapse in the Bordeaux wine market in the late 1990s. Then, fears over quality and the emergence of new competitors contributed to tanking demand in wine from the region. And export markets, long a key growth outlet, will not always be there to prop up underperforming breweries. In New York four years ago de Raedemaeker was presented with the choice of a Saison Dupont, oxidised and past its best, or a locally produced saison for half the price. “The local saison was good,” he says. “Okay, a fresh Dupont is twice as good. But…export from Belgian beer to the States is declining, because the guys in the States are saying, ‘our own beer is better, or at least fresher’. And it’s less expensive.” Which is where the push for education and technical improvement behind the forum comes in, providing the skills needed for brewers to adapt to changing markets.
Like any Belgian, de Raedemaeker traces his affinity for beer back to his childhood - “My father was a geuze lover. Since I was six, seven, I took a nip from his glass”. He packed in a job with Alcatel ten years ago and eventually set up Becomev – the company he still runs with his friend Thomas Costenoble, and through which he has branched out into consultancy, magazines, books, and now the Forum. Of all his disparate projects, de Raedemaeker is probably most associated with the annual Brussels Beer Challenge beer competition, and its Dutch and French sister competitions.
"European beer is the best"
Was there ever the thought to again emulate the Craft Brewers Conference, which hosts the World Beer Cup awards ceremony every other year, and move the Brussels Beer Challenge to the same week as the forum? “I don’t know if it is going to be a good idea,” says de Raedemaeker, who is protective of his biggest brand and is mindful of the politics that come with working together with the Brewers of Europe, and the disparate interests that they represent. “We don’t want to mix up everything for the moment, but never say never.”
Despite his misgivings that the brewing bubble may burst, his decade in the industry has left him bullish about the prospects for beer on the continent. “European beer is the best,” he says, name-checking the usual heritage brewing countries as well as emerging beer scenes. “All of the new countries – like Italy, like The Netherlands, Scandinavia. And then you have like Eastern Europe that’s popping back. Italians are making great beer because they have win. Scandinavians are experimenting with old grain varieties.
“In Iceland they are putting like the dick of a whale in it.”
A workshop topic for a future forum perhaps?
The Brewers of Europe Forum takes place in Brussels on June 7-8, at the Square Meeting Centre. Registration is open now, and details about confirmed speakers are available at: brewersforum.eu