In a city that boasts more than its fair share of grandiose buildings, the former Brussels Stock Exchange still stands out as a lavish, neo-renaissance masterpiece.
Now, the Bourse de Bruxelles has a new purpose after it reopened this week as Belgian Beer World, a celebration of one of the country’s most emblematic products.
Belgian Beer World is billed as a visitor experience more than a museum, showcasing the diversity of the country’s brews, from pils and blondes to lambics, fruit beers, red sours and abbey beers.
Local authorities spent four years and €90m (£77m) restoring the building to its former splendour, including cleaning the bas-reliefs by Rodin on the façades.
But the homage to the national drink opens at a tricky moment for brewers. Beer drinking is falling across Europe amid health concerns and tighter regulation. In Belgium, overall consumption was 6.9 million hectolitres in 2022, down from 8.7 million in 2009 and 12 million in 1990.
This is partly down to a general decline in alcohol consumption in the West, but also reflects how beer, or at least cheaper lager, no longer appeals as much as it used to, especially for younger drinkers.
That is the case in Brussels. At the Belga Café, a popular haunt, Tom Coremans, 22, an IT specialist sipping a geuze beer, a speciality lambic, says he never drinks lagers or pils. “I’m not interested in drinking the mass-produced factory beers. I like to savour my beers,” he says.
He’s echoed by Ilu Otelier, a 19-year-old student, with a glass of water. “I used to drink basic beers like Jupiler and Stella, but now it’s more speciality beers or spirits,” he says. At the same table, Juliet van Avermaet, also 19, says she has never drunk beer. “I never liked the taste, so I just go for gin or other stronger alcohols.”
Krishan Maudgal, the director of the Belgian Brewers Federation, recognises that the market is changing. “As consumers become more mature, it’s clear that we won’t go back to the volume like 20 or 30 years ago,” he says, adding that value is now replacing volume as a driver of the market, with the relative growth of premium beer types.
“Drinking Belgian beer has now become more of an experience to appreciate the heritage, the craftsmanship and the diversity of Belgian beers.”
Belgian Beer World, Mr Maudgal says, is not about bingeing. “The aim is not to stimulate consumption, but to promote beer,” he says. “We say in Belgium, we consume wisely: we discover tastes, flavours and aromas that you find nowhere else.”
Belgium’s 430 brewers produce 1,600 beers, exporting 1.6 billion litres in 2022, with three per cent of that heading to Britain. But beer is more than just an economic driver for Belgium. It is deeply rooted in the country’s identity. In 2016, Belgian beer culture was added to Unesco’s cultural heritage list, reflecting the tradition and diversity of the art of brewing.
Belgian brewers are responding to concerns about health implications and binge drinking by moving to improve labelling on bottles and cans, promoting responsible drinking, and pioneering Europe’s “Bob” campaign for designated drivers.
This includes developing low and no-alcohol beer. Once derided as pallid substitutes, these beers are almost indistinguishable in taste to their alcoholic versions, in part thanks to new distilling techniques. An EU report last year found that the market for low and no-alcohol beer in 2021 was worth €7bn – its share of the entire beer market coming in at around eight per cent in terms of volume.
Arthur Ries, co-founder of Brussels microbrewery Beerstorming, insists that many niche brewers have benefited from the changes in habits. “Now, instead of drinking five glasses of a mass product like Jupiler, people will now drink three of say, ours. People are more aware of the factors – they drink less, but they drink better,” he says. “Brewers like ours are also making no and low-alcoholic beers: we always said that alcohol itself is not the point of beer.”
Others are even more phlegmatic. “Obviously, I’d like lots of people to drink beer, but I recognise that alcohol can be unhealthy,” says Bernard Leboucq, co-founder of Brasserie de la Senne, says. “What else can I say? It’s more about spirituality and love. But there is still a strong market for beers like ours, beers of quality and distinction.”
Expectations for Belgian Beer World are high, with officials aiming for 360,000 visitors in the first year: it is expected to become a vital part of the Brussels tourist experience, just a stone’s throw from the Grand Place and the Manneken Pis statue.
“We are also aiming for an audience that is not so much interested in beer but wants to experience this Belgian story. Of course, beer lovers will also come, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be the largest group,” says Sven Gatz, Brussels minister of finance, who helped drive the project.
“In Belgium, we have the habit of not taking ourselves too seriously. But in beer culture and beer, we are the best in the world.”