Old brewery being brought back to life at Wiels


The Wiels culture centre in Vorst is home to an industrial monument in the making, as the old engine room of the former Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery gets a complete makeover

Steel and steam

The engine room of the former Wielemans-Ceuppens brewery in the Brussels municipality of Vorst has all the hallmarks of machines from the heyday of the industrial revolution – large metal wheels, piston rods and measuring equipment to direct the steel giants. It’s not hard to imagine that they must have produced a deafening noise when they were still in use.

Today, it is quiet in the engine room, but that will soon change. “This month, we complete the first phase of the restoration,” says Joaquín de Santos Barbosa, co-ordinator of the project, which was launched by the Vorst municipality. “Much faster than expected, we managed to get some of the equipment working again, including the La Vergne compressor, which was built more than 100 years ago.”

To their surprise, he says, “it was enough to rub off the rust and grease it really well to get it going again, without having to replace any parts. The La Vergne compressor was specially built for this brewery and is a unique piece.”

Making coolness

Wielemans-Ceuppens was once an institution in Brussels. The building was constructed in 1888 and focused on the production of lager, then still a novelty. The brewery grew into an important player, but was later bought by the beer company Interbrew (now AB Inbev).

One hundred years later, Wielemans-Ceuppens closed the doors after its business dried up. Today, the site houses the contemporary art museum Wiels, along with the art centre Brass. But the former machine room lay idle. Until now.

“The machines have long been exposed to rain and wind because the roof was leaking,” says Santos. “Also, rust and vandalism have taken their toll. We have a lot of clean-up work ahead of us. It was always our intention to get the machines back up and running, but it was not clear if this would turn out to be a realistic goal. In the end, it was much easier than expected.”

Which is a stroke of luck, because the machines on the old brewery site have great value as industrial heritage. “The compressor is a unique piece, but also with the other machines there are no known copies in Europe. These pieces used to produce cold air; a cool breeze was required to lower the temperature of the fermenting beer in other halls in the factory. In the period that this industrial process was built, it was one of the most modern of its time.”

New landmark

In a second phase, the final two machines – a giant steam engine and a second compressor, both built in 1905 – will get their turn at a makeover. The aim is also to get these industrial giants rolling again. By the end of the summer everything should shine like it did 100 years ago. Between the two phases of the restoration, which began last December, the site is open to the public.

“Once the work is finished, we can show a complete industrial production process,” Santos says. “It also offers an interesting insight into how these old machines actually work.” 

The project, which is being funded through a combination of local and European grants, also serves an educational purpose. Three of the technicians working on the old machines are getting workplace training, which should help them find work in the sector later on.

“In addition to that and the historic importance of the engine room, the project is also about  the beauty of the machines themselves,” says Santos. “With the restoration of Wielemans-Ceuppens, Brussels will have a new major landmark when it comes to industrial heritage.”

Photo by Emilie Vanderhulst