When Luc Van Honsebrouck took charge of Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck in the 1960s, he set about turning it from a pilsner brewery into one which focussed on specialty beers. “My father was a visionary,” says Xavier Van Honsebrouck, the fifth generation of his family in the business. “He took a radical decision in the sixties to no longer focus on lager brewing. Our brewery was ahead of its time and we’re still now reaping the benefits.”
Now they produce over 20 different specialty beer brands. The latest addition to the line-up is ‘Filou’ (8.5% ABV), which Xavier translates from the French as ‘Rascal’. It’s a beer which falls somewhere between a Tripel and a Strong Golden Ale, brewed with 100% pilsner malt an a hop bill which includes Golding, Saphir and Saaz. “Every owner of a family brewery has to make one great new beer,” says Xavier: “I believe the Filou is the second beer for me after successfully launching the Kasteel Rouge.”
The brewery has recently undergone a complete rebuild and has moved a few kilometres from its original home in Ingelmunster to a new facility in Izegem which is 5 times the surface area of the old one. Annual production capacity has increased from 100,000 to 250,000 hectolitres and by the time it’s complete, it will have cost more than €45 million. This huge investment to more than double the capacity of the brewery together with Xavier’s ambition to create his own ‘great new beer’ offer an insight into his vision for the future and the obsession he has with his own legacy as a family brewer. “I’m soul mates with Hans Depypere of Brouwerij St. Bernardus,” says Xavier. “He’s an entrepreneur. He’s not in it for the money. Either am I. If you wake up and the first thing you think about is money, then you’re doing something wrong.” It may not be money that drives Xavier, but there’s no doubting Brouwerij Van Honsebrouck are commercially shrewd operators.
They’ve enjoyed success in markets as diverse as Japan and Mexico with their Kasteel, Bacchus and St. Louis ranges. Export accounts for 55% of what they produce. “In Israel, the number one Belgian beer is Stella Artois,” says Frederic Boulez, Commercial Director at Van Honsebrouck. “The number two Belgian beer is Kasteel Rouge.” Their strategy at home focuses on the restaurant, café and hospitality sector. “In the pub they try it and in the shop they buy it,” says Frederic. “Belgium is a pub market. We are really pushing Filou in the Horeca now.” In an attempt to continue the good work of his father, Xavier is thinking big. “Our dream is to be the number one location for beer tourism in Belgium,” he says repeatedly. It’s a mantra you hear from a number of staff members at different parts of the brewery.
Their new facility the ‘Bierkasteel or ‘Beer Castle’ will welcome not only people with a passion for beer, but there are plans to host everything from corporate seminars to wedding receptions. Their foeder room is strategically placed beside their brasserie, so diners have the visual backdrop of 8 upright oak vats (4 of 200 hectolitres and 4 of 50 hectolitres), all of which have just been shipped in from France. Xavier sees innovation as the key factor for securing that legacy. They’re one of the few breweries to have the equipment and technical know-how to produce beers of spontaneous fermentation, top fermentation, and mixed fermentation under one roof.
And they don’t shy away from developing new products. “Once a month we meet with a panel of experts to brainstorm,” says Xavier. “We recently released Barista (11% ABV), a beer with a chocolate flavour and a basis of coffee. For us, no idea is too crazy. Belgian brewers often think within the box, but we’ll become a brewery museum if we do that.” Innovation doesn’t mean you can’t remain true to your heritage. “The U.S. breweries copy us,” he says. “But they’re learning from us. We need to be more creative. We have to remain in front. But that doesn’t mean making IPAs. We want to promote and protect Belgian beer. And I want to protect my family tradition.”