For many beer-loving Americans, Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen is the face of Chimay, the celebrated Belgian Trappist beer.
It’s a cheery face, covered by a full, largely gray beard and accented by tortoise-shell eyeglasses over twinkling eyes.
Belgian by birth and wide of girth, Van Mechelen, is the U.S. brand ambassador for Chimay, the best known of seven breweries worldwide that produce Trappist beers. Chimay’s beers are produced by the Cistercian Trappist monks at Chimay, a monastery also known as Notre-Dame de Scourmont near the French border in Belgium’s Ardennes region. Chimay was the first of the Trappists to brew commercially, according to the late Michael Jackson, a British beer writer and author of “The Great Beers of Belgium.”
Van Mechelen’s official title is special projects and regional sales manager of Manneken-Brussels Imports, the Austin, Texas-based U.S. importer of Chimay his job is to promote the brand through his travels around the U.S. Recently, he stopped by the Beer Authority in New York City to mark the brewers’ 150th anniversary.
Born in Leuven, some 20 miles east of Brussels, it seems, he says, he was born to beer. Leuven is Belgium’s uncontested beer capital. Its first breweries were established in the 15th Century, about the same time as the city’s Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, home to Belgium’s well-known brewing school. “If you wanted to be a brewer you went to Leuven,” says Van Mechelen. The city also is the world headquarters of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest beer company.
Van Mechelen ties to beer are strong. His family owned a pub on the city’s main street for more than a century. Before coming to the U.S. in 1979, he worked for his grandfather at the bar and also sold Lindt chocolates to pastry makers and bakeries.
As a younger man in Leuven, he got to know two American students who studied in Brussels and partied in Leuven: Bob Leggett and Lanny Hoff. After their return to the U.S. in 1978, the two Americans established a company to import Chimay, Manneken-Brussels.
It was 1979 when Van Mechelen decided to seek his fortune in the U.S. He looked up his old friends in Austin and decided to stay. He opened a Belgian-style café and bistro called Gambrinus, which he operated until 1990, when he started working with Belgian brewer Pierre Celis (of Hoegaarden fame) on a microbrewery project in Austin. In 2000, Miller Brewing bought Celis Brewing, closed the Austin brewery and sold the brand to a Michigan brewer. Subsequently, Van Mechelen joined his friends at Manneken-Brussels and in 2005, when Chimay took complete ownership of the company he was asked to stay on.
As brand ambassador for Chimay, Van Mechelen’s life is spent largely on the road and on his feet. On average, he says he spends four days a week traveling on behalf of the importer. He does, however, take four or five weeks off a year, occasionally returning to Belgium.
He carries a pedometer. New York “is a hard city,” he says. “Yesterday I walked 7½ miles. Today, I walked 6½ miles.” He complains climbing the stairs at the Beer Authority that all the walking has taken a toll on his knees, but he confesses that the problem is due to his weight.
Van Mechelen’s efforts to promote Belgian beer have resulted in his being knighted by the Chevalerie du Forquet des Brasseurs, the Belgian Brewers Union. The recognition seems well earned. Chimay has never had a down year in the U.S., even during the economic crisis of 2008-2009, Van Mechelen says. Last year, he said, sales rose 11 percent. “We only sell 380,000 cases of Chimay in the U.S. Not bad for a monastery,” he says, noting that the figure represents a third of the brewery’s annual production.
And selling Chimay, he says, keeps him happy – and alive. “I’ve always been a salesman. Put me in an office and I’ll be dead in a week.”