In the small Belgian town of Hoegaarden the windows of stores and offices are decked out with posters that say in Flemish “Hoegaarden Brews Hoegaarden.” The town is about to lose its brewery and the citizens are deeply angered by the decision to close a plant that revived the “white” spiced wheat beers of the Brabant region.
The Hoegaarden brewery, owned by InBev, the world’s biggest brewer, is not closing due to lack of success. On the contrary, it brews one million hectoliters a year. The closure is part of a drive by giant global brewers to concentrate production at a handful of mega sites.
The closure of Hoegaarden has important cultural and political undertones as well. In a country with a deep language divide, the production of Hoegaarden White will be transferred from a Flemish-speaking area to a French one near Liege 70 miles away. When the people of the town declare that “Hoegaarden Brews Hoegaarden,” they are making more than just a demand to keep their brewery and the jobs that go with it: they are attacking the insensitivity of InBev.
Pierre Celis, the founder of the brewery, lives a few minutes’ walk from the plant. Now aged 81, Pierre is remarkably cheerful and is planning new brewing activity in the United States. But the smile fades as he contemplates the loss of the brewery and all it means to his hometown.
The Brabant region, with its rich, dark soil, is ideal for growing barley, wheat and other cereals. Beer has been brewed there for centuries and the distinctive character of the local beers was underscored by the exotic plants and fruits brought back to the “Low Countries”—now Belgium and the
Memory of Whiteness
Hoegaarden in the 19th century had some 30 breweries producing white beer. But in the 20th century, the breweries began to decline and close, unable to compete with the new, heavily promoted pils-style lagers made by such companies as Stella Artois in nearby Leuven.
The last white beer brewery in Hoegaarden pulled down the shutters in the 1950s. Pierre Celis had done some part-time work there as a schoolboy. In the 1960s, friends encouraged him to attempt to make some white beer at his home. The beer was well received and Pierre decided to brew commercially and moved into a derelict factory in the town.
Hoegaarden White became a cult beer. Pierre was soon supplying the whole of Belgium, the Netherlands, France and eventually Britain. By the 1980s he was producing around 300,000 hectoliters a year but his success came to an abrupt stop when the brewery was destroyed by fire.
The banks refused to help Pierre. He turned to Stella Artois and the company agreed to help fund the rebuilding of the brewery in return for 46% of the shares. Things started to go wrong when the Leuven company merged with the Piedboeuf brewery near Liege and formed Interbrew (now InBev). Pierre says the group was dominated by bankers, not brewers, and they put enormous pressure on him to produce his beer more cheaply.
Pierre retired at 65 and sold his shares to Interbrew. He moved with his family to Austin, Texas, where he brewed Celis White before selling to Miller.
He has been asked to help start a new brewery in Hoegaarden but he has declined. He thinks the odds are against success: “InBev will kill you,” he says.
But he is still a brewer at heart. This summer he will launch Brussels Grand Cru, brewed by the Real Ale Brewery in Blanco, Texas. Blanco means white in Spanish. Will InBev get the joke?
No Longer Young
The shock news from London is that Young’s, the iconic brewer of cask-conditioned beer, is closing its site and moving out of the capital. It will join forces with the large regional brewer, Charles Wells of Bedford, to form Wells & Young’s.
Young’s had to leave the current site, where it has been brewing since 1831, as a result of redevelopment of the area. Its legion of supporters will be disappointed it was unable to find an alternative location in London. The reaction of Young’s drinkers when the Bedford-brewed beers hit London pubs in the fall will be awaited with keen anticipation.