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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

France Alarms Belgium With Beer Tax

CHIMAY, Belgium -- Father Omer lifted his head from the huge vat where his beloved Trappist ale was brewing to address an issue which is vexing producers of Belgium's great beers.

"The French are playing tricks on us," the soft-spoken monk said, before offering a more saintly thought. "But, of course, we still love them."

Seemingly out of the blue, the French government is moving to impose a steep tax on beers with more than 8.5 percent alcohol content, threatening to put many of Belgium's famed specialty brews in serious trouble.

It will cut out their prime export market and jeopardize several microbreweries that have helped forge Belgium's gastronomic image around the world.

"I see nothing good coming from this kind of trade war," Belgian Foreign Trade Minister Annemie Neyts said in an interview Tuesday, arguing France was trying to curb the growth of Belgian specialty beers on its market at the expense of local beverages. "Too bad they have gone down this road."

The Belgian government has already approached the European Union to check if the tax complies with EU fair trading rules.

Meanwhile, dozens of pallets with Chimay's flagship blue label, 9 degree brew, stand waiting in storage in the bottling plant outside the abbey. The pallets are headed south into France -- whether many more will make it is questionable.

"If you see how much French wine we drink, they should make a bigger effort for us," complained Didier Godfroid, who has been bottling Chimay for almost three decades. "And between neighbors no less," he added as he was preparing more shipments of Trappist.

France said the plan of adding two euros ($2.10) in taxes per liter of strong beer is an attempt to counter alcoholism, but Neyts sees it as protectionist since France itself does not produce beer as potent.

"Why does the measure only apply to strong beer and not on wine, which has a much higher alcohol content and consumption?" she asked. "It is a piece of French logic which will need some explaining."

The brewers themselves could take legal action by the end of the week.

For Omer, it is a far cry from the daily ritual of seven prayer sessions, which start with Vigils at 4:30 a.m, punctuated only by religious study and the overseeing of the daily brewing process.

Last week, he traveled to nearby Rochefort to plot a course of action with his religious brethren at another of the six abbeys in Belgium that are the only ones allowed to produce Trappist brews.

"In the end, we will win the battle," he predicted, his arms tucked in his beige and brown cowl.

In the process, some microbrewers surviving on narrow profit margins could be pushed into bankruptcy. More than two dozen brewers across Belgium are directly affected by the tax plan.

Even Chimay, the biggest exporter of the strong beer, will suffer badly. The consequences of the tax would cost the company some 125,000 euros ($130,000) a month. And if distribution were disrupted, Belgian brewers would lose French market share for their beers, replaced by other drinks.

"It would take two to three years to get our market share back," said Bernard Bleus, the brewer's director general.

To become a true Trappist producer, the beer needs to be brewed at the abbey and overseen by monks. A third prerequisite is that a majority of all profits go to good causes.