By Matthieu DEMEESTERE
Sightseers who flocked to a grand reopening of the refurbished Brussels stock exchange building this weekend were invited to chase the visit down with a side order of Belgium’s top tipple — beer.
The 90-million-euro ($96-million) makeover of the Bourse, once a temple to capitalism, tempted in passers-by from the cafe bars of the capital’s old town.
Thanks to the new “Belgian Beer World”, they did not go thirsty.
Belgian beer culture is listed by UNESCO as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”.
It is a source of pride for many locals and a big draw for tourists from around the world.
But, even though beer is ubiquitous here, the Brussels scene lacked a focal point for visitors or — if you’re a jaded glass-half-full drinker — a promotional vehicle for Belgium’s vast global booze industry.
Traders moved out of the 1868 neo-classical Palace de la Bourse or Beurspaleis in 2014, and the Belgian exchange has now merged with former competitors in Paris and Amsterdam to form Euronext.
So, when the city refurbished the historic building, the brewers were on hand to stand their round and sponsor a fitting modern beer museum and roof top bar for their star export.
– Trappist monks –
On Saturday, when the refurbished Bourse reopened to the public, 11,000 people passed through to see the trading hall, and 566 — including a tourist from as far away as Singapore — stopped by Beer World.
“A lot of interesting interactions, features that involve the participants, all the visitors,” said the tourist, who gave his name as Su.
“I believe that all the beer drinkers, if they wish to have a good understanding about the whole process, about the history of the beer, it’s definitely a place for them to visit.”
Opening the centre this week, Brussels mayor Philippe Close acknowledged that, beyond the culture of beer, the museum is “a way to support a huge economic sector.”
Belgium has at least 430 brewers, from mighty AB Inbev — which pours a third of the planet’s pints — to tiny Trappist monasteries that sells one eagerly sought-after batch of ale per year to patient punters on a waiting list.
The rade federation, Belgian Brewers, estimates that its members employ 6,900 people directly and support 50,000 more jobs in a country of only 11.5 million.
Some 70 percent of Belgian beer is exported, not just to neighbours in Europe’s beer-drinking north, but around the world.
Tickets for the Beer World are a hefty 17 euros — but it does get you your first drink in the rooftop bar — with its vast selection drawn from the 1,600 types of beer the country has to offer.
Belgian brewers are not as conservative as their German and Dutch neighbours.
The sour, bubbly lambic and gueuze styles — “Brussels Champagne” — are Belgium’s own, but many beers including the big brands like Jupiler or Stella Artois are based on the Czech and German Pilsner style.
There are even Scotch ales in thistle-shaped glasses, allegedly introduced to entertain General Montgomery’s British Second Army when it arrived in September 1944.
And of course younger small-scale brewers have begun making hoppy Belgian pale ales to rival the best of the US craft beer explosion.
– Great complexity –
Beer World administrator Charles Leclef — a 30-year veteran Flemish brewery operator — told AFP that the city wanted to capture the “playful” side of the everyday tipple, not to incite heavy drinking.
“We’re not the biggest producer in the world, far from it, but we’re perhaps the most creative, with beer of great diversity of flavour, great complexity,” Leclef boasted.
In the museum, visitors can wander inside a virtual fermentation tank, with immersive screens taking them inside the process of turning hops, malt, yeast and water into national pride.
In Germany, the law forbids any but these four ingredients, but Belgian brewmasters are free to experiment with spices and infusions and even fruits like cherry or raspberry.
Museum visitors can pull taps to signal their favourite flavours and “virtual waiters” will print out a suggestion on a beermat to be ordered later at guests’ leisure. — Agence France-Presse