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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 December 2006, 23:19 GMT
Belgian beer gets the travel bug
Theo Leggett
Business reporter, BBC World Service, Brussels

Kwak beer
Belgian beer travels well abroad

For Belgians, beer is not merely a drink, but something of a national symbol.

The country has been a hub of the brewing industry since the middle ages.

There are more than 500 brands on the market - from mass-market products such as Hoegaarden and Leffe, to the more specialised Abbey and Trappist beers, many of them made by local breweries with just a handful of workers.

But despite its diversity, the industry is being forced to undergo profound changes.

Belgians quaff less

Tourists who flock to the Grand Place in Brussels are more than happy to sample a little local culture in the shadow of the city's famous medieval guildhouses

But Belgians themselves are drinking less and less beer. Over the past 25 years beer consumption in the country has fallen by a quarter.

Theo Vervloet is head of the Belgian Brewers Association and thinks social change is to blame for the decline.

"Big industrial companies are leaving Belgium", he says.

"More and more it is offices, banks and European institutions now. People drink less there.

"Ten years ago you had a factory with 10,000 workers, everyone finished work in the evening and all the guys went out to drink for an hour.

"That doesn't happen any more."

But while cafes and restaurants are becoming increasingly alarmed at the change, the brewing industry itself is finding new markets.

Foreign markets

More and more Belgian beer is being exported.

Over half of the beer produced in the country is now consumed in other countries.

Brussels' Grand Place
A glass of beer in Brussels' Grand Place is a must for many tourists

Twenty years ago, it was less than a third.

The quest for new markets has been led by large breweries such as Inbev and Alken Maes - but producers of specialist beers are also selling increasing quantities abroad.

Tomaso Abrusadi works for Beerexport.com, which sells specialist brews around the world. He says there's a vast market for Belgian beer.

"This year, there has been a boom in Asia, mainly in Thailand and Japan.

"There's a lot of interest in China. But there's also interest in South America, and we have a strong partner in the US.

"There's strong demand for special beers nearly everywhere".

So what is the appeal of Belgian beers?

Pauwel Kwak

Clever marketing is certainly a factor - many brands come with their own special glass.

Take Pauwel Kwak. A sweet, red coloured beer made by the family-owned Brewery Bosteels.

It's served in a tall, round bottomed glass which is held up by a wooden stand. It looks like a piece of old-fashioned scientific apparatus - and isn't easy to drink from.

But Trent Williams, who sells Belgian brews at the Lowlander Grand Café in London, thinks it's a major part of the drink's appeal.

"It's the Wow! factor", he says.

"People see it and are intrigued by it. Then they bring their friends along to try it.

"It's an experience, and it can get quite addictive."

Taste is also important.

There is a huge difference between the sweet, wheaty taste of a white beer like Hoegaarden and the acidic, brutal blow to the palate of some Lambic beers.

Yet while some certainly taste better than others, few are bland, and the sheer variety of beers on offer is a major selling point.

Italians say "non"

But it can also cause some intriguing problems for people trying to market it.

"I can't sell fruit beer in Italy," says Tomaso Abrusadi.

"They simply can't conceive that it's a beer. I show it to them, and they say, yes, it's a great beverage, but we don't see this as a beer. So they won't buy it."

Sellers admit that the good times may not last forever, because such brews are expensive to produce and command premium prices - so sales could suffer in an economic downturn.

But in the meantime, brewers are happy to celebrate thriving exports - which have more than made up for their ever-shrinking domestic market.

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