The sale of lager has been on the decline in Belgium for years. Large brewers such as AB InBev are trying to turn the tide with promotions and advertising campaigns, but they are fighting a losing battle, according to beer sommelier Sofie Vanrafelghem. "It can only make our beer tastier."
According to Nicolas Degryse of brewery Omer Vander Ghinste, the Belgian lager market has been shrinking by 3 to 4 % for several years. This is not a temporary dip: the beer barometer of the Belgian Brewers, which regularly measures the Belgians' favourite beer, shows a decreasing appetite for lager beers. In 2005, slightly more than half Belgian consumers said they preferred lager. In the latest poll, which took place in 2019, that percentage had shrunk to just 23.6 %.
The declining popularity of lager is mainly due to the rise of speciality beers. In addition, less beer is being consumed in total: the volume in Belgium fell from 10.3 million hectolitres in 1996 to 7.03 million hectolitres in 2019.
Roel Dekelver, of supermarket chain Delhaize, confirms the trends in Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad. "Just by looking at our beer aisle, you will notice the difference. We used to provide more space for lagers. Nowadays, regional and speciality beers are literally gaining territory: every year, sales of regional beers go up by about 30 %, while lager sales stagnate."
Big brewers such as AB InBev and Alken-Maes are trying to give the sales of lager a fresh boost through advertising campaigns and promotions. This is reflected, for example, in an increase in 'buy one, get one free' promotions in supermarkets. "When you have to start giving things away for free, that does mean something", Vanrafelghem points out. She is convinced that the lager brewers are fighting a losing battle, and make it even worse: the promotions fuel the preconception of lager being a cheap beverage.
Enjoyment comes first
For the beer lovers themselves, Vanrafelghem paints a positive picture along with the story. "Brewers have long seen lager as a beer that was mainly for heavy drinking." According to her, a change in mentality is happening slowly but surely: tasting and enjoying beer is coming more to the fore. "That is why you now see a lot of new tasteful beers emerging with a lower alcohol percentage."
The beer sommelier points out that several brewers have already made the switch. "Palm, for example, is making a name for itself with its Estaminet, which is a tasty quality lager." Only by carefully considering what they could do better, can they make lager more appealing again, Vanrafelghem concludes.