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The Brand: Palm
“Art is the most individual expression of the most individual emotion,” philosophises Jan Toye. No, the inspiration for this discourse on the nature of art was not a beautiful painting, a stunning aria, an elegant piece of modern dance. It was beer. But at Palm Breweries, where Toye is managing director, beer and art are the same thing.
Luckily for people like Toye (pictured), now is a great time to be making good beer. After decades of a market driven entirely by faceless pilsners, demand is once again on the rise for beers with unique flavours and regional character, in Belgium and abroad. From the early 1970s to the early 80s, the market share for speciality beers tripled, from 10 to 30 percent. Today, as people gain greater access to microbrews and imports, their tastes are becoming more refined, and they are demanding that brewers step up their game.
Enter Palm, a family-run business that has been brewing beer at its historic site in Steenuffel, Flemish Brabant, since 1747 and which takes the responsibility of upholding Belgium’s brewing traditions very seriously.
Palm prides itself on brewing authentic speciality beers following traditional Belgian methods. Its main lines are: Palm, Steenbrugge and Brugge Tripel ales, lambic, Geuze, Kriek and Framboise in a joint venture with the brewery Boon, Rodenbach Flemish sour red ale and Estaminet pilsner. This combination makes them the only brewery in the world that uses all four traditional fermentation styles: top, bottom, mixed and spontaneous.
For most of the 20th century, Palm was steadily expanding, first with the flagship Palm ale with its famous honey-like sweetness, to which was added Dobbel Palm and Palm Royale. In the 1990s, as a reaction to the mass industrialisation of brewing, it began buying small breweries as ‘cultural projects’ to safeguard Belgium’s beer tradition. So it set up a joint venture with Frank Boon, recognised for his famous spontaneously fermenting lambics in Lembeek. Rodenbach, in Roeselare, came next, with Brewery De Gouden Boom, based in Bruges. Palm also decided to craft its own pilsner, Estaminet, to address the public’s demand for lagers.
With some 250 employees, today Palm is not small by Belgian standards, but it is a David compared to the Goliath of its international competitor AB InBev, the world’s largest brewery. This does not intimidate Toye. In fact, he thanks AB InBev, who, through its commercialisation of classic Belgian beers like Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe, he credits for opening the door for smaller, craft beers to go international. “They have taught people around the world that Belgian beer is something special, and they like it, so we have a lot of market to satisfy.” And that is exactly what Palm is aiming to do.
In recent years, Palm has left its place under the church tower of Belgium and struck out to create new markets for itself in the Netherlands, the United States, Italy, the UK and France. What did it find? Thirsty people begging for more.
Just look at the numbers. Palm ale was launched in the US five years ago. In that time, it has gone from having no taps at all to some 2,000 taps on the East Coast, including 170 in New York City, making it the third most imported beer in the country. Even Florida, a subtropical climate and usually not a market hotspot for heavier ales, is asking for more. If Palm continues to grow at this rate for five more years, it will sell as much beer in the US as in Belgium.
Next up, the company is setting its sights on conquering other new markets.
Palm is not just expanding out, but also up, putting serious thought into what exactly it is bringing to the market. It has developed premium, even prestige, level brews of their main beer lines. Rodenbach, for instance, now has an older brother, the premium Rodenbach Grand Cru, made up of two-thirds beer aged for two years in wooden casks. On top of that, Rodenbach has added prestige beers to the line, the Rodenbach Vintage and the Rodenbach Caractère Rouge, giving international markets the chance to taste Belgium’s high-end.
Palm entered the pilsner market to satisfy a 90 percent market demand. But, typical of this company bent on honouring tradition, Palm’s Estaminet is not just any pilsner. It is a premium brew made using longer brewing times, special yeast and the world’s most expensive hops. What results is a distinguished example of the pilsner style, sold at the price of the common pint.
“We don’t brew Estaminet with a calculator,” says Toye. “We try to put all the best ingredients into it and give it the time to mature.” Whatever they are doing seems to be working: last year, the Brewing Industry International Awards (UK) voted it Gold Award Winner for best bottled pilsner in the world.
With people getting better at recognising great beer, Palm has also taken up the task of revolutionising draught technology, with the design of the unique Tapmaster system. Tapmaster solves the problem of beer spoilage due to bacterial contamination that occurs with normal tapping techniques. Normally, a keg would spoil within a few days of being tapped, but with Tapmaster, beers can stay fresh and cool for weeks. This means pub owners across the world can offer an enormous range of speciality beers on tap with the guarantee that the quality is perfect, that there is not beer loss and that the beer tubes do not have to be cleaned, so there is no maintenance.
As Palm expands into the global market, it shows signs of being different from other world players. For one thing, international growth for Palm does not mean the sacrifice of craftsmanship for large-scale production. In fact, it only reinforces its commitment to bringing Belgium’s brewing heritage to the rest of the world.
A family who brews together, stays together
At its heart, Palm will always be a family-run business. A direct descendant of founder Jan Baptist De Mesmaecker, Toye and his colleagues are sticklers for tradition, and every beer at Palm Breweries is what they call a thoroughbred. That means the architecture of each beer is deeply rooted in custom and crafted based on the careful choice of raw materials – the grains, the starch, the water, the hops and the yeast.
In making these decisions, Palm brewers look to history. Take the Bruges beers, the Steenbrugge Abbey beers and Brugge Tripel, for example, which are spiced rather than hoppy. The secret of these beers is the blend of herbs known as gruut, which provides the flavour. Every town used to have its own beer with individual character. In Bruges, that character was determined by a blend of herbs that brewers were obliged to buy from the city’s spice and herb shop, known as the gruuthuse. This medieval tradition is perpetuated in the Brugge range.
In recent years, Palm has taken its efforts to protect Belgium’s brewing heritage even further by getting its beers protected under European protection labels. Toye says these labels serve as important quality markers for consumers, so they know they are getting the authentic product. “We think some typical beer styles should be described and protected [just like] wines. Then consumers know they have the guarantee that they get from the label.”
Right now, only Geuze Boon has the protected label, but Palm is in the process of getting labels for the Palm and Rodenbach beers as well. “The brand ‘Belgian beer’ is not enough,” Toye says, “Belgian beers should represent real tradition, real quality, real recipe processes.”
This is where the art comes in. Palm sees beer as the artistic expression of a local people, and the company spends its time perfecting brews that accurately reflect a particular region, its history and its people. According to Toye, this means resisting the urge to create “one unified Belgian beer”. Instead, Palm sees it as its obligation to celebrate and continue the diversity of Belgian beer by adhering to the traditional methods used since the monks and merchants of the Middle Ages.
Between anchoring itself in the long traditions of history and using technology to innovate the ways it can bring fine brews to a global public, Palm is well on its way to achieving its mission to become the one-stop shop for real, craft Belgian beers worldwide.