Written By: Clare McCarthy
Images Courtesy: Duvel Moortgat
It’s been 150 years since Jan-Leonard Moortgat and his wife founded the Moortgat Brewery farm in Belgium. What was then a small operation seeking to establish itself among over 3,000 other Belgian breweries present at the turn of the 20th century has now grown into a global brewing company that distributes quality beer across the globe.
The family-owned and operated brewery became widely known in the 1960s and ‘70s for its production and distribution of Duvel, a top-fermented strong ale that has been (and still is) brewed from the same original recipe and distinctive yeast strain used when it was first produced in the early 1920s. After WWI, English-style ales had gained popularity, so Albert Moortgat (one of Jan-Leonard’s sons) decided to create a special beer based on the English model. To do so, he traveled to the United Kingdom to seek out a specific strain of yeast, eventually settling on one from a Scottish brewery, which is the same yeast strain culture used today.
Originally called “Victory Ale” in celebration of the WWI victory of the allied troops, the beer got its unique name, Duvel, after the village shoemaker proclaimed, “This is the beer of the devil!” In his unique Belgian dialect, the word “devil” was pronounced “duvel,” and the name stuck.
As consumers began to look for more unique aromas, tastes, and quality in their beers, Duvel’s success blossomed in the 1970-1980’s and put Moortgat beer on the international market. But after careful analysis, the third and fourth generation of the Moortgat family realized the brewery was extremely dependent upon one brand, Duvel, and one market—Belgium.
Michel Moortgat, CEO of Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat, says it wasn’t really until he and his two brothers and cousin took over the company that Duvel Moortgat began to add other beer brands to its portfolio and accelerate international development and sales.
As part of the fourth generation of Moortgat family members to own and operate the brewery, Michel feels a particular commitment to the quality, sustainability, and legacy of Moortgat beers. When he joined the company 30 years ago, it wasn’t long after that Michel’s father and then his uncle passed away, leaving him to take on the role of CEO.
“I had to take up responsibilities much sooner than I anticipated,” Michel says. “But I think it was a blessing because when you’re young, you have a lot of new ideas and you’re willing to take a little more risk than when you’re getting older.” Michel says this enabled him and his family members to not only continue to build upon the legacy of previous generations but also bring in new ideas, thoughts, and developments that have helped shape the company into what it is today.
In the mid-2000s, Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat began to execute a new strategic plan that included developing new brands and the acquisition of other breweries to expand in the rapidly growing United States craft beer market.
Since then, the company has supported the growth of numerous breweries, both in the United States and abroad, including breweries such as Brewery Ommegang in New York state, Firestone Walker in California, and Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City. Other breweries in which Duvel has ownership include Brasserie d’Achouffe, Liefmans, and Browerij De Koninck. Elite Brands carries beers from Duvel Moortgat, Brasserie d’Achouffe, Liefmans, and Brewery Ommegang.
“Our model has always been to give tools and help develop brands and breweries locally, rather than try to consolidate them and integrate them in a larger facility,” Michel says. “We realize that the combination of having both very good American craft beers and then Belgian beer brands in our portfolio—to bring them together, to share knowledge, to share financial means, to share equipment and facilities—was a good way to help each other.”
Michel says the company considers itself to not only be a family business but a family of breweries, constantly working to help and support one another.
The company invests a substantial amount of time and energy each year into research, development, and innovation, seeking out the best available technology and insights into the brewing process that can help each of its brands thrive. Despite a commitment to local Belgian heritage and tradition, Michel says it is important to continue to innovate and experiment as the craft beer industry evolves.
“Sometimes it’s a difficult line to walk, but we do indeed try to combine both,” Michel says. “We are proud of our heritage and we realize what important work the previous generations have done before us, but then on the other end, moving forward, we have to innovate and participate in research and development. We try as well as we can to combine tradition, heritage, and innovation but with one constant focus: no compromise on quality. If innovation doesn’t deliver what we expected, we will not release it and not bring it on the market.”
The brewery has had great success with experimenting with different hop varieties and barrel aging techniques, so much so that certain beers introduced as a one-time, limited release have made their way into the company’s portfolio after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response by consumers. New innovations in recent years have included Duvel Tripel Hop, a variation of Duvel that features a third rotating hop added by process of dry-hopping. The current Tripel Hop features Citra hops. Additionally, Duvel released a canned version of Duvel Single Fermented, which was previously only available on draft. Retailers can find both Duvel Triple Hop and Duvel Single Fermented in Elite’s portfolio.
However, the original Duvel ale continues to be Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat’s flagship beer. Michel says it is the brewery’s constant focus on quality that makes Duvel unique from other beers on the market.
“It’s a strong beer—it’s top-fermented, then refermented in the bottle, with an 8.5% ABV,” Michel says. “But then on the other hand, it’s very pale and very well balanced, with a nice bitterness that isn’t overwhelming. It has unique tastes and aromas but a very high drinkability also.”
Refermentation is the process of adding yeast and sugar to a beer after it has been bottled; the yeast then transforms the sugar into alcohol and carbonation, giving it a specific flavor, aroma, and character that it might not have pre-bottling.
With brewing facilities now in the United States, Michel noted that Duvel continues to brew its beer in Belgium. The reasoning is to maintain the highest level of quality, which comes from brewing on Duvel’s highly specialized brewing equipment. The one unique exception is Duvel Single, which is brewed only in Belgium but then tanked and shipped to the United States, where it is canned at Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City. This has many advantages for the brewery, including lower transportation costs and less of a carbon footprint. It also makes the beer fresher on the market, Michel says.
While the pandemic has had a significant impact on the brewing industry in general, Brouwerij Duvel Moortgat is fortunate in that in many countries, it operates in large, off-trade distribution. Even with many restaurants and bars being closed in 2020, the company’s sales have stayed steady and continue to pick up strongly as the 2021 continues.
Looking forward, Duvel Moortgat seeks to increase its efforts on sustainability while maintaining its core values of quality, passion, and tradition.
“We believe that we might still be around 150 years from now, if the world doesn’t turn mad,” Michel says. Michel’s children, along with the rest of the family’s fifth generation, will be shareholders in the company and may even end up directly running it (only if they so desire, Michel remarks).
“Of course, the world will be different, and we’ll have to step up,” Michel says. “It’s obvious that even today we’ll need to be careful with our natural resources and lower our water consumption as much as we can.”
The company already uses 100 percent green energy, with over 99 percent of its waste recycled and reused. Michel says sustainability will continuously be a strong point of focus for the brewery and will become increasingly important in the next 150 years.
“Of course, the next generation will probably do it differently than I did, but that is good—that is how things should be,” Michel says. “I hope nevertheless they will keep the good things from the past and build on those values.”
The company held a series of events at the beginning of September to celebrate its 150th year anniversary, recognizing all the various wholesalers, distributors, employees, and fans who have contributed to Duvel Moortgat’s success since its foundation in 1871.
Michel is confident in the future of the company, mainly because he believes people will continue to enjoy good quality beer, regardless of the state of the world. After all, he says, beer always pairs well with good company. “These days, a lot of beers are good beers. But whatever beer I can drink with good friends, or with a beautiful sunset, that’s the beer I will enjoy at that very moment.”