Novel Solutions to Very Belgian Problems

Photo: / left image courtesy Dulle Griet, right image from Instagram user sanderbossie94.

Bars Demand a Shoe Before Service

Rob Symes

For a country of only 11 million people, Belgium has enjoyed an oversized impact on the beer scene. In fact, that impact has been so huge that UNESCO recognized Belgian beer by adding it to its list of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’, which highlights the cultural peaks of our species. Countless styles, and countless wonderful beers, with a unique glass for everyone. Belgian beer is truly a curated experience, but just as tourists remove rocks and other items from cultural landmarks, so has Belgium faced an increasingly vexing problem.

Every year, tens of thousands of glasses disappear from Belgian bars and it’s causing serious issues for bar owners and brewers alike. Jan Paillaert explains, “Glasses are a necessary evil for brewers. They are our business card, so you want every cafe to have them all the time. But it costs you money when people start walking with it.” In fact, his brewery, Brugse Zot, has to deliver 1000 replacement glasses each month for their signature brew, and that’s just within the Bruges (population 117,000).

It’s expensive and problematic in a culture where people expect their beer to be served in the correct glassware, but bar owners have begun to fight back. Their solutions run from the sophisticated to the surreal.

The picturesque medieval city of Bruges is synonymous with Belgian Beer, but one of its bar owners has been forced to seek a high tech answer to a very old problem. Philip Maes, the landlord of the Bruges Beerwall cafe, has been forced to invest in security alarms attached to the stem of each of his glasses. “We have lost at least 4000 every year,” he explains. “For some reason, some customers think that when they pay for something to drink, they get the glass as a present.” It’s a huge commitment for the bar because the alarm system cost them €4000 ($6400), but they hope to recoup those costs back in just a few years.

In the east of the country you’ll find the town of Ghent, an old centre of the traditional lace industry. With such strong historical links to the clothing industry, it’s extremely fitting that one bar now demands that you pony up a shoe as a deposit. Dulle Griet, has literally taken things one extra step by asking visitors to hand over a shoe before service (defying the old idiom of ‘no shirt, no shoes, no service’). “Anyone who drinks our house beer must hand over his shoe,” Alex Devriendt told the Belgian press. “We then put them in a basket that we pull up against the ceiling. The basket has now become an attraction, but for us it remains a guarantee. (Glasses) are quite expensive because we have them made especially.”

It’s a fantastic PR stunt, but it’s also a very real problem. “We have to supplement our inventory everyday”, says Devriendt. “Tourists simply want a souvenir. Some even try to throw those old-fashioned billboards off my wall. Certainly in the winter a lot disappears, they have thick coats on. In the summer they can hide the loot less well.”

Tourists may complain about some Belgian brews costing an arm and a leg, but it looks like it may temporarily cost a shoe too.