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Beer history Belgium

Book Review: Brussels Beer City by Eoghan Walsh

Brussels Beer City finds different paths to walk down, previously unseen things to look at and fresh things to say about Belgian beer, brewing and drinking culture.

We’ve enjoyed Eoghan’s writing online for years and were excited to see a number of his articles brought together in this book, which amounts to a series of short histories of a number of key breweries in the city.

Names such as Brasserie de Boeck, the Grande Brasserie de Koekelberg, Wielemans Ceuppens and Leopold illustrate the administrative complexity of Brussels, the French enclave in Flanders.

Some are strange while others feel vaguely familiar thanks, perhaps, to years of looking at Belgian cafe greebling over the rims of beer glasses.

The book begins with a startling fact: from an estimated 250 breweries in the late nineteenth century, Brussels was left with just one by the 1980s – Cantillon.

Many of the stories of individual breweries will, in their broad outlines, be familiar to anyone who has studied the fate of British breweries in the 20th century. First, they rise to local dominance; then there are buyouts and a period of consolidation; before they are eventually swallowed up by big multinationals.

The book also acts as an extended explainer on the concept of Brusselization – the frenzy of post-war development that makes the Belgian capital look as if it was Blitzed when, in fact, it wasn’t.

Consider Brasserie de Koekelberg whose buildings were listed and protected from demolition until… they weren’t. With talk of dry rot, they were torn down in the 1990s:

Today, Place van Hoegaerde is an anonymous, down at heel corner of Koekelberg towered over by social housing complexes. It’s a quiet place; the buildings all around protecting it from the bustle of the main road and metro station two streets over. Of the de Boeck brewery only fragments remain. The cold neoclassical brewer’s house that forms the sharp edge of one corner of the square is still there, abutted on one side by the old redbrick perimeter wall of the brewery. A black metal gate stands tall at the brewery’s old service entrance; several years ago, barely perceptible from the rust, you could still make out the name of the brewery, but that fence has been replaced.

What gives the book energy is Eoghan’s dogged determination to find the very last traces of these stories in real life – a broken chimney here, a faded sign there.

It’s no deskbound, bookbound work of dry scholarship and even, at times, suggests mild peril. Poking through the ruins of a brewery by torchlight, kicking through the traces of recent trespassing, who or what might we bump into?

It also makes the reader want to get moving — there’s a walking tour implicitly suggested in these pages and we can’t wait to go back to Brussels and follow Eoghan’s trail.

There’s plenty for fact-accumulating trivia fans, too. We found it hard to get through a chapter without disappearing down rabbit holes on Google.

Did you know, for example, that the Belgian brewers collectively sponsored a Disneyesque idealised Belgian village at the 1958 Brussels Expo? Neither did we.

The author stresses in the Foreword that this is “not a narrative history of Brussels brewing. That book is still to be written.” Perhaps a publisher could take this hint and commission Eoghan to finish what these snapshots begin?

It’s a fairly short book, but that does no harm at all. There’s no waffle or padding and the author’s prose is elegant throughout. We read it in a couple of sittings in lieu of a trip to Belgium, washing it down with Tripel, but dipping in now and then to read one story at a time would no doubt be equally rewarding.

We bought the Kindle eBook edition of Brussels Beer City for £4.47. It is also available as a print-on-demand paperback at £9.23.

3 replies on “Book Review: Brussels Beer City by Eoghan Walsh”

I think I did know about the model Belgian village, because I think Jonathan Coe mentions it in his funny and engaging novel Expo 58. Unless I’m misremembering and he didn’t, in which case I didn’t. I recommend the novel, though.

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