The Marvellous Belgian Beer Pipeline

By Nick Brunt

The Canals and Belfry of Bruges

The Canals and Belfry of Bruges

Considering the international attention directed towards it in the past few months, the entrance of Bruges’ Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery is inconspicuous enough. Situated on a leafy square in the south of the city’s medieval centre, the only outward sign of its location is hardly imposing: only a modest placard marks the spot, affixed at eye level to an old brick row house like any other in Belgium. But there is more to this house than meets the eye. The opening of two suspiciously large wooden doors at street level reveal a passageway from the quiet streetfront to an open, sunlit terrace hidden from view. Past the numerous patio tables and chairs dotting the courtyard, the brewery finally shows itself, a massive building with shiny fermentation vats peeking out from behind floor-to-ceiling windows in the rear corner. To the right, the door to a gift shop hides shelves lined with beer bottles and other branded souvenirs bearing the brewery’s characteristic crescent moon. Perhaps the most obvious indication of brewing activity is the last noticed: looking up, two of the brewery’s twelve enormous stainless steel storage vessels become visible, rising above the rustic courtyard in stark contrast with the rest of Bruges’ medieval skyline. The entire brewing operation, tucked away behind its innocent brick facade, remains out of sight until you’re practically at its doorstep.

Visiting the Half Moon was quite a unique touristic experience, and quite possibly the highlight of my trip to Bruges. Not only was I able to tour through the complex mechanical inner workings of a brewery, but I also got to taste a sampling of various unfiltered beers. It was like a dream come true. What more can an engineer ask for? Well, I was intrigued to learn that, at the time of my visit in June of this year, the brewery was on the cusp of achieving a seemingly farcical, but completely serious, dream of their own: the completion of the world’s first beer pipeline.

“It’s a fairytale fucking town, isn’t it?”

That line, spoken by Ralph Fiennes’ character in the 2008 movie In Bruges, is as apt a description of the place as any. Bruges is a fairy tale, a labyrinth of well-trodden cobblestone streets crisscrossing over an equally eccentric series of centuries-old canals. Seen from the sky, the old city centre is a pear-shaped patchwork of brick-red roofs and church steeples, enclosed practically all the way round by a deeper waterway once vital to the economic prosperity of the entire region. While its picturesque canals and cobbles now support the town’s economy by drawing tourists from around the world, they also pose a particular set of challenges to the residents and businesses of the famous city.

The Half Moon Brewery's fermentation vats

The Half Moon Brewery’s fermentation vats

The Half Moon Brewery, recently having celebrated its 160th birthday, is currently the only brewery in Bruges proper, but that wasn’t always the case. Once it was among several dozen spread across the city, churning out the prodigious amount of beer necessary to satisfy Belgian tastes. However, one by one, these competitors fell victim to war, recession, or the growing pains associated with being located in a town of Bruges’ age and renown (its entire historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). And the Half Moon was not immune to the any of these issues, with the last of them proved to be their most enduring problem. Wedged between an ancient square and a canal, it grew upwards, but the process of actually getting the beer out of the city remained a perpetual headache. Large trucks, coming several times a week to empty out their storage vessels, could only get to the brewery navigating a web of narrow streets uncomfortable even for a mid-size sedan. This issue had only been exacerbated by the move of the brewery’s bottling plant to a new facility out of town in 2010.

But then Xavier Vanneste, the owner, had an idea. Heir to a brewing tradition going back six generations, he had his eureka moment after seeing city workers laying cable under the square across from the brewery. The solution to his family’s perennial problem lay underground, and despite seeming like a pipe dream initially, the endeavor that started off as a joke is now nearing realization.

The brewery quickly secured funding for the ambitious pipeline project, with the additional help of around a thousand private backers. Although the possibility of in-house taps was immediately ruled out, these investors will be entitled to compensation in the form of – what else – beer. Those at the highest level of contribution are due to receive one standard bottle of Half Moon beer a day for life, by all accounts a uniquely delicious return on investment.

After four long years of construction, nearly three kilometres of pipeline have been laid between the brewery and its bottling facility. Everyone from oil and gas tunneling experts to Belgium’s foremost brewing academic were brought onboard to ensure that the project went as smoothly as possible, while causing minimal disruption to the protected architecture of the old city. At maximum capacity, the brewery anticipates that up to 6,000 litres of beer will flow through the pipeline every hour at speeds of around 20km/h.

The pipeline will be operational within the year, helping to keep up with Half Moon’s growing customer base amid increased interest in traditional brewing. The project will also ensure that tourists from around the world will have yet another reason to visit Bruges, benefitting an important sector that has been struggling since the attacks in Paris and Brussels last year. Despite everything, however, the medieval city remains very much alive, and thanks to the Half Moon Brewery and their marvellous pipeline, the malty aroma of Belgium’s favourite beverage will continue to waft over its canals and church spires for years to come.

A fucking fairytale town, indeed.

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