The alcohol pipeline: why beer flows under the streets of Bruges
Spared by wars and other disasters, the town of Bruges, with its stone ramparts, historic buildings and picturesque canals, is a wonderful tourist destination.
And what better way to crown a visit to the capital of the province of West Flanders than with a good beer – after all, some of the world’s tastiest barley juices come from Belgium. But what many visitors won’t know is that while they enjoy a fresh draft glass in front of a tavern, some of the beer is flowing under their feet.
The brewery responsible is named De Halve Maan (Half Moon). The oldest in Bruges, dating back to 1564, it has its own pipeline under the historic old town, pumping its beer 3.2km to the gates of the city.
The reason for this exceptional undertaking by the current owner Xavier Vanneste, whose ancestors took over the brewery in 1856, is actually quite simple. Due to the increasing demand for high-quality beer, the brewery needed a more powerful and larger bottling plant, but the beer itself would continue to be brewed in the old building.
As the Half Moon brewery produces around five million litres of beer, this meant not only the transportation of vast amounts of ingredients moving through the narrow streets of the historic town, but also hundreds of tanker trucks. To protect the UNESCO World Heritage site, in 2000, the owners came up with the idea of the pipeline in order to save around 250-300 truck trips.
The planning and hours of talks with the authorities lasted four years to convince them to drill holes in the streets of the medieval city centre, with construction lasting five months. Accordingly, extreme care was taken with the computer-controlled drilling operation for the 40cm pipe holes and the costs totalled around €4.2 million.
6,000 litres of beer flowing per hour
Since September 2016, the alcohol pipeline has transported the beer from a tank in the brewing space through four small pipes with a diameter of 8cm directly into a tank in the bottling plant. Taking just under 60 minutes, 5,000 to 6,000 litres of beer per hour flow until a batch has arrived at its destination. After a load has passed through the tubes, they’re cleaned and disinfected. Up to 300 litres of water then rinse off the pipe before the next beer transport begins.
Can citizens, tourists and bars tap into the pipeline?
The idea sounds tempting. If you could actually drill deep enough to tap the pipeline, you’d only fill a glass with a precursor of the beverage that you really want to enjoy. It’s only on the bottling line that the brewing process is finished. There, the beer still has to be stored for another three weeks. Then it’s filtered, pasteurised, and sugar and yeast are added. In addition, after filling the bottle, yeast is added again for the second phase of fermentation – a hallmark of the Belgian brewing process.
You can watch this marvel of technology through a transparent manhole cover near the brewery or book a guided tour of De Halve Maan building. For the grand finale, you can enjoy a glass right there and then.