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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Microbreweries have rapidly gained popularity in recent years across the globe, but Belgium has been producing specialty and strong beers for centuries.
While the major brewers, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev or Heineken, have suffered years of declining volumes in western Europe, smaller operators have discovered there is a growing market for beers with a difference.
"The beer market is decreasing but we are not selling pilsner. We are selling only tasting beer," Philippe Henroz, marketing manager of Chimay, whose Red, Blue and Triple brews are made within the walls of a Trappist monastery in southern Belgium.
Belgians and other Europeans may be drinking less standard lager, with a steady shift to wine and the global recession both playing a role, but still seem to be hanging on to or developing a new taste for specialty beers.
Brewers of these beers will be hoping to drum up further business this weekend at the Belgian Beer Weekend, a sort of mini-Oktoberfest featuring 48 breweries, many of them smaller Belgian players, and more than 350 beers.
Around 70,000 people are expected at the festival on the Grand Place, the gothic and baroque square in central Brussels from Friday to Sunday.
"It is a good event to network with other people and hopefully find some importers from other countries," said Nicolas Degryse marketing manager for Bockor Brewery.
Belgian breweries have been steadily selling more abroad, with long-standing markets in neighbors France and the Netherlands, strong demand in Britain and the United States and growing interest from China and other Asian nations.
Listed Duvel, whose blond namesake beer ferments in the bottle, increased foreign sales by 30 percent in the first half of this year, with export markets now representing 46 percent of turnover.
"Exporting beer is where smaller breweries can effectively compete in the market," Bockor's Degryse said.
Smaller brewers are losing out to the major brewers in the market for more standard lager.
Roman Brewery, in western Belgium, has suffered falling sales of its pilsner beer in Belgium and abroad, but its sales have risen for its specialty beers, which include a blond beer called Black Hole.
Roman will be promoting a new blond beer called Gentse Strop (Ghent noose) at the Belgian Beer Weekend.
Specialty brewers liken their produce more to fine wines than thirst-quenching lager, which can be gulped down by the liter. Indeed with alcohol strengths often from 8 to 10 percent, this would be a dangerous strategy. These are beers to taste and savor.
The marketing strategy for many specialty breweries urges consumers to remember where they drank, who they were with and what was the quality of the beer.
"Our beer, it is not a beer that you drink in five minutes. It is a beer you need to appreciate," Chimay's Henroz said.
Still, specialty brewers cannot simply sit back and expect their old brews to grow.
Bockor Brewery increased its beers sales by 6.7 percent in 2010 thanks to the launch three years ago of 8 percent OMER Traditional Blond,
"If it weren't for that beer, we would have had the same as in past three years," Degryse said.
Howard Gutman, U.S. Ambassador to Belgium, who will be made an honorary knight of the Belgian brewers' guild on Friday, said beer could play a role in restoring the global economy.
When asked what his favorite beer was, Gutman said: "my next."
Editing by Philip Blenkinsop and Paul Casciato