Between horeca-closure and new sales outlets : a zoom on the daily life of Belgian microbreweries during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belgian microbreweries

“I had just rebrewed all my beers, I thought it was the end of the journey”. This is how Thomas, a Belgian micro-brewer from Brasserie Witloof, describes his reaction to the announcement of the first lockdown.

Thomas Detourbe, 31/03/2021

Aware of the difficulties encountered in recent months by Belgian microbreweries, Arsène decided to give them a voice. In this article, they tell you how the COVID-19 crisis has turned their business upside down. 

 

For the past 18 months, Arsène has been travelling around the country to meet artisanal Belgian producers. We then launched our company, aiming to highlight their products in aperitif and breakfast boxes. During this period, we have built up relationships with the producers with whom we work. Naturally, we attach great importance to checking in with each of them. During these discussions, one thing quickly became clear. While most of the producers we work with have seen a sharp rise in interest in their products over the past year, the situation for Belgian microbreweries is very different.

Between the closure of the horeca sector, the cancellation of festivals and the banning of festive events, craft micro-breweries have indeed seen their sales channels be put under severe pressure. We have therefore decided to carry their voices in these testimonies.

A massive blow for Belgian micro-brewers 

“I had just rebrewed all my beers, I thought it was the end of the journey”. This is how Thomas, a Belgian micro-brewer from Brasserie Witloof, describes his reaction to the announcement of the first lockdown. Quick to react, he was among the first to create his own e-commerce platform. He achieved his best sales figures in the following three months. Short-lived joy. The partial reopening of the horeca would destroy all efforts made to create new partnerships with bars and restaurants shortly before the health crisis.

The announcement of the lockdown in March 2020 has had a brutal impact on the Belgian micro brewers. These entities, often very young and operating in a very competitive environment, are working hard to develop.

At Brasserie du Renard, Stéphane confides himself :

We had done a lot of prospecting work within the horeca and small festivals sector at the end of 2019. This had mobilised the whole team and was expected to provide us with some extremely important new outlets in terms of volumes.

Stéphane Vlaminck, 31/03/2021

Thomas, from Brasserie Witlooffaced a similar situation. He had therefore even replenished his entire stock at the beginning of March. 

 

Although lockdown came as a major blow, the Belgian microbrewers did not let it get them down. They fought to preserve their activity, launching home delivery projects or e-commerce platforms. While these initiatives have helped to limit the damage for some of them, such as Brasserie Witloof or Brasserie En Stoemelings, others, more heavily reliant on sales linked to the horeca sector, have had to face a dramatic situation. This applies to Belgo Sapiens Brewers. Due to the crisis, the brewery has been forced to set the entire team on technical unemployment.

Back to “normal”

With the end of the first lockdown came the return of old habits. The microbrewers saw their local grocery shops empty overnight. The number of visitors to their e-commerce platforms continued to dwindle. As for the horeca, the large stocks left over from the three-month closure meant that there was no hope for new orders. It was therefore necessary to switch strategies once again, sometimes starting from scratch with the work done before March.

In Louette Saint-Pierre, the Brasserie Invictus is one of the few breweries to have had an excellent summer season. This was due to direct sales at the brewery, and a more Belgium-based tourism because of travel restrictions. Being very small, the brewery made most of its sales at the counter and benefited from a massive influx of tourists in search of local delicacies.

Julien, from Brewksel breweryexplains that he felt relieved not to possess his own brewery. Being at the early stages of his adventure and brewing in other larger breweries, he didn’t have to bear all the costs associated with stopping the business. That’s what kept him going. Other brewers, with larger infrastructures, had to roll up their sleeves even more than they usually do. Corentin, Caroline and Stéphane only took one week off each in a year to get through this difficult period, relying a little on their cooperative model.

 

At the horeca level, it was very difficult for Belgian micro-brewers to establish new partnerships. As the primary objective of bars and restaurants was to sell the remaining stocks from the first lockdown, they were reluctant to open up to new products.

