Bruges Built an Underground Beer Pipeline to Improve Traffic
Historically, the idea of a beer pipeline has been confined to college dorm rooms in the early hours of the morning, a nonsense solution for a lack of booze that’s not actually a problem.
Then came Xavier Vanneste, who heads up the De Halve Maan in Bruges, Belgium, a centuries-old brewery popular with lunchers (ah, Europe) and tourists alike. The thing is, the brewhouse—the last in the city center—is too small to contain a bottling plant. So De Halve Maan has to pack all its sudsy stuff into trucks for a two-mile drive to a second facility, outside Bruges.
That’s more of a problem than it may seem. Bruges, with its impossibly quaint, cobblestoned, and tiny streets, is home to some of the western world’s worst traffic. Using trucks to move a million gallons of beer every year is bad for Bruges congestion, bad for Bruges pollution, bad for Bruges. The fuel and time costs weren’t great for De Halve Maan, either, but that was the deal.
Until Vanneste saw construction workers working to put cable networks into the center of the city. What if, he thought, his brewery also had a network…of beer? No more trucks, no more gas bills, no more feeling bad about clogging those lovely but impractical medieval streets: Just route the beer underground, from the brewery to the bottling facility.
After three years of politicking, wrangling, permitting, and finally, construction, De Halve Maan’s beer pipeline is set to open this summer. Vanneste’s $4.5 million infrastructure gambit is partially funded by the fermented yeast lovers of the Internet, who pitched in a collective $335,000 to build it. (All got rewards, à la Kickstarter: For $8,400, crowdfunders receive 18 personalized glasses and an 11 ounce bottle of beer, every day, for life.)
To satisfy food safety authorities, avoid accidentally poisoning customers, and keep its beer delicious, De Halve Maan used high-density polyethlyene, a hardy and food-grade plastic. A series of bundled pipes, about a foot in total diameter, can transport up to 1,060 gallons of beer an hour between the center city brewery and its bottling plant. It will take each delicious batch between between one and half and three hours travel from end to end. The leisurely pace isn’t a cultural thing, it’s to keep too much air from infiltrating the good stuff. Between batches, the brewers will use jets of cleaning solution to disinfect and sterilize the pipes and keep the product in safe chugging condition.
Actually building the thing wasn’t so easy. The conditions that encouraged the pipeline also beleaguered its construction. Bruges is not only dense, trafficky, and beautiful—it’s as old as the hills. Humans started hanging around this part of Belgium in the Bronze Age, and many of its best-loved buildings date to the 14th century. The United Nations’s cultural arm, UNESCO, has named the entire city center a World Heritage site, worthy of protection.
Digging though all that history—even for beer’s sake—was a tricky proposition. The planning included some serious historical research “to find what is under the ground,” Vanneste says, and avoid it. Then he called in the engineers. Alain De Pré, with the engineering firm Depys, usually works on pipelines for moving gas, oil, and chemicals. Beer was a new one for him, but the technicalities were the same: using a computer-guided drill to create a 1.3-foot wide hole in the ground, burrowing deeper when Bruggian underground architecture demanded it, and knowing when to stop Bruges traffic.
De Pré and his 30-person construction team ran into two big obstacles, he says. The first was the Concertgebouw, the iconic Bruges concert hall. To get around the temple of Flanders art and architecture, the drill plunged to depths of about 115 feet, cautiously making its way through powdery sandstone layers. “That’s by itself already technical, state of the art work,” says De Pré. Unlike major infrastructure projects in cities like London and Istanbul—which have turned up everything from mass graves to ancient tools to lost Byzantine shipwrecks—De Halve Maan says its team made no National Treasure-esque discoveries. (The Flemish are an historically tidy people, it seems.)
The second challenge was finding a place to actually pull the pipeline together. The engineers needed about 2,000 consecutive feet of space to connect each section’s component parts. But Bruges is made of charming crooked streets and cozy public squares. There are no football pitches just hanging out in the center city. Then, a brainwave: Why not use the city’s celebrated canals?
And in this way, De Pré and his team constructed three 650-foot sections of beer pipeline by floating them on water, which the workers then inserted, whole, under the ground. The area’s famous swans did not seem to mind. “I don’t know if swans drink beer,” De Pré says, though admits that no one offered.
Four-month-long infrastructure projects that occasionally shut down streets and snarl traffic are rarely celebrated anywhere, but Bruggians really got into their beer pipeline. First there was the classic joke, which the workers heard everywhere: “Can I have my own personal tap?” (No.) Locals stopped to take selfies with the tube of black plastic, before it disappeared under the ground.
“It’s a totally different atmosphere that I had on this project,” De Pré says. Hooray beer.