In Belgium, brewing beer has a long tradition and is a matter not to be taken lightly. But that's exactly what two young entrepreneurs are doing now by letting the crowd decide on the beer they brew.
There is dust on the floor, and cables are hanging from the ceiling. But the heart of this 500-square-meter commercial space located in Brussels' hippest neighborhood has just been installed: a brand new semi-automatic brewery, worth some 600,000 Euros ($657,000), which Sebastien Morvan and Olivier de Brauwere call their "big baby."
"This is made in Germany, so it was actually delivered ahead of schedule. But we're still waiting for the fermenters to be delivered from Italy, so that's putting us two weeks behind schedule," says Olivier with a smile.
Setting up their own micro-brewery is the latest step Olivier and Sebastien have taken since they embarked on their "Brussels Beer Project."
Olivier, who is Belgian, and Sebastien, who is French, met in classes on entrepreneurship during a study exchange in Canada 12 years ago. "We shared a passion for creating a new business," says Olivier.
When Sebastien came to Brussels three years ago, the two quit their jobs and started thinking about beer. "We were inspired by what is happening outside of Belgium, in the US, in Italy, and Scandinavia, where so many craft brewers have set up shop that it's like a craft revolution," he says.
"So we wanted to shake things up a bit and come up with some beers that are different from what people are used to drinking in Belgium."
Belgian beer market offers a great variety
Compared to Germany, where the so-called "Reinheitsgebot" or "purity law" dating back to the 15th century strictly specifies which ingredients may be used to produce beer, the Belgian beer market is very diverse.
There are pils, lager, ales, dark beers, wheat beers, abbey beers and beers using fruit flavors, like the cherry-flavored Kriek.
"Sometimes you have additives in the beers," the chairman of the association of Belgian brewers, Jean-Louis Van de Perre, told Deutsche Welle. "Today, we even have a beer with a bit of chocolate."
Having the crowd choose the beer
Olivier of the Brussels Beer Project admits that there is already a great variety of beers readily available on the Belgian market, but says there is room for more. "There is never enough beer," he says.
"Here in Belgium, brewing beer is very much a traditional and often family-run business where people use the same recipe for centuries," he says. "But we are proud not to be stuck with the old recipes, and proud to involve people, to involve the community."
Reaching out to the crowd for the first time, they invited people to tastings, asking them to choose their favorite out of of four different prototypes of beers.
"We don't ask people what kind of ingredients they want, because we have the know-how to create beers," says Olivier, "but we involve them in the choice of which beer we then brew."
So far, the crowd has chosen two beers through this process which Olivier says they want to keep up on an annual basis.
But of course, the co-founders of the Brussels Beer Project also asked the crowd to co-fund their 1-million-euro investment. Their crowdfunding drive called #beerforlife promised donors 12 beers per year - for life - in exchange for a one-off payment of 140 euros. In response, 1,200 people signed up to it.
"That was important for us, because this is a close community that helps at events, that gives feedback, and follows us on our social media channels," Olivier says.
Mixed reactions in the industry
In the industry, microbrewers like the Brussels Beer Project have caused some stir, particularly those that don't have their own brewing facilities.
"What we see sometimes is that people start up a beer business as a marketing project," says Jean-Louis Van de Perre. "They want to sell beer, but don't produce it themselves."
Van de Perre's association represents 98 percent of the Belgian beer market, including Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world's largest brewing company.
Microbreweries, however, are not represented in the association, which requires a minimum of 3,000 hectoliters annual production and a track record of five years of production.
"The people starting a beer business should respect strict rules, especially in terms of quality," says Van de Perre." I am welcoming the miocrobrewers but they need to respect the rules of the market regarding the quality of the product and its production, because Belgian beer has been produced over centuries."
The space in which the Brussels Beer Project will start brewing their own beer is located in the so-called "BoBo" district of Brussels - the home of the "bourgeois" and "bohemians"
'It takes time and passion'
In their campaigns, the co-founders of the Brussels Beer Project poke fun at these traditions. "Why should every recipe date back to the Middle Ages, and why should every recipe be kept secret?" they ask, assuring that the beers they produce are "zero percent secret."
It's obvious that Olivier and Sebastien have taken their share of classes in marketing and entrepreneurship. Both 31 years old, they cater to the digital natives of their age group and know how to market themselves on the web, including social media. They have a professional website, as well as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles and a channel on YouTube.
Whether their new approach to brewing beer will be enough for them to survive on the market is another matter.
"In the beginning, we gave ourselves 12 months to see whether the project made sense, and after 12 months we thought it was a very nice success." says Olivier. "But then, of course, it takes much more time to start making money. It is possible to make money in this market, but because it takes time, you also have to have a passion for it."