I was born and raised in Luxembourg, but moved to the United States to pursue a career in film. Years later, however, I found myself traveling back to Europe to make my directorial debut on a subject I cared deeply about. “Bottle Conditioned” was born out of two simple things: my love for craft beer and my frustration of how beer is depicted in the mainstream media. Although craft beer is more popular than ever, industrial beer still dominates the market and therefore largely controls the narrative. I find that many people still think of beer as this cheap drink that has to look and taste the same every time, no matter the brand or the brewery. It’s a misconception that is happily exploited by corporate advertising in order to sell as much product as possible. In reality, there are hundreds of different beer styles and the number of craft breweries around the world is growing daily. As an aficionado and collector of specialty beer, I was itching to share a different side of the beer story and that's what led me onto this 4-year endeavor to make this film.
In 2018, I traveled to Belgium, a country whose history and relationship with beer runs deep. Along with my co-producer, Courtney Marsh, and my cinematographer, Mario Contini, I was on the hunt for a certain beer style called “lambic”. Only brewed during wintertime in a small region in and around Brussels, the beer is naturally fermented, aged in wooden barrels, and each bottle takes several years to make. Because only a few lambic producers are still in existence today, the production volumes are small and only limited quantities are sold in specialty stores or cafés. One afternoon we found ourselves at the small family-owned "3 Fonteinen Restaurant”. It was mid-afternoon and the restaurant had already stopped serving lunch. The beer menu listed quite a few lambics and amongst them was a vintage bottle of "gueuze" from 2001, priced at 95 Euros. Of course we ordered it, and since neither of us had ever paid this much for one bottle of beer, we really hoped that it was going to be good. To our surprise, it actually turned out to be phenomenally good and truly eye-opening. This beer had so much complexity and endless depths of flavor, unlike anything I had tried until that point. On the nose it was like overripe lemons with strong hints of hay and barnyard, and the taste was very dry, refreshing with some citrus notes, and a slightly bitter, tart finish. This is definitely not what you'd ordinarily expect a beer to smell or taste like, but trust me, it was great. A few days later, we ended up meeting the man behind this bottle: Armand Debelder. He gave us a private tour of the brewery's new location, and we learned about his decades of struggle in trying to keep lambic alive. After WWII, Coca-Cola arrived in Belgium and artisanal beers like lambic started to disappear. Hundreds of lambic producers had to close down and only a few remained. There was a sense of unapologetic conviction and proudness in what Armand stood for and it touched me deeply. As a struggling filmmaker looking for my next story, I felt an instant connection to him and his stubbornness in continuing to produce this beer when no one wanted. It was a reminder to myself that persistence is the key to success in any industry.
We officially started filming in January 2019 and it spanned over the next three years, with a global pandemic in the middle. I was initially focusing a lot more on the production aspect of lambic and how unique it was compared to "ordinary beer", but I slowly started to realize that there was more to this community than just that. Lambic was going through a renaissance and had become increasingly popular in recent years. There was more demand than supply, and much of the craze around it was driven by social media. I believe it created a sort of an underlying pressure within the community and its producers on how to uphold tradition, while also meeting this newfound demand. The ever changing trends in craft beer had seemingly caught up to the lambic scene and I became interested in showing this very traditional community becoming wrapped up in the wheels of modernity. Everyone had a different idea on how to best preserve this cultural heritage and whether to expand upon it or not. There was a clear crossroad in ideologies for many, especially for some of the elder brewers in the community like Jean-Pierre Van Roy of "Cantillon". For him, lambic had now become something completely different and almost foreign, thus creating tension within the family business. Then there were young new producers, like Raf Souvereyns, with no previous ties to beer, making a name for themselves as well, something that was unimaginable just 10 years ago. And the "3 Fonteinen" brewery was looking to become the leader in quality rather than rarity. Lambic was evolving quickly, and a lot was happening in a short amount of time, so I just kept filming, not knowing initially where it would lead me. I was also personally getting sucked into the scene more and made a lot of new friends, which started to blur my objectivity and clarity for the film's vision. It took a while to gain that clarity back, and it involved a lot of help from my co-editor Natalie Ancona and co-writer/producer Courtney Marsh. Making a film about beer sounded like so much fun and seemed so easy at first, but I don't think I was ready for everything that came with it. There were moments where I definitely felt like I was making four different movies at once while also being two steps behind each of the storylines. It was a constant battle of what is too much and what is too little.
I think we eventually struck the right balance and, in the end, the film became what I always wanted it to be: a film exploring the human journeys inside a niche community that is constantly experiencing growing pains in our fast-paced world. Lambic is considered a slow food, and the antithesis of industrialization, which is why I was originally drawn to it. Similarly, I've felt this wave of homogenized films taking over my own industry and I was longing to tell a simple, honest story of something familiar yet new. "Bottle Conditioned" is my attempt at that, by shining a new light on beer.