Belgium's beer sellers see trouble brewing

A man looks at Belgian beers
Image caption There is a danger of losing the word 'Belgian' from beer bottles

A Belgian beer seller says he is so worried about the risk of his country disappearing off the map that he has registered some alternative business names.

Aram Ettibaryan, who owns the well-known Beer Planet store in central Brussels, is concerned by the continuing bitter political wrangling over Belgium's future.

He fears that if relations break down and the country is formally split between the Flemish north and the French-speaking south, he and others could no longer sell "Belgian beer" under its present description.

So Mr Ettibaryan has acquired the domain names and, just in case. He advises other businesses in a similar position to consider doing the same.

Unlike its politicians, Belgium's beer makers and sellers share a common goal. Most take the view that splitting the country into "Walloon" and "Flemish" sectors would be a disaster for sales in a globalised beer market.

"All this is very worrying and it shows that we tend to undervalue the things we have, unless we are on the edge of losing them," says Mr Ettibaryan.

Brand ownership

Belgium has been without a government for nearly four months after a party that advocates splitting the country in two won the most seats in June.

Although it has been a country divided for many years, co-operation among the political parties elected to run its regional affairs has seemingly broken down.

Business people are generally opposed to a split. French speakers from Wallonia, the more impoverished south, fear that the country could break up if there are more elections and the wealthier Dutch-speaking region in the north pushes for autonomy and takes control of the social security system.

Image caption Mr Ettibaryan believes the Belgian beer brand must be protected

Over the past few decades, "Belgian beer" has become a collective and widely understood description for the products of more than 170 local breweries producing in both Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia.

As gassy, internationally-branded, beers have become commonplace, it has become an easily recognised hallmark for beer connoisseurs - a promise of quality and exclusivity.

Despite the uneven distribution of breweries and the number of individual beers they produce, no territory has ever claimed the ownership of the "Belgian beer" brand.

More than 80% of Belgian beers are exported and major producers spend millions on marketing. Anheuser-Busch-InBev alone has a sales and marketing budget put at nearly 4m euros ($5.4m; £3.4m) a year alone.

Common goal

So far, it's unlikely that the political classes arguing about their country's future have given much consideration to the impact of their decision on the future of "Brand Belgium" .

Yet there's little doubt that the simple country of origin of a product is an intangible asset. Displayed on a bottle of beer, "Made in Belgium" conveys in a single phrase something of the rich history and diversity of the brewing tradition in the country.

Mr Ettibaryan thinks that while accounting books allow the goodwill on a company to be evaluated, nobody has yet fully appreciated the goodwill value of his own country on a label, nor the part it plays in bolstering the perceived value of the 1,000 or so different beers displayed on his shelves or listed on his website.

"The Belgian beer description is so important - especially in an age when many products are designed in one country and assembled in another from materials imported from even further afield," he says.

Liquid chocolate

It's not just the Beer Planet which is concerned about Starship Belgium's present voyage into the political unknown. Brussels' myriad chocolate shops may not be in much danger, but the country has a chocolate export industry worth more than 1bn euros a year.

Mike Blavier runs the Duval Chocolaterie - a family business in Brussels specialising in high-quality chocolate gifts.

The warm cocoa smell throughout his workshop is intoxicating as a batch of liquid chocolate is gently melted and his skilled chocolatiers start laying out moulds, ready to hand-pour another batch of personalised designs for an export customer.

"All this talk of splits is a little bit frightening. What we need is stability - to strengthen our credibility with customers. At the moment, it's hard to see how that's going to be achieved," says Mr Blavier.

"To lose that all-important 'Belgian Chocolate' label would be a disaster. It's such a potent image for the rest of the world, and as an industry, we really would be forced to start again at the beginning."

The prospect of a full-blown identity crisis for Belgium is also worrying the bigger fish in the chocolate export industry.

Jean Galler is the third-generation boss of the luxury chocolate makers Galler. The company has more than 100 employees and 2,000 outlets in eight countries. The value of the company's royal warrant to the Belgian monarchy would be devalued, for a start.

"Forty years ago, the Swiss were regarded as making the best chocolate in the world. Now it is rightly seen as Belgian," Mr Galler says.

"Is this thanks to the Flemish? Is this thanks to the people of Brussels? Is this thanks to the Walloon? No, it's thanks to all the chocolate makers - they worked hard together during all that time to achieve a quality that is recognized around the world. A split of the country would destroy all that work."

'Faceless brands'

Back in his Brussels store, packed to the rafters with his country's finest - and most obscure - brews, Beer Planet's Aram Ettibarayan gloomily surveys his serried ranks of colourful labels.

"What will happen if we lose the word Belgian on the front of all these bottles - will it be replaced?

"We already let that happen with Belgian fries. The real risks that these unique beers will change their identity and just become more faceless brands in the corporate world. I sincerely hope that isn't allowed to happen."

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