Spotlight On: Vanberg & DeWulf, As Told by Wendy Littlefield
Inspired by the vastly rich culture of Belgium, Wendy Littlefield and husband Don Fienberg co-founded Vanberg & DeWulf, a highly-respected beverage importer and producer, in 1982. They vowed to bring only the best, most artisanal Belgian breweries to the US market. Having recently celebrated 30 years in business, Vanberg & DeWulf has proven to be a leading innovator and trend-setter in the industry. Read below to learn about their incredible story and accomplishments.
Wendy, tell us the story of Vanberg & DeWulf. How did it come to be?
Don and I eloped in college and moved to Belgium right after graduation. Once established, we could not help noticing that there was a vibrant, idiosyncratic and utterly fantastic beer culture. Every little town seemed to have its own brewery. Circa 1980 in the US the state of beer was banal and insipid. When it came time for our companies to transfer us back to the States we cooked up the idea to bring a beer, Duvel, with us. By the late 1980s, our portfolio came to represent what we thought was the best indigenous example of every beer style brewed in Belgium - always by an independent family run brewery. Having tasted the great artisanal Belgian beers, can you imagine not wanting to bring them to America? What began as a hobby turned into a lifelong passion.
What are some interesting or unusual facts about Vanberg & DeWulf and/or its brands?
We were the first to do a lot of things in the industry. We were the first people to specialize in bringing Belgian specialty beers to America. Don and I were the first Americans inducted into the Belgian Brewers Guild in its 500 year history. We published the first edition of Michael Jackson's authoritative The Great Beers of Belgium, now in its 7th printing and the classic work on the topic. In Ommegang we created the first brewery in the US to make all bottle-conditioned cork finished Belgian-style beers. We built the first farmstead Brewery in the US in a century. We invented "Belgium Comes to Cooperstown." We brewed the nation's first crowd sourced beer - Three Philosophers. We are the first "outsiders" to be permitted to blend our own lambics (Lambickx line). We created a new beer style with Lambrucha (a blend of lambic and kombucha) which was named "experimental beer of the year in 2011" at the US Open of Beer. Vanberg was the first to bring revered brands/styles of beer to the USA: Saison Dupont, Boon lambics, the original Duvel, Rodenbach and Rodenbaach Grand Cru, De Cam, Affligem, Scaldis. We brought the first Belgian organic beers to market in the States (Foret, Avril, Biere de Miel). Our portfolio has become the most decorated collection of Belgian beers in annals of importing to USA.
We have been at this business for 31 years and still adore it, and we are still married and capable of working together. How very fortunate we are. We think of ourselves as cultural anthropologists explaining culture through beer. Our portfolio consists of 43 beers representing 20 styles from eleven breweries in four countries. Belgium is our "True North", so when we import a beer from some other country we call it an "Honorary Belgian."
None of the beers in our collection competes with another - by design. Each has a drinking occasion, season, constituency, set of food pairings even persona that is unique to itself. To really understand what we mean I suggest you taste a few beers side by side with our portfolio in hand as a guide. The selection is highly curated. We only offer beers we think are truly worth your money. We taste a ton, but import just a small fraction of what we try. Posca Rustica, Witkap Stimulo, Scaldis Prestige de Nuits, Dilweyns Tripel with Gueuze, De Cam, Lambrucha, Hop Ruiter, Contessa and Castelain Grand Cru are as different as the day is long.
What makes Vanberg & DeWulf stand out from the rest?
I think a few things set us apart.
• Our patient nurturing of brands. As an example: The rise to prominence of Saison Dupont did not happen overnight. It did not meet standard criteria of what a Belgian beer was supposed to taste or look like - but with patience and confidence and getting it into the hands of enough people of discernment what was first viewed as an ugly duckling became a swan.
• Staying power and loyalty to the mission. We have only and ever imported beers from independent family run companies. Beers only disappear from our portfolio if their brewery is sold, taken public, or closed.
• The fact that we have also been brewers. We built the first brewery in the US dedicated to all Belgian-style, all bottle-conditioned, cork-finished beers and the first and only that was a joint venture with Belgian partners from the world of brewing.
• We are major champions of people doing important things in out-of-the-way places. We want them not only survive but prevail. Our job is to bring their marvelous beers to people of discernment who will recognize them for their virtue. That way the people who create these gems will have the freedom to continue to pursue their vision --- and to contribute to the communities on which they interdepend.
