Home Beer Brussels tries to recover as tourism plummets

Brussels tries to recover as tourism plummets

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Cantillon; Photo by Joe Stange

Cantillon; Photo by Joe Stange

[This is part one of a two-part piece.]

Personified by the ketje—the caricature would be a fun-loving, joke-pulling, dialect-slinging brawler of a street kid—Brussels trudges on with daily life, head down, flat cap tilted low on the brow.

That’s an impression I get talking to friends and contacts there. To be clear: I’m not an expert on Brussels. I’m an admirer with perspective. I’m not sure how anyone could be an expert on a big, living, breathing, hairy city anyway, with all its living, breathing, hairy neighborhoods of split personalities. But you can have niches. Mine are beer and pubs. Those are the glasses I wear when I look at Brussels, rosy as a glass of kriek.

With that in mind, here are two things to consider in the aftermath of the March 22 bombings: First, the city has been through worse—much worse—even if it’s been a while. Second, it has been those downs more than the ups—war more than peace, rain more than sun—that have shaped the city’s humor, its appreciation of creature comforts and the “good life,” its habit of conviviality.

Those first and second points are perhaps best encapsulated in a cartoon that appeared on the cover of weekly magazine Pourqois Pas on September 8, 1944. Today you can admire a framed copy of it on the wall at the famous Poechenellekelder pub, among the marionettes and layered bric-a-brac, while enjoying any one of its 130 beers.

The cartoon depicts the pub’s neighbor from across the street, Manneken Pis, urinating on a crowd of retreating Nazis.

Ultimately, I think, Brussels will be fine.

Photo by Joe Stange

Photo by Joe Stange

In case you were worried. Maybe you weren’t, beyond wondering whether this is the summer you should make that pilgrimage. It’s clear that a lot fewer people are going to make it this year. Who can blame them? Even the U.S. State Department is warning Americans about the risks, as “terrorist groups continue to plan near-term attacks throughout Europe, targeting sporting events, tourist sites, restaurants and transportation.”

The Paris attacks of November 13 already were a tough blow to European tourism. In Brussels, the security lockdown of late November—based on the possibility of an imminent attack—also was severe. Then the March 22 attacks killed 32 people—not counting the suicide bombers—and injured 300 or more. It also shut down the airport, though it finally re-opened 11 days later with limited service.

Tourism is plunging, and the economic fallout—for hotels, cafes, pubs and even some breweries—is unlikely to be pretty.

The city center has been empty in recent days. So are many hotels, going at about 25 percent capacity. The famous Delirium Café—world record holder with about 2,500 different beers these days—is normally packed every night of the week.

Not this week, though.

“Well it is going very badly, about 50 percent of revenue is lost,” said Joel Pecheur, the bar’s founder and proprietor. “Belgians don’t come downtown because they have fears. And tourists are virtually no longer present.”

While Delirium attracts beer lovers of all stripes, the Brussels Museum of Gueuze—a.k.a., the Brasserie Cantillon—expects a steady stream of aficionados throughout the year. Thanks to its museum component, Cantillon is the most visited brewery in Belgium by a long shot. Last year it welcomed more than 47,400 visitors, a number that has steadily increased by a few thousand people each year.

Not this year, in all likelihood.

“Now, it is mostly the museum that is affected by the attacks,” said Sophie Matkava, secretary of Cantillon. “Mostly groups have cancelled their visit. But we receive some demands for groups reservations, for later this year.”

The number of visitors has dropped in recent days, she said, but it’s “not as catastrophic as in the rest of the city. The city—bars, restaurants, hotels—was just recovering from the consequences on the attacks in Paris in November. I think that they will have a lot of economic issues. But it is too soon to have a real and objective view on the consequences.”

Meanwhile, Matkava said, the atmosphere is strange. Brussels continues to function. Everyone was shocked, but life goes on. “I would say that sadness and anger and incomprehension are the first feelings coming when we speak to each other.

“But I have the impression that everyone looks forward. And of course, the fact that we haven’t stopped, we continued, has probably helped with that feeling.”

After the attacks a number of photoshopped memes and cartoons made the rounds. One—circulated on Facebook by Cantillon brewer Jean Van Roy, among others—depicted Belgium’s famous frites in the form of a big middle finger.

Another was a cartoon from the artist Djédjé. It portrayed Manneken Pis, doing his thing on a black-masked, rifle-toting terrorist. The caption: “Piss and love.”


A popular meme circulating in the wake of the Brussels attacks


Joe Stange is the author of Around Brussels in 80 Beers and co-author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. Follow him on Twitter @Thirsty_Pilgrim.


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