Since October

When the second lockdown was announced, the Belgian microbreweries immediately tried to re-launch the channels that had been established during the first lockdown. However, they had to face a much fiercer competition. Both on the internet and in local grocery shops, the number of players present intensified significantly. This has shattered the hopes of the brewers to get through the second lockdown as well as through the first.

A gain of experience

However, as they tell us, this crisis has also been an enriching experience for Belgian microbreweries. The Brasserie du Renard has emerged more confident in its cooperative model. In fact, it enabled them to overcome these particularly difficult moments.

For young microbrewers like Thomas from Brasserie Witloof and Julien from Brewksel, the situation has brought valuable experience.They were able to improve their prospecting tools and to test themselves in new sectors while waiting for the reopening of the horeca.

The situation of the Invictus brewery is also rather atypical. While the summer results were boosted by the concept of counter sales and the rise of Belgian tourism, the figures dropped in October when the second lockdown was announced. If the loss was made bearable thanks to the local and faithful customers, the lack of visits and loneliness have really affected Hugues, who regarded his brewery as a vector for social development.

Arsene box apero apero box belgian aperitives boxes beers

“The loss is bearable. It is the lack of passage that is morally difficult.”

Hugues Duvivier de Fortemps, 31/03/2021

The situation is therefore relatively heterogeneous among Belgian microbreweries. There is one constant, however: the last few months have been very complicated for these craftsmen. They have been forced to take many quick turns as the pandemic evolved. Many are affected by the situation beyond the economic aspect. The situation has wiped out months of hard work and shattered many hopes, leaving them with a bitter taste. However, although the deadlines are unclear and do not allow an optimistic view of the future, the Belgian microbrewers remain positive. The time has come to set up numerous projects to bounce back in the coming months.

Support for Belgian microbreweries

In this context, some Belgian microbreweries benefit from financial support, but it is often not enough. For Samuel of brewery En Stoemelingsfor example, it is hard to grasp that when you work so hard to find new outlets and you finally get your head above water, state support dwindles because turnover increases. 

In general, many projects deal with unique situations. Depending on their size or growth phase, they face very different needs. The subsidy category in which Brasserie du Renard falls does not allow them to survive.

What now ?

It is difficult for these craftsmen to plan for the future given the numerous changes that have occurred in recent months. Deciding which choices to make and which projects to develop or not is a real challenge. And yet, these projects are the lifeblood of the microbreweries, not only from a financial point of view, but also from a personal one. Moreover, these Belgian microbreweries had, before the crisis, the wind in their sails.

At Arsène, we are convinced that it is essential that this type of initiative can survive the current crisis. It is vital that the work carried out in recent years does not fall apart, and that these projects see the light of day.

For this reason, we decided to help them beyond our daily activity. In order to reach this goal, we decided to offer two beers from microbreweries to all participants of our contest. Participating is easy : just mention your colleagues on our Linkedin post and follow our page. Through this action, we hope to help microbrewers in two ways. Firstly, through the direct purchase of the beers we are offering you and, secondly and indirectly, by hoping that you will become customers of some of these microbreweries.

The final word

To conclude this article on a positive note, we wanted to tell you about the projects that are flourishing among our Belgian microbrewers :

Brasserie Witloof is taking the next step in the creation of the first cooperative microbrewery in Brussels. Brewksel is reworking its brand image. The brewery’s objective is to distribute its beer via new sales channels that are said to be promising.

Brewery En Stoemelings is working hard on its e-commerce site, adding another string to its bow. They are nonetheless looking forward to the reopening of the horeca (which e-commerce could not replace). An operation to diversify sales channels aimed at enabling the company to emerge stronger from this crisis.

As for the Brasserie du Renard, they are still developing their Houblonnière du Renard project. This should, eventually, allow them to work with a majority of Belgian and organic hops grown by their cooperators. Their objective? To work ever more in short supply chains, in organic farming and by supporting local economic initiatives.

For Damien of the Belgo Sapiens Brewers, it is time to take on new sectors. He is now positioning himself in the corporate sector, through intermediaries such as Arsène.

 

The hope of the sector is to return to a stable situation. The Brewers are keen to participate in the creation of convivial and sharing moments, much like last Monday’s scenes in the UK.