Belgian speciality beers eye Asian markets
Belgian beer export volumes have increased by at least 70% in the last ten years, with Belgian beer cafés found in foreign cities as far afield as Tokyo and Shang Hai. The most significant growth has been in speciality beers like Brugse Zot and Chimay. “Japan is a great success story,” says Xavier Vanneste, who has been at the helm of De Halve Maan, the last remaining Bruges city brewery on the Wal Square in the city’s historic centre, since 2005. The most famous beers, Brugse Zot and Straffe Hendrik, have meanwhile found their way to thirsty drinkers in Asia, with Brugse Zot’s popularity mainly due to the keen importer Kiya, which used to specialise in German beers. The brain behind Kiya is the Japanese beer journalist Miwa, who is actively sings the praises of Belgian beer in his blogs and books, acting as a veritable ambassador for the drink. “Finding suitable partners is vital to capture foreign markets,” says Vanneste. Unlike Louvain beer giant AB Inbev who can capture markets for its brands like Stella with global distribution channels, small breweries have to do manage on their own. This makes personalities like Miwa come as a Godsend. “We cannot do something like this in Japan or China on our own,” says the young brewer from Bruges. The Halve Maan has meanwhile established fifteen export destinations. The Netherlands, US, England and France are positioned as the most crucial importers, but growth in Japan is the strongest. Inspired by Miwa, theme cafés in true Belgian bistro style are now de rigeur complete with Brugse Zot blond and brown on tap, mussels and chips. “First Osaka, then Tokyo,” says a proud Vanneste. The popularity of Belgian beers has also been boosted by Belgian Beer Weekends, with these events taking place in five cities in Japan this year. Chimay is the only authentic Belgian trappist been with a successful track record in exports and phenomenal growth in Asia. In Japan this Walloon brewery has become a household name among fans of more upmarket beers. In China it is just starting to gain ground, with sales doubling last year. According to Chimay’s Jérôme Goffinet, Chinese have acquired a particular taste for Chimay Red and Gold. The monks from the Scourmont Abbey near the French border south of Charleroi have a long history of exports in the business. Sales to the US started 25 years ago, and the US and France are currently their biggest clients. At a slow but steady 1% to 3% annual increase in market share, one tenth of their exports are currently destined for Asia. At this gradual pace the brewer can at least ensure continued standards of quality and the loyal support of their customers, Goffinet maintains.