Moving up the Geers | The Family Who Drink Together
“In the beginning when Vera and I were married we took our little van for trips to breweries on Sundays,” says Dominiek Geers. “There was no internet back then so you couldn’t just google a new brewery in Belgium. You had to hear it from another small brewer who heard from someone starting up. We became not only clients of the brewers, but friends.”
Dominiek is the owner of one of the biggest specialty beer stores in Belgium. Dranken Geers is almost a dictionary definition of a family enterprise, with wife Vera and children Leen and Bert comprising the core workforce.
“We’re a family of beer sellers,” says daughter Leen. “But we’re also a family of beer lovers.” They’ve developed a highly-respected retail business as well as a wide-reaching distribution and export network and they’ve done so on a site that that once housed their own family brewery.
So embedded in the social fabric of Oostakker village are the Geers that the local historical society published a detailed story of their family in its 2012 annual yearbook. “That book says we’re a family of sacristans, brewers, school directors and mayors,” says Leen. “The brewery was in our family from the beginning of the 18th Century until World War II when the Germans took all the equipment.”
When brewing activity ceased, the Geers turned their focus to selling beers from other breweries and by the 1960s had their first distribution trucks doing four rounds of deliveries a week. The game changer came in 1986 with Belgium’s ‘Year of Beer’.
“There were a lot of beer activities in Belgium then,” says Dominiek. “It was also the emergence of the Objectieve Bierproevers, the forerunners of Zythos. The interest in special beers increased dramatically. I took over from my father in the middle of all that change.”
That initial vision to seek out new breweries in other regions sets Dominiek and his family apart as pioneers. “We were one of the first clients of Pierre Celis,” he says. “And we were a client of La Chouffe from the very beginning. I remember piling as many cases of La Chouffe as we could get into the car after one of our family camping trips in the Ardennes.”
Their first foray into ‘specialty beers’ came in 1981 after a trip to Poperinge in West Flanders. “When we went to Brouwerij Van Eecke and told them we wanted to sell Hommelbier in Ghent, the brewery told us we were crazy and that we wouldn’t be able to sell it outside Poperinge,” says Dominiek. “We sold it all. Two weeks later we were back at the brewery looking for more.”
When you work for 30 years in a beer shop, you notice trends in the way people drink. “In the beginning it was Oud Vlaams Bruin,” says Dominiek. “Breweries like Rodenbach couldn’t keep up with demand. After that it was the Spéciale Belge. That was the period that Palm was booming. After that, the specialty beer demand decreased a little bit but in the last 10 years, the IPA has been coming. And now we see that sour beers are in. It’s crazy at the minute with Geuze.”
Their offering is formidable – 1,000 different Belgian beers on Leen’s most recent count – and the last 10 years has seen even more growth in their business than before.
“We started to sell in Brussels, Bruges and Kortrijk,” says Dominiek. “In Brussels we met Jean Hummler from Moeder Lambic. He is not only a client. He is also a friend and an advisor.”
Part of their growth can be attributed to a recent foray into export. “I did an internship in the US,” says Leen. “There was a Belgian beer festival in the Empire State Building during my stay. Through my father’s contacts I was able to get on the VIP guest list.”
That exposure to an engaged foreign market for Belgian beer resulted in Leen taking on a year’s study of Logistics Management as part of her Business Studies at Hogent College in Ghent. “I started with the excise papers and was able to use the family shop as a case study in my course,” she says. “It took as long to get the papers in order as my studies. By 2012 we were exporting Belgian beer to France, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.”
Six years ago Dranken Geers threw a party to celebrate 200 years of the family brewing and selling beer. “So that we would avoid politics among all our Belgian brewing friends, we chose to pour a German beer at that party,” says Leen. “We love going to Germany on holidays and my Dad loves German beer. It was a pils served in ceramic steins. Everyone drank it and no-one even asked what it was.”
There’s another party coming up at the end of this year. 2016 marks the twentieth anniversary of the opening of their large shop space, a seminal moment which allowed them to take the diversity of their range of beers to the next level. Good reason to get the German lager out.