Tradition is a gift. But so is change. (Episode 66)

Tradition is a gift. But so is change. (Episode 66)

Interview with David De Schutter, Global VP, Innovation & Technology Development at AB InBev.

The German “purity laws” for brewing beer (“Reinheitsgebot”) were a set of rules first adopted in the duchy of Munich in 1487 and the version that was adopted across the entirety of Bavaria on 23 April 1516 in the most famous version. 500 year old rules on how to best brew beer, created, we like to think, to protect the consumers from “bad beer”.

But, as beer expert Günter Thömmes put it: “The primary motivation behind the purity law was to keep undesired competitors out and maximise profits. The rulers of the late Middle Ages were not concerned with consumer protection or health awareness.”

Still today, hundreds of breweries follow the rules that only “four natural ingredients may be used for brewing beer – water, malt, hops and yeast.” And while there are many benefits with holding on to traditions, there are also many reasons to question them. Because bad traditions can not only hinder creativity, but even stop progress.

One person who is not afraid to question bad traditions in the brewer industry is David De Schutter, Global VP, Innovation & Technology Development at AB InBev. With 500+ beer brands, from Budweiser, and Stella Artois to Hoegaarden and Skol, and with more than 150,000 employees around the world AB InBev is a beer giant.

I sat down to talk with David about the topic of tradition holding back progress. David is, as he put it, “passionate about beer and passionate about innovation”.

When I asked him if the “Reinheitsgebot” should be seen as laws written in stone, he said: “No, I strongly disagree about the notion that we perfected the brewing techniques in 1516!”

He then brought up how Belgian brewers, by not being so restricted by the ingredients “allowed” in beer, had historically been creating a lot of interesting and successful brews.

It would be wrong to say I had expected him to say anything different so I asked him to give an example of how current creativity and innovation is making the brewing process even better. He said: “The brewers hundreds of years ago did not care much about the environment. But now we do. And the traditional brewing process uses a lot of water – up to 10% of the water evaporates in the boiling process that way.”

So AB InBev invented a new way of brewing that uses a stripping gas to simulate the effect of evaporation where now just 1% of the water is lost – saving millions of water each year. With innovation AB InBev has been able to reduce the amount of water needed to brew 1 liter of beer, from 8 liters in the 1980’s to 2,7 liters today.

You can hear that David is passionate about finding a more sustainable way of brewing, as he told me with conviction: “it’s our duty to the planet to brew with less water.”

With the obvious benefits of leaving bad traditions behind and innovate an even better solution, then why are so many brewers so determined to hold on to rules from 500 years ago?

David: “People are raised with a paradigm. Challenge it and their world falls apart.”

Don’t get me wrong, David loves the long tradition of beer brewing, he literally told me so: “I love the tradition of beer! It’s the first bio-process of the world and the process is thousands of years old.”

He just doesn’t think that, after thousands of years of brewing beer, we should freeze time at 1516. So he is pushing forward.

Since David is going head on with the fundamentalist traditionalists of the beer industry I ask him for some advice on how to win traditionalists over when it turns out that they are holding on to “stale and obsolete traditions”.

His advice was:

1) Get facts and data. Find “undeniable proof”.

2) Have a healthy dissatisfaction with the status quo.

3) Strengthen your will and conviction. Push for change in a traditional industry and you will face many barriers and road blocks, and no-one is going to tell you you are on the right path until you have actually succeeded and already done the change.

Listening to David I am reminded of one of the favourite stories I have ever heard about “obsolete traditions”. A friend of mine visited a tea plantation in Sri Lanka and saw that the women coming in from the fields with heavy bags of tea were asked to climb up a flight of stairs in the tea factory where the big drying machines were. When my friend asked why the drying machines where on the second floor and not the ground floor, the factory workers replied: “Tea drying has always been done on the second floor!” Turns out that historically it made sense to dry the tea on the second floor since the breeze is stronger on the second floor, but when tea now is dried in machines it doesn’t matter where the drying takes place…. and yet the poor women are asked to climb the stairs with heavy basked full of wet tea leaves…

The word “tradition” comes from “trans” meaning “over” and “dare” meaning “to give”. So “tradition”, in a way can be seen as meaning “to hand over a gift”.

But like all gifts, the gift of tradition should only be handed over if it is valuable, meaningful and/or useful.

If it is not, then – frankly – it’s not a gift. And it should not be handed over.

What bad traditions is your industry sticking to?

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