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When Brussels smelled of beer

La Brasserie Atlas - ©ADT-ATO

The first hotel with a view over the Canal opened on 1 May in a building of the old Belle-Vue brewery. This site where beer was once made will also soon house a hotel management training space. This prompted us to take a little tour of discovery of the old breweries of Brussels in the city’s central districts, by the side of the Canal, including Wielemans-Ceuppens (now the Wiels centre), Cantillon (still operating) and Vandenheuvel (in the process of conversion).


2013-05-16 – In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Brussels had dozens of breweries. In the countryside, beer was drunk straight after it had been brewed, as it could not be conserved; in the capital, however, the brewers produced long-life beer. Countless cellars, both those of private homes and those under public buildings such as hospitals or the Law Courts, were rented out for the storage of the barrels. And there were taverns everywhere: more than 8,000 were counted in 1885. In short, Brussels smelled of beer!

What remains of this heritage in the early 21st century? Not much. The characteristic whiff of the brewer’s trade is certainly gone. On the other hand, there are various street names, such as Rue de la Brasserie (Brewery Street), des Brasseries (Breweries Street), des Brasseurs (Brewers Street), du Houblon (Hops Street), de la Levure (Yeast Street), or de la Cuve (Vat Street). And luckily there are also some remarkable industrial buildings which testify to the heyday of brewing, including several in the central districts, by the Canal. In addition to Belle-Vue near the Porte de Ninove, in the midst of conversion for use in the hotel sector, other big names of Belgian brewing can be seen on various building façades: Wielemans-Ceuppens (Wiels), in Forest; Vandenheuvel, near the Gare de l’Ouest; Atlas in Anderlecht; and of course Cantillon, still operational, near the Gare du Midi.

Vandenheuvel reconstructed

Located near the communication node of the Gare de l’Ouest railway station, the Vandenheuvel site has just been the subject of a property transaction. One of the owners of the site has taken possession of the whole of the emblematic corner building where the brewery’s administrative offices were located.

This owner intends to recommence the renovation of the façade, and then of the different floors, with a view to creating apartments on the upper floors and retail premises on the ground floor. This will probably take several years, but a dynamic approach finally seems to have been brought back to the site, although the buildings in which the brewing and bottling halls were located have long since disappeared.

Wielemans-Ceuppens metamorphoses into Wiels

Another brewery that has been rescued from destruction, in part at least, is Wielemans-Ceuppens, located by the railway line below the Parc de Forest. This has successfully undergone a superb conversion. This iconic example of 1930s architecture, designed by the modernist Adrien Blomme, has been purchased by the Brussels-Capital Region and converted into a contemporary art centre, the Wiels.

This was very much a last-minute rescue, as a first buyer of the site had already started dismantling and selling brewing vats. Fortunately, three of them were saved, and their red copper adds a unique touch to the entrance hall to the Wiels.

New uses for Atlas

Over in the Anderlecht direction, the name ‘Brasseries Atlas’ is picked out in white stones in a redbrick wall on Rue du Libre Examen, just a short distance from the start of Rue Wayez and the Canal. Much of this building has been preserved. It houses a warehouse of the Emmaus community; a housing project is being developed between Rue du Libre Examen and Rue Scheutvled.

At one time there were numerous working breweries in the more industrial districts near the Canal: it was the perfect location next to a waterway used for goods transportation. This was particularly true of Anderlecht. The Bavaro Belge brewery and malthouse was situated right next to the Canal on Quai Fernand Demets. Virtually opposite it, near Chaussée de Mons, a road called Avenue de la Brasserie still exists, which was the site of the Impérial brewery. Two streets away from there, the Cantillon brewery is still in use.

Cantillon: keeping the tradition alive

This little brewery, which is also home to the Gueuze Museum, might be described as a guardian of the tradition, although it also likes to try out innovations too. Lambic is still produced there by the original method, without the addition of yeast. It ferments in wooden barrels and its fruit beers (including cherry and raspberry) are made with real fruit, not syrups. Twice a year, the brewing process is performed publicly at Cantillon. And the museum can be visited throughout the year.

A little further from the Canal, Anderlecht was also home at one time to the Moeremans brewery on Chaussée de Mons, near the Parc Astrid. Although most of Brussels’ breweries, like this one, have today disappeared, a new one has been established in Molenbeek. The Brasserie de la Senne has set up shop on Chaussée de Gand. Two young brewers have revived the tradition of unfiltered artisanal beers. They began their business on the outskirts of Brussels, but preferred to return to the city once they had found the right spot.

Beer beneath the European Parliament

Of course the less central districts of Brussels also had their breweries, now forgotten. For example, who remembers that on the site now occupied by the huge European Parliament building, the Léopold brewery stood until 1987? Another example was the Grandes brasseries d’Ixelles, situated between the Ixelles ponds and Chaussée de Vleurgat. All that has survived of this brewery is a few houses on Rue Lannoy, on one of which a plaque is displayed.

Surprising new uses

But these districts further away from the Canal also have some surprising examples of new uses to which brewing buildings can be put. The Aerts brewery, for instance,is home to the Théâtre Le Public in Saint-Josse. Other parts of the site are still preserved, both on Rue Braemt and at the back on Rue des Deux Tours. And in the neighbouring municipality, Schaerbeek, another trace of Brussels’ beery history survives: a building of the Le Phare brewery, converted into housing.

Compared with Brussels’ prestigious brewing history, the current beer production volume is pretty insignificant, of course. Times have changed, and companies have merged in order to survive, and have had to leave the conurbation in order to have more space…But although the quantity is no longer what it was, the quality is still there, with two micro-breweries: Brasserie Cantillon and Brasserie de la Senne.

Jean-Pierre BORLOO