Walking through the heart of medieval Bruges, my neck got sore from looking at high steeples, soaring church walls and whitewashed almshouses. My respite came with a view of the Lego-like red roofed buildings, dissected by slim cobblestone streets. A friend and I had signed up for De Halve Maan’s brewery tour, and we found ourselves at the roof of the circa-1856 brewery, one of the oldest working breweries in the town. The tour was winding down and George, our guide, had found the perfect spot to leave the audience slack-jawed with the view. Plus, he had one last anecdote to complement the sight of gabled roofs rising between an early evening haze.
He hopped onto a platform for one last bit of trivia. The group trailed George’s arm and slim finger as he pointed in the direction of a tall tower in the distance. It rose as an indistinct silhouette in the murky grey evening beyond the sprawl of red. Located two miles from the brewery, we were looking at the bottling plant of De Halve Maan.
Then came the clincher. “You’re looking at the spot which is connected to this very building by an underground tunnel, carrying freshly brewed beer 24 hours a day.” Giving us a moment to gasp at the thought of beer flowing through the streets, George continued about the tunnel with a smug smile.
It was the sixth generation owner of De Halve Maan, Xavier Vanneste, who broke all traditionals to ensure speedy supply to meet the increasing demand of the two homegrown brands, Bruges Zot and Straffe Hendrik. July 2018 marked the second anniversary of 3.2 kilometres of beer flowing under the streets of Bruges in a network of pipelines. About 15 beer tankers, weighing more than 40 tons used to ply between the brewery and the bottling plant in the UNESCO accredited inner city every week. It was becoming impossible to have these behemoths regularly squeeze into the narrow streets to refill and be off for bottling. The delicate historical buildings and streets were under constant duress, and the brewery would soon have to shift operations outside the city, leaving behind their iconic city-center address. At best, it would have had to morph into a museum instead of giving visitors a first hand experience of walking through the length and breadth of the laboratories and brewing rooms. There would be little joy in enjoying a beer at the open-air café, as one does now, after the tour.
Vanneste’s answer was an underground pipeline that would connect the brewery to the bottling plant. As outrageous as it sounded, he was determined to make it work. The idea cropped up in 2012, when Vanneste saw workmen laying utility cables outside his home. The proposal was taken to the drawing board with the help of specialists, and a crowdfund started to get locals interested in the landmark project. The work would have to be done meticulously in order to keep the streets unharmed. Gold, Silver or Bronze memberships with lifetime or lesser supply of the classic Brugse Zot Blond were offered to those who chipped in. The most expensive Gold membership, costing €7,500, entitled the holder to an 11-oz bottle of Brugse Zot beer every day for life, with an additional hook of 18 personalized glasses. Silver and Bronze memberships earned the doner a free case of beer once a year for life or a single bottle of gift wrapped beer annually on the doner’s birthday, respectively. As ardent beer lovers, excitement and money poured in from locals. Half a million dollars were easier to source than capable engineers over the next year. Fortunately for Vanneste, the mayor, Renaat Landuyt, found the idea ludicrous but workable. He rallied behind this monumental project, and eventually a team came together.
As on September 16, 2016, the pipeline below the cobblestone streets started feeding the bottling plant located in the industrial area, carrying 1,500 gallons of beer an hour, at a speed of 12 mph. The work of hundreds of mammoth trucks was replaced by the speedy, un-intrusive pipeline, which held the promise of churning out 12,000 bottles an hour. Ever since the pipeline operation started, the company has seen a growth of 10% in sales.
Our tour ended with a complimentary glass of the Bruges Zot Blond, which we complemented with many more over the next few hours. Tottering out, happier by many notches, we spotted a glass manhole cover at the entrance of the brewery. Below this ran two narrow pipes. We had completely missed a peek into this historical tunnel while walking in, but it had been below our feet the entire time.