One of the casualties of the pandemic for the beer category has been Belgian beer, brews that typically skew heavily to the on-premise and are often sought out by inquisitive beer shoppers at retail. According to the Beer Institute, Belgian beer volume fell 18% last year to 56 million gallons, from 68 million in the year prior. Given the downturn, Belgian brewers are looking to modernize offerings of the tradition-steeped brews in the U.S., and retailers applaud the move.
“There’s no question that the past year has been challenging for everyone,” says Laura Alito, director of marketing communications at Anheuser-Busch, marketer of Stella Artois, the top-selling Belgian brew in the U.S. “For Stella, whose identity is so closely tied to the bar and restaurant community, the challenges with the international supply chain and closures and restrictions around the on-premise community had an impact.” Off-premise sales of Stella—which will shift to a U.S.-production model this summer—were strong last year, Alito notes.
But even before the pandemic, Belgian beer was challenged by growing consumer enthusiasm for locally produced craft brews. David Van Wees, president of Swinkels Family Brewers Imports, marketer of brands like Rodenbach, notes that like Belgian brewers, “U.S. craft brewers are artisans who push creativity.” But unlike crafts, Belgian beers don’t provide the “emotional connection” of being produced locally, he notes. Will Moore, general manager at Indiana’s Crown Liquors chain, says that’s unfortunate. “They’re all craft beers,” he says. “They’re just made in different parts of the world.” Indeed, Moore adds that some of the popular craft styles today, such as fruited sours, have been heavily influenced by Belgian beer styles, like Lambic. And though volume fell for the category overall, sales of Belgian brews, including Stella, jumped 9% at Crown last year, he notes. The chain carries some 120 Belgian beer SKUs, priced from $7 an 11.2-ounce bottle of Rochefort #8 to $75 a 3-liter of Chimay Grande Reserve.
Dan Fontaine, beer manager at the Brick Store Pub, the renowned Belgian beer bar in Atlanta, concedes there’s been a “shift away from Belgian beer” in recent years. Still, Belgian brews account for as much as 45% of Brick Store’s beer sales. With up to 20 beers available on draft, St. Bernardus Abt 12 ($5 a 6-ounce pour) is the venue’s top seller.
With overall demand waning, suppliers of Belgian beer are unsurprisingly looking to American craft beers for inspiration and innovation. Belgian brews like Duvel, Rodenbach, and St. Bernardus are now packaged in cans, while Lindemans Lambic, marketed by Merchant du Vin, offers a variety four-pack of 8.45-ounce bottles. Rodenbach even partnered with Dogfish Head Brewery on Vibrant P’Ocean last year, the first collaborative beer ever for the Belgian brewer. Van Wees says another collaboration between the breweries is planned. And the Stella Solstice summer lager line extension, a lighter, more sessionable variant of the original brew, is now available year-round.
Beer retailers say the time is right for Belgian beers to modernize. “Moving out of traditional packaging might be the best way for Belgian brewers to catch the eyes of some younger beer drinkers who are willing to explore options beyond just what is made locally,” Moore says. Fontaine, meanwhile, sees room for the segment to branch out and change consumer perception. “Everything from Belgium doesn’t have to be a tripel or a saison,” he says. “There’s room for IPAs, stouts, ambers, and dark lagers. There’s opportunity to modernize.”
New Belgian beers are certainly forthcoming. Vedett Extra White will be introduced in select markets this year, according to Duvel Moortgat USA vice president of marketing Brian Reames, while a 1.5-liter 150th anniversary collectors’ bottle for Duvel will be unveiled in the fall. Rodenbach, meanwhile, is celebrating its 200th birthday this year, and a limited-edition brew is planned, Van Wees says.
Fontaine notes that whether it’s old-style Belgian brews and packages or modern variants, the European beers still have a lot of life in them. “Belgian beers can succeed by blending tradition with novelty,” he says.