It was the late eighties, I worked in the Pilsner Club in Amsterdam and had size 43 shoe, 52 for suits. Arjan Govers walked into the pub and convinced us to list ‘Speciale Palm’. Besides Duvel we served Westmalle and BelleVue – Palm’s bittersweet maltiness was completely new to us. It also proved to have a high drinkability so Teun van Veen was easily won over. My shoe size is still the same but much has changed!
In the years that followed, Palm captured the Dutch market with her amber beer. In 2006, Palm Speciale was perhaps the best-selling Belgian beer in the Netherlands: the brewery brewed 325,000 hectoliters of it on a total of 400,000 hectoliters. Last year that had fallen to only 125,000 hectoliters on a total of 250,000 hectoliters. The brand has received a beating, you might say. But why?
The story of Palm, at least in the Netherlands, is one of success and – in hindsight – a fateful decision. It celebrated triumphs yet came at a crucial crossroads: play along with the Big Boys, or remain ‘special’? At one point they decided to participate in price promotions, and although they had long maintained that a crate Palm ‘would never be sold for less than twenty guilders’ we could sometimes buy that crate for 18 guilders and ninety-nine cents. Palm had become a “normal” beer – like a lager. And plenty drinkers claim the taste of Spéciale Palm has changed over the years, by which is meant that the beer has grown largely devoid of taste.
If one could speak of a crisis, it was full when an Albert Heijn advertisement mistakenly spoke of Palm Pils: 24 bottles for € 10.49 (equivalent to just over 23 guilders). Palm lager: what had the world come to? By the way: the ‘special price’ of a crate Palm increased over more than fifteen years with only four guilders and 13 cents, or € 1.87. Palm has proven immune to inflation, it seems, and then you also have to remember that Palm was in 33 cl bottles in 2000 (10% more than now). The fact the people in Steenhuffel had ‘no trust anymore in Palm’, as the FD reported, I thus understand. Just as the fact the brewery is making profits again, by no longer focusing on their eponymous amber beer. The answer turned out to be in character beers – surprising?
Palm Belgian Craft Breweries in fact has some strong beers in portfolio: besides a share in Brouwerij Boon they own Steenbrugge Abbey beers, Rodenbach and Brugge Tripel. Especially Rodenbach, in terms of history and flavor profile, fits today’s flavor profile especially well. Brouwerij De Hoorn is actually a kind of ‘brewers playground ‘ and produces novelties like Cornet and the series “Arthur’s Legacy”, named after the great-uncle of the current owner Jan Toye. These are all interesting and experimental – but low volume – beers. Where Spéciale Palm is losing ground these beers know to attract beer drinkers again. In essence, one has looked closely at the (owned) past. Like almost all modern brewing heroes who are actually ultra-retro, so has Palm rediscovered her ‘craft’ past – and thus its future.
Could this be a model for other breweries who find themselves in the corner where the blows are being dealt? The answer seems to be in the question: for example, Carlsberg launched her series Jacobsen years back, named after the founder of the brewery, and is celebrating success with it. This is very promising for the future: what can we expect from for example Heineken? That company also owns a lot of history, and brands or recipes from the past. And AB Inbev: they may not need to purchase so many breweries as they think. Let them go and have a look in the attic: plenty of jewels lying around there, covered under thick layers of dust.