This article was originally written for Belgian newspaper De Tijd and published on 20 December 2013. I have now translated it for any English-speaking readership.

Belgian beer is hip in China. In many places, Belgian brands are growing more strongly than others. Duvel-Moortgat wants to conquer the Chinese market with its Vedett “Penguin” and “Polar Bear”. Chinese especially appreciate the higher quality of the beer.

Duvel

A normal business day in Kunming, the capital of south-western Yunnan province. On the patio of O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, a group of Chinese in a noticeably advanced state of happiness make each other laugh. Nothing special in itself. After all, drinking is a popular pastime in China. But the fact that they have traded the classic watery liquid for Vedett Extra White or a glass of draft De Coninck, is noteworthy. Especially because this city is over 2,000 km away from hip metropolises such as Shanghai and Beijing, and mainly surrounded by poor rural areas.

More centrally, a group of youths inspect their hourglass-shaped Kwak with fascination in front of Dune Cafe. The coffee shop has the cities’ largest beer collection – beers which have become rare even in Belgium, such as Orval are available – and the customers are mainly Chinese. In Metro, Mr. Chen carefully drops a gift box of Duvel (glass included) in his shopping cart. “Foreign beer is better,” he beams. “I particularly like the Belgian stuff!”

Still, Belgian beer is not cheap by Chinese standards. While a half-litre bottle of Tsingtao or Snow goes for 10 to 15 yuan (€ 1.20 – 1.80), an equally large Vedett Extra White at O’Reilly’s will set you back 44 yuan (€ 5.40). The product label of a bottle of Du-Wei (as Duvel is called in China) in Carrefour reveals that it costs 22 yuan. “Still, it’s selling like hot buns,” says Belgian co-owner of the pub Tim Verplancke proudly from behind his oaken bar. Since opening in 2011, he has secured an exclusive distribution deal with Duvel-Moortgat and is since selling its entire portfolio in his pub and to external buyers.

Bottleshop in Beijing's Hutongs featuring Belgian beer
Bottleshop in Beijing’s Hutongs featuring Belgian beer

The entire portfolio, because several products are piggybacking on Duvel’s success. Moortgat itself acts as an importer for a series of Belgian classics. On the other side of the country, Ms. Yang’s convenience store in one of Beijing’s trendier neighbourhoods is doing great business with Belgian beer. Yang, a good-smiling lady in her sixties, has installed no fewer than two large fridges dedicated to Belgian beer. “My customers are crazy about Pink Elephant (Delirium Tremens) and Maredsous,” she says, “but these, too are selling smoothly.” She points at a file of Rochefort bottles. “Are there any other beers from Belgium that I should have?”

When it was still doing its first steps in China in 2007, Moortgat imported around 200 hectolitres. And even though the flagship is still Duvel, the brewer from Puurs is mostly renowned for its Vedett beers, the Achouffe family and Liefmans Fruitesse. Vedett Extra Blond and Extra White were even given Chinese names, respectively Penguin 企鹅 and Polar Bear 白熊. The wheat beer, notably, is an astounding success and Chinese like to order it by the tower, a 3 L container with a small tap below.

Nick Papa, the American sales manager for northern China at Duvel, explains: “Vedett White is a very accessible beer for those who are used to drinking nothing but watery lager beer. Wheat beer is mild in flavour, not too bitter or too heavy. That’s why a large group of beer drinkers easily reach for a Vedett. Once they get used to that, they start trying other products from our portfolio.”

The figures seem to support this. According to general manager Vincent Smets, the family-run business will export a hundred-odd containers of Vedett to China. The rest of the portfolio is also doing well. Moortgat does not want to disclose any exact figures, but Papa says that last year’s growth in Beijing was close to 90%. “We aim to reach half our American volume this year. If we continue to grow like this, we will overtake our British market in three to four years. That’s why Moortgat pitchforked China into its priority market.”

packshots_DMC_vedett

Papa sees several reasons for the popularity of Belgian beer in China. “Quality, to begin with. Local beer is too weak. The Chinese beer brewing tradition has its roots in German colonialism and is therefore brewed in keeping with the so-called Purity Law, which only allows barley, water, hops and yeast. This is detrimental for the versatility. Imported beer also mainly comes from Germany and is often watery suds that they’ve never even heard of in Germany. Belgian beer, on the other hand, experiments more adventurously with flavour and alcohol percentages, which finally brings some change in a boring beer culture.”

The breakthrough came when Vandergeeten, an originally Belgian-Chinese company whose Belgian shareholder threw in the towel after a dispute, started importing Belgian beer. Papa: “The Belgians came with attractively priced products at a time when an emerging middle class could spare more cash for luxury products. Advertisement was hardly necessary. The Chinese automatically grew curious about the outside world, about foreign flavours and traditions. Moreover, Europe is especially highly regarded in China.”

In the meantime, Vandergeeten had become 100% Chinese and paved the road for other players. “But they were not playing ball. When we entered the market, they tried to compete us out of it by bribing bar managers and by importing our entire portfolio and dumping it at knockdown prices on the Chinese market. These practices are not strange to Chinese businessmen: They’d ration their entire family to rice and water just to win the game.”

O'Reilly's Irish Bar (Beimen Street Location)
O’Reilly’s Irish Bar (Beimen Street Location)

Duvel’s solution was to directly represent itself in China, instead of working through importers, and opened offices in seven important Chinese cities. “Most importantly, this helps us control our own brand name. Fraud and deceit are legion here. Because of the long importing process, many foreign beers in China have almost exceeded their best-before date. Some importers forge or replace the labels on the kegs and sell it anyway. This is very detrimental to our image. Secondly, we can take care of the service and we can provide our distributors and customers directly with glasses, coasters and other promotional material. This boosts our image and our brand. Finally, we also control the price and are thus one step ahead of the competition.”

“At Duvel-Moortgat, we realise that we have to make the most out of the market before AB InBev decides what they’re going to do in China,” says Papa. AB InBev may have several years of experience in China, but they are mainly focussing on their global brands, such as Budweiser, and their local ones, such as Harbin, one of China’s most popular lagers. The only truly Belgian beer they are pushing in China is their premium beer Stella Artois. For its international brands Leffe and Hoegaarden, the beer giant is mostly relying on importers.

Alken-Maes and Haacht, too, realise that it’s important not to show up too late to the game, but they prefer to wait to see which way the cat jumps. Haacht is able to take action quickly because its parent company Heineken already has a strong presence in Asia.

When asked whether Duvel has any plans to move the production to China, Papa is plain: “Duvel will always be brewed in Belgium, even when it’s perfectly possible to make a fully identical product in China. But Belgian beer remains Belgian beer. If you brew it elsewhere, you are hard pressed to call it Belgian, and this is our very selling point. Only beers that are specifically aimed at the Chinese market could perhaps be brewed in China.”

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