Flanders gets its first beer museum, finally

Summary

Two Bruges friends passionate about beer recently opened a museum devoted to locals’ favourite beverage, the first one in the country

No text anywhere

The most surprising thing about the new Bruges Beer Museum is that it’s the first of its kind in Belgium. How is it possible that a country with such a rich beer culture and a worldwide reputation for brewing didn’t have a museum dedicated to its most beloved beverage?

That’s the question that prompted Thibault Bekaert to start his museum, together with business partner and long-time friend Emmanuel Maertens.

Bekaert was visiting Prague when he came across not just one, but two, beer museums in the Czech capital. “So I was thinking: ‘Is there a beer museum in Belgium?’ I didn’t even know,” he recounts. “I started Googling it in Prague, when we were at a pub having a beer. I saw that there were a lot of places you can visit, mostly breweries. But they always tell the same story. It’s always the history of that brewery, and they explain how they make their beer.”

The Bruges Beer Museum, by contrast, aims to tell the complete beer story – from its earliest history to its modern role in gastronomy, from the local breweries of Bruges to beer production worldwide, from the brewing process to the best way to taste and appreciate it.

Oddly enough, there is no text to be found anywhere in the museum. Instead, visitors receive an iPad mini and a set of headphones. “The museum is based on a technology called augmented reality,” explains Lars Pillen, operations manager. “You aim the iPad at an object in the museum; they’re all scannable. And then you have three options on the screen: I want to read something, I want to see something, or I want to hear something. For instance, I’ll choose read, and then I get the story behind the item over there. It’s the same story, either spoken or written.”

At the moment, the scannable pictures and objects have QR codes, but as of January, a new system will replace the codes with a combination of image-recognition software and proximity beacons to access the information.

Because all information is accessed via the iPad, the museum is able to offer many language options. “There’s a very diverse international public in Bruges,” says Bekaert. “So we wanted everything to be in 10 languages to start with. Other languages will follow next year. The idea is that for somebody who speaks only, say, Russian – the moment he clicks on ‘Russian’, the whole tour is in Russian.”

A hot topic

The museum is divided over three levels. The ground floor, a bright space with floating wall panels and stylish graphics, covers the history of beer and beer culture. 

Traditionally, beer was always brewed by women, never by men

- Museum founder Thibault Bekaert

The range of topics addressed here is wide and includes beer and gastronomy, beer and cheese pairing and beer across the world. “For example, if you’re from Italy, what’s the history of beer in Italy?” Bekaert explains. “Then there’s the different beer styles: What’s an ale? What’s a porter? So not only the Belgian styles.”

Another theme is women and beer. “That’s a really hot topic right now,” says Bekaert. “Traditionally, beer was always brewed by women, never by men. So that’s a nice story to tell.”

The upper level, installed in the renovated attic of the building, has a completely different look. Four immense wooden mash tuns – brewing devices that combine crushed malts with hot water – custom built on-site, dominate the room. A doorway is cut into the wall of each tun, and inside are scannable images related to the ingredients of beer, the brewing process, the four kinds of fermentation and beer tasting.

Around the edges of the room, old brewing implements and wooden casks create a more traditional museum-like atmosphere.

An attractive mural painted on the back wall is devoted to the Trappists. “We have all 10 Trappist beers painted by some young artists here in Bruges,” says Pillen. “All the abbeys and their beers are painted and scannable, so you can learn about the beer and also about the abbey.”

Beer exclusives

For kids, there’s a separate story about the Bruges bear, written by Bruges-born author Peter Verhelst and illustrated by cartoonist Stédo. Scannable pictures are placed at children’s height throughout the museum so that kids can read or listen to the story while their parents are occupied with the beer-related content.

The tour ends in the tasting room, a large cafe with windows overlooking the city’s Markt. Here, the visitors hand in the iPads and receive three 15cl tasting glasses of their choice from the 16 beers on draft. The cafe is open to visitors without a museum ticket as well and features a library corner with shelves of books about beer.

The museum has partnered with Palm brewery, based in Steenhuffel, Flemish Brabant, for the tasting room’s beer selection. “It’s the only brewery that could offer all four types of fermentation,” Pillen explains. “If you tell the complete story of beer, you want to be able to offer the complete range to visitors.”

Palm owns the Brugge Tripel and Steenbrugge abbey beers, which were formerly brewed in Bruges. Both are available for tasting. The bar also has three exclusives on draft: Boon Oude Lambiek, Unfiltered Palm and Foederbier Rodenbach.

Labour of love

At the moment, the museum is still a work in progress. The images that are accessed via the “see” link on the iPads lack explanatory text, making it the weakest part of the presentation, and in some cases there are no images at all. Many sections of the museum, especially the parts related to the brewing process, would probably benefit from some video clips showing the different activities involved.

When you have a really small budget, you start thinking more creatively

- Thibault Bekaert

Bekaert says that 1,300 images and 32 film clips will be added from January, when the new scanning system will also be installed. But he has even bigger plans for the future.

“The content of the museum is permanent,” he says. “but the device itself is temporary. I’m sure that three years from now, we won’t have iPads anymore. Maybe we’ll go to Google Glass or something completely different, something more with augmented reality, where you can see somebody brewing, for example, without them actually being there.”

Bekaert, a philosophy major at university and a stone carver by trade, admits that he is not the most likely person to have founded a museum dedicated to beer. “We were just two young guys who were really passionate about beer and couldn’t understand why there wasn’t anything similar in Bruges or in Belgium,” he says. “So we had to do it. But we were obliged to do it like this because of the budget. The thing is, when you have a really small budget you start thinking more creatively.”

Photo courtesy Bruges Beer Museum

Two Bruges friends passionate about beer recently opened a museum devoted to locals’ favourite beverage, the first one in the country.

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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