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.
"You find yourself in front of the president of the European Commission or a group of parliamentarians that you realise when you’re speaking to them that you’re actually Mr Beer, you’re representing and defending the stuff, and it’s always a new experience.”
Brussels is not just a home to lambic, geuze, and a thriving contemporary beer culture. It is also the beating heart of European politics, a place where the continent's politicians and lobbyists descend to promote their interests on a myriad of issues. And, beer is no exception. On a sloping street at the edge of Brussels’ European quarter, in an office with brewery memorabilia all around the walls, Pierre-Olivier Bergeron is explaining the peculiar experience of being European beer’s point man in the city.
Bergeron is the Secretary General of the Brewers of Europe, even if he is from French wine country, and his father a Cognac distiller. When he’s not defending European beer in front of Brussels’ regulators and decision-makers, he’s in the final stages of preparations for the Brewers of Europe Forum, the organisation’s attempt to bring together the continents disparate brewing communities under one roof to debate the state of the sector and where it is going.
"A good moment for brewers to have a conversation"
As Bergeron puts it, there’s no better place than Brussels in 2018 to organise that kind of a get-together, not only to debate beer today, but also to think about how to secure its position in a fast-changing consumer marketplace. “It’s a good moment for different brewers to have a conversation,” says Bergeron, “and to realise what counts is defending the overall category.”
“The brewing sector has changed drastically over the past decade, over the past half-decade,” he says, segueing into a discussion about how Europe’s breweries – the industrial giants, the heritage and mid-sized breweries, and the new wave of “craft” micro- and nano-breweries – are adapting to a changing market. A market that, from the outside, looks like it is exploding across the continent as new players pile in, sensing a chance to make money on the back of a growing trend.
From 3,000 breweries to 8,500 in a decade
“You know, ten years ago whenever I would publish a stats report on the number of breweries across Europe, I would go as far as 3,000 maybe…In our current we refer to 8,500 breweries, a definite underestimate.”
What about those mid-sized, heritage breweries? They can’t all sell out to a larger competitor, or pack their portfolios with smaller craft producers. “They probably struggle a bit, but the ones I’ve been able to meet are smart, they’ve a passion for their beer. That family kind of continuation is part of their DNA. Some of them really look at this as an opportunity to go for another kind of generation of initiatives.” Some will focus on growing niches like non- or low-alcohol beers, others on launching their own so-called craft line of beers, and yet more will take advantage of growing opportunities to export their beer.
"Beer's hoppy era is fading away"
But, not all trends. “I think that it’s always difficult to define trends because they may change extremely rapidly,” says Bergeron. “My personal sense is that, what I call the hoppy era, is fading away, because at some point it’s the consumer that decides whether the product is drinkable or not.
“Not everything that is currently on the market is that palatable.”
Ultimately, Bergeron’s view of the market in 2018, seventeen years into his stint at the head of the Brewers of Europe, is that the trends that are convulsing European brewing right now mean that there is still a place for everyone, so long as they continue to constantly ask themselves where they fit into the new brewing landscape and its constantly changing trends and outlook.
Part of the remit of the Brewers of Europe, and by extension the Forum in Brussels, is to help guide its membership through these changes, as well as working for a positive climate for Europe’s breweries.
Representing 29 different brewing cultures in Brussels
The organisation Bergeron heads is the umbrella association for 29 of Europe’s national brewers’ association, headquartered to fight the corner of European beer against, and with, the regulators that see Bergeron as ‘Mr Beer’. And, however difficult the issue he may be discussing with them, the welcome is usually friendly, says Bergeron: “Beer means something to people. Everybody has a connection.”
And, Brussels being Brussels, there will always something that calls him to the European Parliament or the European Commission – from excise duties, to EU’s interminable budget negotiations, or making sure that beer has the same exposure in the EU’s trade promotion efforts as the likes of wine and cheese: “Some stakeholders within the institutions start realising, ‘Why would beer not benefit from that?’ But, it’s going to take a bit of time before people realise that beer deserves to be subsidised to a certain extent, and that smaller players could benefit from that a little bit more.”
"A role for Brewers of Europe to fill a gap in the market"
Back to the Forum. Bergeron and the Brewers of Europe are betting big that it will be the first of many, something which fills a gap in the European market, which one day could rival events like the Craft Brewers Conference in the US for scale and impact (whoever much Bergeron demurs at comparisons between the “different landscapes” of beer worlds old and new).
“Europe is the cradle of modern beer. We as brewers and the representatives of brewers probably underestimate this very much,” says Bergeron. “We thought there was a role for a regional organisation such as Brewers of Europe to fill the gap. So, that was the starting point. One starting point.
“It’s a good progamme,” he says, adding that they have worked hard to get all levels of European brewing involved, from the global giants of AB InBev, to the microbreweries at the centre of Europe’s local beer revival. “One of our key objectives was, ‘Let’s put in the same room the (Carlos) Britos and the nanos’.
“And, we can do that, yes we can.”
The Brewers of Europe Forum takes place in Brussels on June 7-8, at the Square Meeting Centre. Registration remains open, and details about confirmed speakers are available at: brewersforum.eu