Belgium races to get beer to bars for great reopening

Silly (Belgium) (AFP) –


Belgium's cafe terraces will not re-open to thirsty beer drinkers for another week but the country's renowned brewers are already all hands to the pump.

Six months after the country went into a second coronavirus lockdown, proud bar owners and beer makers alike are keen to get back to business.

They are confident their countrymen and women have not lost their taste for Belgium's world-famous brews, but the task of getting new barrels into cellars is huge.

And -- with interior service still banned and social distancing in place -- time is running out for some in an industry that has already been hit hard by the pandemic.

"It's a whole machine that needs to be put back on the road," explains Lionel Van Der Haegen, director of the Silly brewery, in the Belgian village of the same name.

The brewery is working hard, but Van Der Haegen fears for the bars that take his beer. "Some have gone bankrupt," he told AFP. "Every day counts. We need to reopen as soon as possible."

Halting Belgium's draft beer cycle in October was a massive logistical exercise it its own right.

In normal times, heavy beer barrels are rolled into bar cellars full and pulled back out when they are empty and hence much lighter.

But after bars were ordered closed at the end of last October, stocks of beer meant to last for several weeks had to be laboriously hauled up and sent back.

Belgium's beer culture is recognised by UNESCO as a heritage of international standing and there was no question for Silly, which prides itself on freshness, of simply storing stale beer.

The unsold beers were disposed of carefully, and now an entirely new batch is under production ahead of May 8, Belgium's reopening day.

- Revolt brewing -

"It takes between a month and six weeks between the start of brewing and tasting a Silly beer," said Van Der Haegen, showing AFP around his busy plant.

The Silly brewery dominates the village of just over 7,000. In normal times it produces two-and-a-half million litres per year -- pale ales, saison, abbey beers, fruit beers, Pilseners, wheat beers and Scotch ale.

As AFP toured the plant a local farmer pulled up in a tractor to collect a trailer-load of distillers grains -- dried barley mash left over by the brewing process -- to feed his livestock.

The brewery has been in operation since 1850, employs 24 people at full strength, supplies bars across the region and exports bottled beer as far as the United States and China.

But it's at 70 percent capacity now, and Van Der Haegen does not know how fast things will pick up.

"We're prepared for it, we're building up stock, and we're calling in the teams to set up logistics and prepare orders, call clients, plan deliveries," the director said.

The reopening will be a relief for beer drinkers, as well as bar owners and brewers, but much uncertainty remains. To begin with, bars and restaurants will only open as outdoor terraces.

There will be pent-up demand and some drinkers will doubtless want to celebrate liberally -- but others may be nervous of crowds as the pandemic continues.

A rebellious mood is building. Venues in the city of Liege threatened to break lockdown early, and police with water cannons and horses had to break up a mass gathering in a Brussels park.

But bar managers like Sebastien Weverbergh, who runs an independent cafe adjoining the Silly brewery, argue that no-one is better placed than they are to manage a safe return to normal service.

The industry has experience of installing hygiene measures and dealing with exuberant customers, he said, and Belgium needs to get back to the pub.

"Not seeing our clients is a bit like being punished, as if we no longer had the right to see the people who in the end become our friends in this profession," he said.

"The other difficulty is obviously financial. The state has helped us, it has done what it could, but its means are sometimes a little derisory compared to the costs that a restaurant or a cafe generates."

Belgium has decided to slash value-added tax from 21 percent to six to support the reopening, setting aside 835 million euros ($1.0 billion) to put some fizz back into the sector.

- Drink to save Europe -

But bar owners argue that European countries could do more and the industry is pushing the idea of bar reopenings as a motor for post-virus recovery.

"I think it is a symbol of the start of the recovery from Covid, for the whole of society," said Simon Spillane, director of communications for the association Brewers of Europe.

"And yes, we're hoping for a boom."

Before the crisis there were 11,000 breweries in Europe, and the number was surging by almost 1,000 per year as the fashion for small-scale specialists spread.

But the industry is at 50 percent capacity across the continent, sales in bars and restaurants dropped by 42 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, and increased shop sales did not fill the gap.

"When you're having a beer on a terrace with your friends, you're not just supporting the brewers," Spillane says. "You're supporting people's jobs and you're supporting the whole economy and the recovery of European society."