A Belgian brewery on Friday will turn on the taps of a pipeline buried beneath the medieval city of Bruges to transport its beer to a bottling plant three kilometres away.
Four years in planning and five months in construction, the 150 year old Halve Maan (Half Moon) brewery will officially open a pipe that will rid the historic city centre and its tight cobbled lanes of beer-laden trucks weighing more than 40 tonnes.
The brewery bid farewell on Thursday to the last of those trucks, one of between 10 and 15 which travel per week, from streets designed for a horse and cart and now packed with tourists.
Halve Maan’s managing director Xavier Vanneste said the trucks’ regular rotations had become an environmental hazard for the city.
“We have up to four to five of these tanker trucks a day sometimes and that’s really becoming difficult for environmental reasons but also, just in general, the liveability of the inner centre of Bruges is sometimes threatened (by) that,” Vanneste said.
He added the idea of a pipe had seemed far-fetched until he saw local workmen laying underground cables and started looking into it.
“Actually I was seeing some construction workers who were building other pipelines for utilities, drinking water or cables for data exchange and, as I saw those people building these kinds of utilities, I was talking to them and I was asking them how they did this, how they proceeded with permits to get through it, how it went in the technical way, etc. And, as I was speaking with these guys, I was realizing that, in fact, building a beer pipeline would be feasible and was actually something that was not just a dream but that (it) would be possible,” Vanneste said.
The brew master, five generational lines down from founder Henri Maes, said he could have moved the brewing to beside the bottling plant built in 2010 and kept the old site as a museum. But he wanted to retain the beers as products of the old city.
Before World War Two, the city had some 30 beer makers, but Halve Maan is the last of the old guard left and on a site where an earlier “Halve Maan” brewery operated 575 years ago.
The current site still brews the staple blond and brown Brugse Zot and the maltier and stronger Straffe Hendrik, but also welcomes visitors to its bar and more than 100,000 to its museum, both clear adverts for the brands for Belgians and foreigners.
The picture perfect centre of Bruges is a magnet for some 6.5 million tourists per year and a UNESCO world heritage site home to early Flemish painters and filled with Gothic brick buildings, canals and historic churches.
Vanneste said the city’s historical status added to the difficulty of building the pipeline.
“We had to find a way to build the pipeline underground without opening all the streets because in old Bruges that is UNESCO Heritage. That is protected as well. We were not allowed to open just all the streets and dig everywhere holes in the street. So we had to work with the modern techniques like underground drilling,” said.
It’s not just the pipeline that is novel. The way it was funded is too.
The pipeline cost some CAD $5.9 million. Halve Maan received a subsidy from the Flemish regional government, but also raised more than half a million dollars through crowdfunding, among the largest ever in Belgium, paying contributors back in beer.
Those paying the top-rate $11,000 will be rewarded with a bottle of Brugse Zot every day for the rest of their lives.
Halve Maan should also benefit too after volumes grew by 30 percent to some five million litres last year and are set for 20 per cent expansion in 2016.