Discover Belgian beer and food in Leuven.

Professor Jo Swinnen: Halfway between tradition and innovation

Email  •  Print

Author: Erik Verdonck / Published: 2014-08-04 07:48:12 +0200 / Last Updated: over 5 years ago

Professor Jo Swinnen, Belgian Beer Experts Professor Jo Swinnen

LEUVEN - Our passion for a good brew in the glass can make us forget that brewing beer is an important economic activity but Professor Jo Swinnen of Leuven University takes us back to reality. In his book, Professor Jo Swinnen, Belgian Beer Experts Jo Swinnen
“The economics of beer” (Oxford University Press, 2011), the professor and a slew of international colleagues describe how the beer landscape as we know it has developed as a result of the laws of economics.

Jo Swinnen takes an interest in nutrition, agriculture and trade. Since 2009 he has been regularly organising conferences around the world on beer and the economy. The next one will be held in Seattle, USA in June 2015. “One of the things we will be looking at is how the industry organises itself on a global scale, the evolution of consumption patterns and how the brewers respond to this,” he explains.

Jo works with the organisation to organise regular lectures and now even dares to dream of setting up a fully-fledged research centre to delve into beer and economics in the city of Leuven. “We could, for example, establish doctorates on specific research topics such as ‘beer in China’ or ‘beer in Russia’,” he says. He’s heavily involved in the industry. A recent study – confidential for now and commissioned by breweries – looked at the relationships between the brewers and the cafés they supply.

Professor Jo Swinnen, Belgian Beer Experts ©

Pils countries

“The Belgian beer culture is at a crossroads between tradition and innovation,” says the professor. The ancient ways of the beer industry have been thoroughly shaken up over the past 150 years. It all Stella Artois Stella Artois
started with Louis Pasteur, the man who first showed that fermentation was caused by micro-organisms.

Beer yeast was successfully isolated, and thanks to pasteurisation and new bottom-fermenting techniques the quality of beer became far more consistent. The international spread of pils sent a shockwave through the beer world as many nations became veritable pils countries. Pils brewers wanted economies of scale, resulting in long years of consolidation and mergers as small and medium-sized breweries were swallowed up by large ones.

AB Inbev is a perfect example. This, now the largest brewer in the world, grew from Leuven-based Artois on the one hand, and Piedboeuf from Lièges on the other.

The AB Inbev umbrella now includes the Labatt, Ambev and Anheuser Bush breweries with brands including Budweiser, Beck’s, Stella-Artois, Hoegaarden, Leffe…. Within the Group’s massive portfolio, pils-style beers are dominant.

However, AB Inbev has also built strong international speciality brands, all of which have a pronounced Belgian character. So the pils giant AB Inbev has opened doors around the world for Belgian specialty beers. The Belgian beer industry saw lots of consolidation until the 1980s and in those days, artisan speciality beers did not appear to have much of a future. Luckily, the tide has now turned.

Professor Jo Swinnen, Belgian Beer Experts ©

Between tradition and innovation

The story is well-known: Pierre Celis re-launched the Hoegaarden white beer, starting in his father’s barn back in 1966, and it has now grown into an international AB Inbev brand. In 1980 the Dolle Professor Jo Swinnen, Belgian Beer Experts Cheers to Belgian beer!
Brouwers set up their microbrewery near Diksmuide. Hot on their heels was Brasserie d’Achouffe from Houffalize…

There were several Belgian breweries who did not jump on the pils bandwagon. With typical tenacity, they stuck to 'old-fashioned' regional beer styles such as amber beer, saison, Vlaams oudbruin or roodbruin. Lambiek brewers and ‘geuzestekers’ fought to create a future for these unique wild-fermentation beers.

The British beer connoisseur Michael Jackson discovered the diversity of Belgian beer culture shared his delight with the wider world. Nowadays, 60% of the revenue earned by Belgian brewers comes from abroad.

They are investing heavily to expand capacity and acquire new technology, which is another story with an economic angle. Jo Swinnen puts all of this in an international context: “We have seen this consolidation equally in Germany and the Michael jackson, La Chouffe Michael Jackson at Brasserie d'Achouffe
© Brasserie d'Achouffe
United States,” he explains. “What we are seeing now is a fall of beer consumption in the traditional beer countries.

The largest growth now occurs in new beer markets such as Brazil, India, China and Russia. In the meantime, more beer is consumed in traditionally wine-drinking countries like Spain and Italy, whereas wine is becoming more popular in the traditional beer countries.

Countries are really converging. People are travelling more and more and are introducing new customs. But generally there is a trend towards lower alcohol consumption.”This story is not told in black and white; there are many shades of grey. Economic factors play a part, as do social and cultural influences. But it remains a fact that the story of beer is a global one, despite beer being a product with very strong local cultural ties.

Leuven Blog Posts

Zythos 2018. Watch out… there’s some heritage about!
LEUVEN - 12,500 fans made their way to Leuven for what was already the 15th edition of the Zythos beer festival. Many fans travelled a long way to get to Belgium. They flocked here from many European ... [ read more ]
Good beer hunting at the 2016 Zythos Beer Festival
LEUVEN - Hordes of beer lovers are flowing towards Leuven. They come from all around Belgium and far beyond. ‘Zythos’ is an important event in the diary of every beer lover. ... [ read more ]
Great Belgian Beer Dinner 2015
LEUVEN - The Great Belgian Beer Dinner is an annual event for lovers of gastronomy and beer pairing. Last year’s edition was staged the tavern at City Brewery Gruut in Ghent. ... [ read more ]
Zythos Beer Festival 2015
LEUVEN - Big, bigger, biggest... with around 17.000 visitors, it feels like the eleventh Zythos beer festival in Leuven is about to burst at the seams. Once the festival is in full swing, it is imposs ... [ read more ]
Going for gold: Brussels Beer Challenge 2014
LEUVEN - As many as 79 Belgian breweries with 200 Belgian beers took part in the third edition of the international Brussels Beer Challenge. There was plenty of international ... [ read more ]


You must be logged in to leave a comment



Brussels Beer Challenge 2019, and the winners are...

BRUSSELS/MONS - We’ve made our way down to the historic city of Mons (Bergen) for the eighth edition of the international Brussels Beer Challenge. A 90-strong jury is busy tasting; there are four morning sessions in a ro... [ more ]

Brugge Tripel contributes to renovation of Burgundian chapel of worship

BRUGES - This city draws you back in time to the heydays of the Burgundian era. After years of renovation works the Gruuthusemuseum has re-opened its doors. This former city palace is the showca... [ more ]

Brewers of Europe Forum 2019: Craftsmanship on the old continent

ANTWERP - Brewers from 59 different countries flocked to attend the Brewers of Europe Forum 2019 in the prestigious Queen Elizabeth Hall, right next to the renowned Antwerp Central Station building. ... [ more ]

Craftsmanship and balance at brewery Van Steenberge

ERTVELDE - To track down a brewer within his own domain is a high-ranking form of sports, or that’s the impression I get. After a bit of practice I spot Jef Versele, CEO of the Van Steenberge brewery, well hidden amongst... [ more ]

Brussels Beer Challenge 2018 - The results!

MECHELEN - The historic city of Mechelen, halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, is truly a hidden gem. The presence of the Dukes of Burgundy, who ruled here in the late middle ages, still permeates the ancient city centr... [ more ]


More Beer

The Saint-Martin abbey beers are heirs to the former Abbey of Saint-Martin in Doornik (Tournai), one of the oldest cities in Belgium. The abbey was founded many centuries ago and c... [ more ]

Beer Tourism Newsletter Signup

Enter your name and email address on the right and click "SignUp" to join.