“At Birdhouse, we’ve realized that it’s not at all bad to pivot once in a while.”
Turning beer lovers into true beer connoisseurs who know what they are drinking: that is the mission of the Ghent start-up BeerSelect. As true missionaries of Belgian beer, the three young founders – at 22 years of age the benjamins at Birdhouse – want to get as many people as possible excited about our barley beer. All the way to China if we have to.
Under the spell of beer
When we speak to Miel Bonduelle, Wout Meuleman and Kasper Peeters, they have just returned from the Craft Beer Fair in Shanghai. “Three Belgian kids who were going to teach the Chinese how to drink beer” they laughingly describe the purpose of their trip to the Far East. But make no mistake: the trio behind BeerSelect takes their mission to teach the world to drink Belgian beer very seriously.
They are in the spirit of the times. Pils is losing popularity at the expense of special beers. They still sell, and they quickly cross the counter and the bar, and even more quickly down the throats. At BeerSelect they were ahead of their time. “While my fellow students were drinking pints at the Overpoort until they had a lump in their collar, I went to discover as many new beers as possible in the pub,” Kasper Peeters explains. “At home there was always beer. Never Jupiler or Maes, always special beer. Beer to me means conviviality.”
Miel Bonduelle’s father comes from the Hoppest region, home of one of the most important ingredients of beer. “That has stuck with me. I’ve always had a special fascination with beer.”
Wout Meuleman went one step further. “I didn’t heavily indulge, but I had one indulgence: brewing beer. At the time when my peers were carefully tasting their first pints, I was already brewing my own beer at home. I was really obsessed with that, the whole family had to step into that experiment.”
Knowing what you drink
While studying in Ghent and sharing the same student job, the three of them decided to set up their own company: BeerSelect. “We started as a pure webshop for Belgian beers. Not the AB Inbev or Moortgat beers, but beers from the smaller craft breweries. That webshop ran well, but it’s a complex business and besides that it’s enormously difficult to scale as a small webshop.”
“After a lot of thought and hesitation, we completely overhauled our strategy. The webshop has made way for discovery packages and business gifts for companies. We put those packages together, and let our customers or those of companies get to know unique beers that they might otherwise never taste. We make it – much more than with the webshop – a real experience. The taste, the story behind the beer and the brewery, they all contribute to the overall experience that real beer lovers are looking for. Knowing what you’re drinking is what it’s all about.”
The taste, the story behind the beer and the brewery, they all contribute to the overall experience that real beer lovers are looking for.
BeerSelect’s success depends on the quality of the beer. “Whether they are beer lovers or people whose journey of discovery has yet to start: we really need to blow them away with our beer packs. That takes a lot of time. All three of us are certified beer sommeliers: we can judge the taste, but also the brewing process and the technical side. And the three of us still go and taste new beers quite often. (laughing) It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it.”
Importantly, we also look at the brewer behind the beer. Tastes differ, des goûts et des couleurs, on ne discute pas. The story has to be right too, we have to recognize our own fire and hunger in the brewers before we go into business with them.
Dare to pivot
Since BeerSelect became part of the accelerator program – as benjamins of the current batch – the start-up has also really gained momentum. “It’s all in the execution, we understood that very early on. We had a nice idea, but it’s not like we invented nuclear fission. From the start, it was clear to us that we had to work really hard above all else.”
“The biggest challenge is our personal growth. We are still students and have learned just about every aspect of a start-up by doing. But sometimes things go so fast with BeerSelect that we run a little past ourselves. After our first financing round – well, a bank loan – of 100,000 euros, we really felt that pressure on our shoulders. Then it’s a great support to be able to fall back on experts in sales, in marketing, in finance, in legal,… The very biggest cracks here at Birdhouse are just one desk or one phone call away.”
“Now take the decision to completely turn our strategy around. At Birdhouse we’ve realised that it’s not at all bad to pivot every now and then, when circumstances or the market demand it. Quite the opposite, the largest and most successful companies do not do otherwise.”
The decision to continue BeerSelect with the three of us instead of four has given us peace of mind and a major boost in confidence.
“We also struggled for a long time with the composition of our team. We started with four. Pretty soon our fourth founder left, and it has remained a kind of idée fixe for us that we had to be four. But thanks to discussions with our mentor, we have realised that we might as well redistribute the tasks a little, rather than keep looking for a fourth person. This decision has given us peace of mind and a big boost in confidence.”
“In the meantime, we created an environment for ourselves that really propelled us forward. With people who give us a kick in the ass when we need it, but who also pick us back up off the floor once we’ve crashed face first into the wall.”
The popularity of speciality beers has not escaped the notice of the giants in the beer world. To compensate for the shrinking market share of lager, they are targeting smaller breweries to take over. Nevertheless, BeerSelect sees its own market – that of smaller breweries – continuing to grow unabated. “Belgium already has more than 200 breweries, but 40 new ones are added every year. Often very small, somewhere in a cellar or a warehouse, but they continue to spring up like mushrooms.”
The smaller breweries are the beating heart of our beer culture.
“Actually, it’s economic madness. We already have a couple of thousand beers, foreign beers are also successful, the market should be completely saturated. The fact that beers and breweries keep on being added can only be explained by the incredible passion for beer that lives here.”
“All those smaller breweries are the beating heart of our beer culture. It’s the little ones that chase the giants. Not the other way around. AB Inbev will certainly innovate with, for instance, new, energy-efficient brewing techniques. But in terms of taste, such a large company will not take any risks. It is the small breweries all over the country that are responsible for flavour innovation. They experiment, try out new combinations and flavours. The big brewers sit back and only follow when they notice a flavor is catching on.”