Belgium's a Euro star

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Belgium brewer Interbrew is committed to raising beer quality in the UK.Ben McFarland went to Brussels to see if he could learn a thing or twoSales...

Belgium brewer Interbrew is committed to raising beer quality in the UK.Ben McFarland went to Brussels to see if he could learn a thing or two

Sales of beer in the UK, especially in the on-trade, have been in decline for a number of years now and the recent news that they had reached their lowest ebb for 30 years came as little surprise to those within the industry.

The increasing popularity of wine and the unmitigated success of marketing-driven premium packaged spirits (PPS) have stolen what marketers refer to as "share of throat" from a beer sector that is clearly suffering from an image problem and which analysts predict will continue to decline for the next 10 years.

In an attempt to buck the trend, brewers are focused on shedding beer's "discount" image and building perceptions of it as a premium product at a time when people have money to spend but very little time to spend it. The battle for what those marketers refer to as the "leisure pound" is becoming increasingly intense.

In Interbrew UK's 2001 Market Report, managing director Stewart Gilliland urged the industry to address the issue of quality in the on-trade. He said: "The quality threshold is forever moving upwards as consumers become more demanding and their choice of leisure options grow ever broader.

"The main reason why product quality is now in the front line is that consumers have a more pressurised lifestyle than ever before so when they find the time to visit a pub they want a first-class experience.

"Consumers are aware of the increased level of competition among retailers and beer brands for their disposable income which is why they now expect more than ever before."

Interbrew embarked on a long-term campaign designed to improve the "pub experience" last year as part of a global strategy that holds up the Belgian approach to beer as a model that all countries should be striving for.

The reverence with which beer is treated in Belgium is unrivalled. Belgium boasts the largest range of distinctly different beers in the world all of which are served in their own branded glasses with the kind of tender loving care sadly missing this side of the Channel.

Nowhere is Belgium's respect for its national drink more apparent than at Interbrew's World Draught Master Championship 2001 held in Brussels earlier last month.

Started in 1997, the Draught Master Championship brings together the world's best bartenders for a competition that was set-up as part of Interbrew's commitment to improving the quality of dispense and presentation in all of the countries in which it operates.

Thirty apron-clad competitors from 15 countries (contestants from the UK were conspicuous by their absence) - and one nautical nomad who bizarrely represented a cruise ship instead of a country - converged on the Belgian capital to do battle in a test of their beer tapping skills, bottle-pouring ability, and table-serving protocol.

Every step of the perfect pour is carefully scrutinised and scored by a panel of important-looking judges, one of whom, incidentally, looked like a Belgian Michael Jackson (the beer guru that is, rather than the moonwalking pop idol).

The competition heralds the importance of the cleaning process, the position of the tap (not touching the beer, head or glass), the size of the head (no higher than two fingers), and the value of presentation.

The competitors have six minutes to thoroughly clean and dry the glasses to an appropriate spick and span degree, add the all-important drip catchers, carefully pour four beers (two x 35cl Stella Artois on draught, a bottle of Hoegaarden and a bottle of Leffe Brune) at the right temperature, in the right branded glass, with the right beer mats and with all the pomp and ceremony that the Belgians attach to the serving of beer.

After a closely fought contest the judges ingratiated themselves with the locals by awarding first prize to a Belgian whose faultless dispense and peerless presentation separated him from the rest of the field.

Although, the World Draught Master Championship may seem a little bizarre to a British drinker, it is not out of place in a country where high quality of service is uniform and where all bar-staff enrol on a comprehensive three-day beer course that is endorsed, and unlike the British equivalent, paid for by Belgian brewers.

The strength of Belgian beer is in its diversity of styles, including pilsner, the Trappist brands, white beers in the Hoegaarden mould, guezes brewed with wild yeast, wheat beers and the eclectic range of fruit beers all served in their own unique branded glasses and poured with the kind of theatre you'd only see in cocktail bars in the UK.

Luc Bastiaensen, Interbrew's director of international marketing for the on-trade, is entrusted with the daunting task of replicating this same level of admiration and attention to detail across all of the brewer's trading countries.

"Everybody is brewing good beer but it's important to control what happens with our product once it leaves the brewery," he said. "The goal is to come up with a perfect product that is served to the same high standard all over the world."

Persuading a British drinker more accustomed to the "quantity not quality" pint culture of the UK to accept a Stella Artois in a 35cl glass with a head you could stick a Flake in, is easier said than done.

Consequently, Interbrew has been forced to adapt its quality message in order to cater for different markets and in the UK this has taken the form of the Stella Artois Quality Programme.

Interbrew UK has introduced new branded and embossed glasses, launched a one-litre bottle designed to be drunk with food and promoted its Stella Artois superbus and School of Excellence.

"Beer is part of the culture in so many countries and it's not something that has been invented in the last couple of years so changing customer habits and perceptions will take a very long time," admitted Luc. "But our Belgian beers are not mainstream, they're special premium beers and the people who drink them are open to change.

"For example, 10 years ago, there was no such thing as a branded glass but today there's not one customer that is complaining - in fact they're stealing them which is a great sign that the message is getting through."

Those fearful of high-strength raspberry flavoured brews replacing the traditional British pint need not worry, however, as the Belgian approach is unlikely to be adopted in its entirety or take precedence over the imbedded pint culture.

But if an increasingly discerning UK consumer, that research shows is drinking less but drinking better, is going to be coaxed back to beer, then it needs to be served, presented and marketed with all the passion, care and attention that it receives across the Channel.

The Stella Superbus

Interbrew UK is re-emphasising its quality message to retailers at the start of the year's key trading period - with a whistle-stop national tour of outlets by the Stella Artois School of Excellence.

The Stella Superbus is hitting the road for a 25-day tour and targeting outlets participating in Interbrew UK's Stella Artois Quality Programme to underline the importance of delivering the "perfect serve".

The Stella Superbus will be on the road from November 12 to December 14, visiting 25 central locations including:

November 12


November 13


November 14


November 15


November 16


November 19


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