In a world of bloody proxy wars, disappearing rainforests and general systemic failure, arresting the slow decline of the Belgian pub may not rank particularly highly on the global ‘todo’ list, but we at Mediolana were nevertheless moved to discover that this venerable institution – in many senses the lifeblood of village existence in what remains a surprisingly sleepy corner of the world – is in the process of entering the history books. The number of drinking establishments in Belgium fell from 38,128 in 1983 to 17,512 in 2012, and this trend shows little sign of abating: the vertical integration of breweries, over-industrialisation of beer manufacturing and changing generational norms are not irreversible, but difficult to rectify.
In part, this may be a blessing in disguise: beer consumption in Belgium has declined 27% since 1992, a highly-desirable trend given that 10% of all deaths in Europe can be attributed to alcohol – a figure that rises to 15% in the former Soviet Union. Nevertheless, the gentle decline of the Belgian pub denotes a significant loss in social capital: the endless card games and conversations hosted by these venues have seemingly not yet found an alternative location in which to express themselves.
After some contemplation, we at Mediolana think we have some solutions to plug this gap. Three in particular stand out:
- Libraries. The Belgian pub was never the rowdiest of alcohol-serving outlets, so recasting it in a book-dominated format is not the paradigm shift it might appear to be. As recent experiences in the UK and Spain have shown, when budget cuts hit libraries, the general public can be counted on to keep these services alive as much as any other – a lending library with a small commercial twist should be even easier to turn into a self-sustaining if not downright profitable enterprise.
- Gelato. For years, the delights of Italian gelato were confined to those precious weeks holidaying on the boot-shaped peninsula – or, at a stretch, Yugoslavia or Turkey – where genuinely amazing ice-cream could be enjoyed at leisure, and in glorious sunshine. But it turns out that gelato transplants well into other locations, regardless of climate: Italian ice-cream is the new retail rock ‘n’ roll in parts of Northern Europe. If it can take off in rainy London, then sultry Brussels (and its hinterland) can also reap the social benefits from a sugar high.
- Games. If there is one thing guaranteed to get young people enthusiastic about getting away from their mobile telephones, it is the prospect of staring at yet more electronic screens. Entrepreneurs in the Belgian hospitality industry would do well to look at the example of the PC bang, an often-luxurious type of über-Internet café which is a staple of teenage life in South Korea. Adding a peculiarly Belgian dimension to the PC bang – perhaps multi-branch sports clubs attached to each locality – could in turn inspire other European nations confronting similar social capital declines to follow suit.