Dubbel-edged sword: Belgians drink less of their beer but exports are growing

Twice as much Belgian beer is exported than consumed domestically, and drinkers increasingly prefer foreign.

The average Belgian drinks about 240 250ml glasses of domestically produced beer a year, compared with about 440 such glasses in the mid-1980s.

The volume of Belgian beer sold at home fell by 1.6% between 2016 and 2017. This came after a drop of 3.5% the year before, according to the annual report of the Belgian Brewers federation.

But while Belgium experiences a 30-year decline in beer drinking, its exports are on the rise. Last year, overseas sales of Belgian beer grew by 8.7%, of which 17% was outside the EU.

The US is the largest market, followed by France and the Netherlands. Exports to China grew by 8.3% year on year, while sales to South Korean consumers shot up by 66%.

Belgian drinkers are increasingly demanding higher-quality drinks, turning away from pilsners, the report showed. Belgian Brewers said this “less but better” phenomenon had resulted in the number of breweries in Belgium growing from 224 to 261 in 2017, and 49,000 people being employed.

Jean-Louis Van de Perre, the federation’s chairman, said: “In 2017, the consumption of beer in Belgium has fallen. This drop is due, among other things, to the difficult situation in the hotel and restaurant industry, and a shift in the consumption of pilsner beers to special beers. Beers continue to meet with great success abroad and have never been so popular.”

Despite the turn away from lager, Pierre-Olivier Bergeron, the secretary-general of the , said he believed the market would soon lose its taste for the hoppier beers that have emerged from microbreweries.

“My personal sense is that what I call the ‘hoppy era’ is fading away, because at some point, it’s the consumer that decides whether the product is drinkable or not. Not everything that is currently on the market is that palatable,” he said.

The fall in beer consumption in Belgium is mirrored by other western countries, including the UK, where sales in 2017 were down 1.7% to their lowest point in two years, according to the British Beer and Pub Association. In the US, beer consumption dipped by 1.1%.

The Belgian beer industry was rocked towards the end of last year by suggestions from the European commission that drinkers in the country had been for years.

AB InBev, the world’s biggest brewing company, based in Leuven, was accused by Brussels of charging less for its Jupiler and Leffe beers in France and the Netherlands than in Belgium.

After a year-long investigation, the commission further claimed there was evidence that AB InBev had been pursuing “a deliberate strategy” for at least eight years to prevent supermarkets and wholesalers from buying Jupiler and Leffe at lower prices in the Netherlands and France and importing them into .

The company has declined to comment, beyond saying it is cooperating with the commission’s inquiry.