• Other fun fact... Don and I started one of the first Slow Food Chapters in the country in Cooperstown. When Patrick Martins was president of Slow Food he said something funny and memorable - for a rare breed to survive somebody's got to eat it. Same goes for the rare beers we specialize in. If not for the efforts of importers to find them new markets, some would be close to extinction. Case in point, when we began importing Saison Dupont in the 1980s Marc Rosier, then the brewer, was about to discontinue the beer. It represented less that 5% of the brewery's sales. Now Dupont produces more Saison Dupont than any other beer. Moreover If you search Beer Advocate you will find 680 beers classified as Saisons. It is the most imitated style of beer produced by microbreweries in the US. And still, in Belgium the Saison is a rather rare obscure unknown beer. The role of the entrepreneur is to make people see the world your way. The fact that Saison Dupont has gone from virtually extinct to hugely admired makes us so very happy.
• We love and believe in our all our beers and truly think each one will have its day in the sun.
• We have always placed our beers in the context of food and culture.
What experience turned you on to beer?
Moving to Belgium right out of college. Our wanderlust, entrepreneurial spirits, love of European architecture food & travel led us ineluctably to beer.
Was there a particular experience or moment in which you realized you wanted to start your company?
It was honestly love at first sight. We knew we wanted to share these beers with people. If that meant having to start our own company, so be it.
Did you experience any major hurdles or pitfalls when you first started?
Hell, yes. 99% of market was lager. We "broke stones" in frozen lager fields and showed there was a place for ales too. Thirty years later this has produced billions of dollars of change and a preeminent spot for Belgian specialty beers in the pantheon of worthy beers in the US beer landscape. 50 breweries for 300 million people did not seem like a sufficient choice, so we set about to broaden the options. When we started beer was sold by ethnicity and by container. We chose to sell based on taste and by the case. At the start very few distributors were interested in our wares (some even spit the beer out when we tasted them on it!). Yeast in bottle was a foreign notion and a huge obstacle. At the outset in many, many states our beers were illegal (too strong). We even had to convince people not to drink our beers out of the bottle. On one occasion a guy who catered a party for executives on a cruise in NY Harbor threatened to sue us when revelers drank out of bottles and messed up their designer ties. The caterer said to Don, "I'm going to send you the dry cleaning bill buddy!" We helped champion Belgian beer among women wine drinkers. We had to make the case that beer was a drink worthy of their consideration. In sum we made the beer category more like the wine category arguing for choice and encouraging connoisseurship.
Describe a typical day for you at Vanberg & DeWulf.
Of course there is really no such thing as a typical day which is why the enterprise remains so fascinating. I am writing this from our apartment in Gent. When we are in Belgium we pack two days into every one. We stay here for about three months at a time. In the course of a week we're likely meeting with our brewers, hosting VIP clients, tasting arcane and established beers, creating new beers (three in the works at the moment) doing trials in test batches. In the off hours we soak up the local atmosphere, take lots of pictures, ride our bikes around the countryside, cook at home with local ingredients (mostly organic and vegetarian), visit museums, and check out new restaurants and old cafes. When the Belgian day is over, we start our business day in the States (thanks to the 6-9 hour time difference) usually wrapping up well after midnight.
What is your vision for Vanberg & DeWulf in the next year? 5 years? 10 years?
You will find the answer to this in the introductory pages to our portfolio (pages 1-5). We recommend and hope that everybody will read it and keep a copy on hand as a reference. In essence our mission is to bring our favorite indigenous Belgian beers to discerning drinkers, and to push the boundaries with beers of our invention (Lambickx, Lambrucha and Hop Ruiter). We aspire to be service-oriented and hands on with our customers helping them to be successful in their businesses and to make learning about beer fascinating and fun. We will continue to share the fruits of our explorations in Belgium and beyond (Italy, Iceland, France for instance) with people who are building beer culture in the States. We are firmly on the side of the independents. Our company will always be a niche endeavor. Our job is to position our beers adroitly so they can be found and appreciated by adventurous drinkers and foodies in the places they frequent.
What is your favorite beer that you import or produce?
Which of your children, siblings do you prefer? An impossible question to ask.
What is your favorite and least favorite trend in the beer world? Any beer trend predictions for 2012?
We decry the emphasis on valuing newness over consistent excellence. Lack of transparency is irksome when it means that a contract a.k.a. label beer pretends to be authentic, and indigenous. We like the trend toward sessionability and the growing appreciation for sour beers. We love that more and more good food establishments are putting special beer on a par with wine.
Any final thoughts you’d like to include about V & D or yourself?
None of what we do would be possible without talented and committed distributors, like Union. Our crack team of allies - the brilliant brewers, our graphic designer, inventive social networking crew, Tanna who manages the office in Cooperstown, terrific reps and sensationally independent minded publicans and retailers make this little beer world go round. We all love hearing from our customers and very much appreciate their support.
And of course, our motto: “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path — and leave an ale.” —APOLOGIES TO RALPH WALDO EMERSON
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