Global Politics

Why Some Belgians are Concerned About AB-InBev's Belgian Beer Cafes

We're not going to give you very long to guess today's Geo Quiz. Think Europe and think beer. In fact the country we're looking for thinks its beer is the best in the world. They believe this so strongly that they've bottled it, so to speak.

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Already this country has pushed its cherished libation heavily in Asia and the Middle East. Now its sights are on the American market.

The answer: No, not Germany. It's Belgium. It's a small country but it produces hundreds of different brands of beer, in all different styles.

And here in the United States especially, Belgian beer has gained a real reputation over the years.

A Belgian company is taking its cue from that fact and soon, don't be surprised to see something called "The Belgian Beer Cafe" opening in an American city near you!

But there's one hitch: Those Belgians who are so passionate about their beer? Well some of them aren't so keen on the idea. From Brussels, The World's Clark Boyd reports.
For beer aficionados, Belgium is a paradise. The small country produces hundreds of different brands of beer, in all different styles. In the United States especially, Belgian beer has gained a real reputation over the years.

Maybe that's why AB-InBev, the world's largest brewer, is greenlighting a plan to open ten "Belgian Beer Cafes" in the US in the coming years. AB-InBev makes a number of well-known beers, including Budweiser.

The Belgian Beer Cafe tries to recreate the look and feel of a 1920s Belgian beer cafe. Sitting in one, you are surrounded by dark wood, tile and old beer posters.

With, say, a Stella Artois in front of you, you can almost forget that you're in the Brussels Airport, not downtown Brussels. Stella Artois, of course, is another of AB-InBev's global brands.

The Belgian design firm Creneau International sold the industry giant on the Belgian Beer Cafe idea back in the late 1990s.

Since then, Creneau has overseen the building of dozens of Belgian beer cafes in Asia, the Middle East, and across Europe.

Erwin Himpens, Director of Franchising for Creneau, says Belgian beer is a unique product.

"We have something that you cannot find somewhere else. And that's something we have to export, we have to market," says Himpens.

"The Belgian brewers kind of think that if they produce good beer, it will sell itself. Obviously, that goes for Belgium and the neighboring countries. If you go father away, you have to do some publicity, some marketing to get your brands known."

Now, Creneau will bring the AB-InBev idea to North America.

Great news for beer lovers and Belgian brewers alike, right?
Best Friend, Worst Enemy

To find out, I go to visit the Brunehaut Brewery, not far from the Belgian city of Tournai. It's bottling day at the small brewery, which makes a number of different kinds of beer.

One, St. Martin's Ale, is from a recipe that dates back to the year 1096.

Marc-Antoine De Mees saved Brunehaut from bankruptcy in 2006. De Mees says 20 percent of his business is exports to the United States. He loves visiting the US, he says, because Americans appreciate good Belgian beer more than the Belgians themselves do.

But none of his beers are on the Belgian Beer Cafe menu.

"InBev is my best friend, and my worst enemy," De Mees tells me.

"Best friend because they have marketed Belgian beer, and the concept of Belgian beer worldwide, and Belgian beer is known because of that. So, they have opened the door. Now the problem is that they are becoming so big that they are destroying the image, a little bit, of a good Belgian beer."
Beers with Personality

Cafe Verschueren sits in a part of Brussels called St. Gilles, which is popular with artists. The cafe's Art deco look and feel really does date back to the 1920s.

I've come here to meet Yvan De Baets, co-author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers, and owner of the Brasserie de la Senne.

Sipping one of his brewery's own creations, De Baets, who proudly calls himself "200 percent Bruxellois," tells me that his grandfather used to come to Cafe Verschueren

He says he understands and supports In-Bev's Belgian Beer Cafe idea from a financial point of view, but not from a human one.

"You don't build create a Belgian beer cafe in five minutes," De Baets says. "It's generations of owners and customers that build the place, and then give a soul to it."

De Baets likens In-BEV's Belgian Beer Cafes to the "Irish pubs" that sprung up around the world in the 1990s. It's a gimmick, he says, it's kitsch, and he wonders how outdated they will look in a few years.

The beer menu, he notes, features well-known InBev heavy-hitters like Stella, Hoegaarden, and Leffe. It also has Westmalle, and Chimay, two beers still brewed by Trappist monks.

And while those beers are part of the Belgian brewing heritage, Da Baets says, he thinks the Belgian Beer Cafe could do better.

"It's beers in which all the angles have been rounded. There is no character, no real personality. I hope this is not the real image of Belgian beer," says De Baets.

"Don't get me wrong, those beers are important, because they belong to our beer culture, but for me it's not representative of what the real Belgian beer culture is of course: beers with a real personality, beers made by someone with something to say to his customer, not just 'I want your money.'"

Suffice to say Da Baets is a traditionalist when it comes to Belgian beers.

You'll be able to judge for yourself soon enough. America's first "Belgian Beer Cafe" is set to open at Newark Airport in a couple of months.

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