At the end of 2020, Brussels will be another brewery richer. By then, if all goes to plan Olivier de Brauwere and Sébastien Morvan of Brussels Beer Project will have constructed their new 35,000 hectolitre brewhouse on the quays of the Brussels canal in, bring all their brewing in-house for the first time in their history. For a company which de Brauwere freely admits to being, so far, “not obsessed with brewing everything ourselves”, it’s a big step up.
It’s also another big move in the still-small world of Brussels brewing that continues to grow in fits and starts. And, after recent moves by Brasserie de la Sennne, En Stoemelings, No Science, and Nanobrasserie L’Ermitage, it confirms the return of Brussels’ canal district as the beating heart of brewing in the city.
The details announced this month by Brussels Beer Project set out plans for a brewery will house a brewhouse that can put out 35,000 hectolitres, or 10 million bottles, across thirty beers, accompanied by a beer garden adjacent to the main brewery building.
Since their launch in 2013, Brussels Beer project has outsourced the production of their “all-star” beers – Delta IPA, Grosse Bertha, Red my Lips, etc. – to a contract brewery in Limburg, Brouwerij Anders. With the opening of their Dansaertstraat taproom and brew kit in 2015, their monthly specials and experimental series of beers have been brewed by a team of in-house brewers. This way of doing things has now outlived its usefulness, for issues to do with capacity, production freedom, and financial considerations.
Bringing Brussels Beer Project's beers under one roof
They continue to be “extremely happy” with Anders, but they see bringing production in-house in Brussels as an opportunity for the kind of freedom that a contract situation does not give them. Freedom to continue to experiment on their Dansaert kit, while moving the pop-up beers and the all-stars to the new site in Anderlecht.
That will free up space to expand their embryonic barrel-aging programme, and to “go wild,” says de Brauwere. “Wild fermentation. It’s fine if everything is contaminated at the Dansaert site! But that’s not before 2021.”
Following international trends, they also want to get more of their beers into cans, still a relative rarity for Belgian breweries. They have experimented with using mobile canning systems to can Delta IPA in cans in February 2018, and will work with another contract brewery, The Brew Society in Kortrijk, to can a new beer this summer, before installing their own canning line in the new brewery.
Bringing in production in-house will also be good for the balance sheet, even if the budget set aside for the new brewery is just under €1.5m. “It’s a bigger risk, but it makes sense,” says de Brauwere. “More security on the supply, and even more freedom to control the quality of your beers.”
This risk is was what held them back two years ago, when offered a site on the other side of Brussels, in Neder-over-Hembeek. Now, they feel like they are on a more solid footing, “making some profits” according to de Brauwere, and better placed to make the move. So long as they hit their production and sales targets. “We don’t put any timeframes for reaching 35,000 [hectolitres]. If we reach 25,000 the project still makes sense. Somehow if we go below, it will be a disappointment.” A recent decision to start exporting to the US may help. after a three-year search for a distributor they were happy with. It will be keg-only for the foreseeable future, and only in three cities – New York, Chicago, and Nashville, Tennessee (a result of their attendance at the Craft Brewers Conference in May 2018).
Brussels beer scene shifting gears
In addition to their usual crowdfunding campaigns, bank financing and support from local government, staff have also expressed an interest in putting in equity into the company to fund the new venture. “We need to see how it adds up…the plan is to keep the vast majority of the equity with Seb and myself, plus the employees,” says De Brauwere.
Export aside, from 2020 there will be more Brussels Beer Project beers vying for shelf and tap space in Brussels. The market may already have shifted by then. Brasserie de la Senne’s own canalside brewery will be up and running, with a rumoured capacity of up to 25,000 hectolitres. L’Ermitage and En Stoemelings, both of whom moved into new breweries in 2017 should be fully bedded in, and both have plans to increase their capacity in the next couple of years.
There are likely to be new entrants on the market – breweries and beer firms alike. Even in a scene that has been reasonably collegiate as growth has taken off in the last five years – with some obvious exceptions - competition is sure to increase. De Brauwere accepts as much: “The market is changing so fast. We are clearly way higher than the expectations so far. It might be that in three or four years from now, there are much more breweries, people are getting bored, or people putting pressure on the bars to not sell any more craft breweries.”
Bringing breweries to Brussels' canal district - history repeats itself
While future market conditions may be uncertain, one thing that is clear today, is that Brussels’ canal district is now, again, the centre of brewing in the city. Every brewery bar two (Beerstorming and L’Annex) are now located in one of the communes straddling the canal. This is brewing history coming full circle. In the rapid industrialisation of Brussels in the 19th century, the canalside quays were dense with tanneries, works factories, and breweries - BelleVue, Bavaro-Belge, Grandes Brasseries Atlas, and more. The art deco brewing tower of Brasseries Atlas is a couple of minutes walk from the new brewery’s brownfield site, hiding behind a row of houses.
The city, and the company that runs Brussels Harbour, were instrumental in getting Brussels Beer Project to build in Anderlecht. “The harbour suggested a few sites,” says de Brauwere, “including one just in front of Brasserie de la Senne, which would have been fun!”. Together, they eventually settled on a patch of land at the Biestebroekdok, a rectangular basin on a bend in the canal where it veers of towards Charleroi 60 kilometres to the south.
This push from the city’s planners for breweries to locate close to the canal is part of a wider effort to rejuvenate a chronically deprived part of Brussels. Through a series of major real estate developments, their intention is to come residential developments with spaces for light industry - brewing, carpentry - that will bring back low-skilled, industrial work back into the city, providing opportunities for local workers. As part of the neighbourhood’s redevelopment, €100m is being pumped into infrastructure, social housing, and public amenities with a view to 4,000 new residents by the time the area’s master plan is completed.
Brussels Beer Project want these new residents to see their new brewery as a phare du canal, a lighthouse for these new residents. “People should be able to say, okay this tower is the brewery, which is also the epicentre of this new neighbourhood.”
No plans to turn Brussels Beer City into a Belgian Brewdog
Given the time that it takes for developments of these scale to progress in Brussels, there is caution in projecting how many visitors they will be able to attract. “I would be happy to welcome every day 1,000 people,” says de Brauwere, “but given the neighbourhood, we have to be realistic. I think challenge will be a little bit to attract people there…because I just don’t know how the neighbourhood will continue evolving.”
Brussels Beer Project will continue to evolve alongside its new surroundings. The building of the brewery will take up much of their time over the next three years, but de Brauwere is not ruling out opening another bar or two in the future, to add to their Paris and Tokyo venues, if the right opportunity arises. Their ambition is not to become a Belgian BrewDog - “a good source of inspiration...but a different business model” - but to expand the distribution of their beers in Belgium and the rest of Europe. And to “grow, fast.”