Bruges brewery supercharges operations for new age

Summary

With its underground beer pipeline, new Tokyo restaurant and US expansion plans, De Halve Maan might be the last brewery standing in the historic centre of Bruges, but it’s no slave to the past

Innovation meets tradition

De Halve Maan prides itself on being the last brewery in Bruges’ historic city centre. When I ask Annelies Geneyn, who manages the daily operations, for the secret to its continued existence, she quickly responds: “Innovation, of course, but also respect for the family tradition.”

Founded in 1856 by Leon Maes, who was better known as Henri I, De Halve Maan was the first brewery in Bruges to produce English-style ales, as far back as the 1870s, and it revolutionised the local market when it began delivering beer to private homes using diesel trucks in the 1950s.

Faced with increased competition from supermarkets, the brewery gradually switched focus and was outfitted as a restaurant and a museum. By 2002, it even stopped producing beer altogether.

But the standstill didn’t feel right for one of the family’s youngest members. “Xavier Vanneste – Henri I’s great-great-great-grandson – became convinced that Bruges couldn’t part with its brewing tradition so easily,” says Geneyn. So in 2005, Vanneste, just 25 at the time, refurbished the brewing equipment, and production resumed.

Today, under Vanneste’s stewardship, De Halve Maan is one of the fastest-growing breweries in West Flanders, with an annual growth of 15 to 20%. It brews only two beers – Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik. But, while the former comes in two varieties – blonde and double – the latter has no less than four, including an oaked, aged Quadrupel and a fruity Tripel refermented with wild yeasts.

This year, the Bruges Zot Dubbel won the Strong Beer category at the UK’s International Brewing Awards, while last month it pulled down no less than five medals at the Australian International Beer Awards in Melbourne and was named the Best International Brewer.

Now in Tokyo

Henri IV, Vanneste’s grandfather, created Straffe Hendrik in 1981. “During his time, De Halve Maan established itself as the city’s main brewery,” Geneyn explains. “With Straffe Hendrik, Henri IV wanted to honour the namesakes who ran the brewery before him.”

While we hope to reach new and larger markets, we want to continue brewing in Bruges

- Annelies Geneyn

Brugse Zot, meanwhile, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The fruity but spicy ale quickly established itself as the city’s most popular beer and is the main sponsor of the annual Dwars door Brugge city run. The brand now makes up more than 60% of De Halve Maan’s 4-million litre annual production.

Even as Belgians consume less and less beer every year, the brewery continues to see rising demand for its products. “That’s no small thanks to successful ventures abroad,” says Geneyn.

In 2014, De Halve Maan opened a Brugse Zot-themed restaurant in Tokyo, and it’s currently seeking partners in North America. “One-third of our production now goes to export,” Geneyn says. “And while we hope to reach new and larger markets, we want to continue brewing in Bruges.”

And that means investments in more efficient machinery. “Because we’re located in a Unesco-protected city, we can’t move beyond the confines of our brewery,” she explains. “So we have to be creative with the space we already have.”

Underground beer maze

So when it installed four new brewing vats last year, instead of expanding into the adjacent buildings, the brewery took a vertical approach. The first step was to empty the museum, which was housed in the cellar, and move all the memorabilia to the attic. The construction crew then cut out holes in the floor above the basement and managed to fit the brewing tanks inside.

The new equipment can produce up to 10 million litres of beer annually, but “it will be a long time before we reach that limit,” Geneyn says. “And by then, we will have come up with another solution.”

Every morning at 6.00, tanker trucks arrive at the brewery to transport the beer to a bottling plant in the industrial district of Waggelwater, about three kilometres away. But the daily routine – which some residents in Bruges complained produces too much noise and damages the cobblestone streets – will soon end.

Last year, De Halve Maan announced plans to construct an underground pipeline that will connect the brewery to the bottling plant. Capable of carrying more than 6,000 litres of beer every hour, it will be the first of its kind in Belgium and only the second in Europe. “We are now looking for the best possible route,” Geneyn says, “and we will begin construction later this year.”

In the meantime, 2015 has already proven to be a defining year in the brewery’s history. In January, Henri IV – who first began working at De Halve Maan in the 1950s – passed away at the age of 89.

“Although he retired many years ago, he would still come for lunch every day,” says Geneyn. “When we were installing the new brewing vats last year, he was so proud, he insisted on overseeing the entire process. His death was a great loss to all of us – to the family and to the staff.”

Photo: A winning entry in the 2014 Straffe Artists competition, which had fans submitting artworks featuring one of De Halve Maan’s brews
©Courtesy De Halve Maan

Belgian beer

Belgium has a beer-brewing tradition going back centuries and is known around the world for both its beer culture and hundreds of craft brews.
History - Beer culture has been recognised by Unesco as part of Flanders’ Intangible Cultural Heritage. The local beer culture dates to the middle ages, when farmers brewed their own beer from the rich harvests of local grain, later transferring brewing to local guilds and abbeys.
Beer styles - The main styles include lambics, white beers, fruit beers, Trappists and abbey beers. The Trappist beer Westvleteren 12, brewed by a dozen monks in a small West Flanders town, is regularly rated by various sources as the best beer in the world.
Exports - Sixty percent of the Belgian beer production is exported abroad, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US the largest markets.
74

Litres of beer annually consumed per person in Belgium

100

breweries in Flanders

19

million hectolitres of beer produced in Belgium in 2012