Beneath the gilded spires and medieval cobblestone streets of Bruges, the lifeblood of Belgium now flows at more than 1,000 gallons an hour.
The turn of a tap on Friday propelled the Belgian city into the future — and sent its citizens to the bar — as dignitaries and drinkers celebrated a momentous innovation: the world’s first beer pipeline.
The two-mile pipeline, visible in one spot through a transparent manhole cover cut into the cobblestone, carries beer from one of the country’s oldest still-operating breweries in the center of Bruges to a bottling plant on its outskirts.
The project cost about 4 million euros, or $4.5 million. But the brewery discovered an innovative way to raise the funds: promise donors free beer for life.
“As far as we know, this is the first time ever that such a thing has been done,” Xavier Vanneste, the director of De Halve Maan, or The Half Moon, a brewery, said in an interview. “It’s an old product, but an innovative project.”
Bruges, a medieval city and a Unesco World Heritage site, is a warren of narrow streets made congested by the nearly two million tourists who visit annually. Mr. Vanneste said the influx of visitors had made transporting the brew daily on tanker trucks tedious and expensive, and risked forcing the 500-year-old brewery out of its home.
“We wanted to avoid running big expensive tanker trucks back and forth transporting our beer,” Mr. Vanneste said. “So we constructed a direct pipeline from the brewery to the bottle room.”
The last truck visited the brewery on Thursday. By Friday, over 1,000 gallons, or 12,000 bottles of beer, began flowing through the pipeline per hour. The brewery plans to operate the pipeline 24 hours a day.
If a beer pipeline sounds like a fraternity boy’s fantasy, or, as the European news media has dubbed it, a “pipe dream,” Mr. Vanneste said the idea was rooted in the city’s existing infrastructure.
“We got the idea from looking at other life provisions that run through pipes,” he said. “Water pipes, electricity pipes, cable distribution, etc. So why wouldn’t that be possible for beer?”
One potential obstacle was that the city had never previously permitted a private company to run its own pipes beneath the streets. Another was cost.
The mayor of Bruges, Renaat Landuyt, though initially skeptical, warmed to the idea and approved the brewery’s plan.
“It was so important to find that solution for our mobility problem, because if we want to work in a modern way, from time to time we need to let trucks enter the historical city,” the mayortold Euronews.
Funding, however, was a different matter.
So Mr. Vanneste turned to another innovation his ancestors, who began operating the brewery in 1856, could never have dreamed of: the internet.
More than 500 people contributed to an online crowdsourcing campaign that helped raise the money needed to lay the pipe.
Backers are to be rewarded “with free beer for life in proportion to their contribution,” Mr. Vanneste said. “For example, someone that only made a small investment will get maybe a pack of beer every year on his birthday. But someone who paid the maximum amount may receive up to one bottle of beer a day for the rest of his or her life.”