As the calendar turns summer and another class leaves Fletcher, we reflect on some of the fascinating research we’ve supported from students in the past. In this post, MIB ’16 graduate Ali Edelstein travels to Belgium to study its brewing industry.

This week, I realized Belgium is not the same country I lived and worked in two years ago. Its quirky citizens and hidden, lively bars have become more exposed to worldly cares and issues. Belgian companies are being acquired by international competitors; family brewers are innovating to stay relevant among microbrewers; and ISIS is launching a full assault on the country. The Institute for Business in the Global Context gave me a travel grant to support my research around the middle topic, so I traveled to Belgium, not expecting to experience the latter.

The author with Fletcher alum Mark Baker, Diageo’s Director of Global Trade & Regulatory Affairs

I arrived in Brussels on Monday morning and went directly to the European quarter for a meeting with Mark Baker, Fletcher alum and Diageo’s Director of Global Trade & Regulatory Affairs. True to Fletcher spirit, the topics we discussed ranged from the company’s work with local agricultural cooperatives in Africa to its involvement in a recent WTO case.  Mark played an instrumental role in helping me build industry knowledge and secure contacts for my capstone, “Strategic Alliances for Bourbon Barrel Beer: A European Market Opportunity Analysis”.

Tuesday morning came and as I headed to the train station to travel to the Amsterdam office of Diageo’s peer — Brown-Forman’s — I received news of multiple explosions in Brussels. Suicide bombers had initiated explosions in the airport and at Maelbeek metro station. I caught the last train out of the country before they shut down transportation, and while I had a productive meeting at Brown-Forman reviewing the details of my capstone’s proposal, I couldn’t get my favorite city off my mind.

What happened? Were my friends OK? How many people were killed? How could this happen? Would Brussels ever be the same?

I recalled the jarring shift in US security and culture after 9/11, and I wondered if Belgium’s case would be similar. Within a country divided amongst the Flemings and the Walloons, surely this was a concern they could unite around.

Over the next few days, amongst much fear, security, and soldiers patrolling with large black guns, I traveled to Belgian towns like Melle and Harrelbeke to meet with some of the country’s best family-owned brewers. I learned about Brewery Huyghe’s robust CSR portfolio, which includes workshops for adults with developmental disabilities, wastewater nano-filtration systems, and Deliria beer –- an off-shoot of the brewery’s popular Delirium Tremens brand, brewed by women to celebrate International Women’s Day. At Brewery De Brabandere, I delved deeper into the art of traditional Belgian brewing, aging sour beers in large wooden barrels. At both breweries, I talked to senior management about the potential for bourbon barrel beer in the Belgian market and was pleased to hear this was a trend they had considered already. The “craft” movement that’s fueling growth in the US is now in Belgium, spurring even the most traditional brewers to innovate.

Brussels Beer Project, one of Belgium’s first microbreweries

However, while there is a large amount of interest in my capstone and the prospect of bourbon barrel beer, the route to consumer for innovative products is still a challenge overall. One of the realizations that came from my meetings with brewers was the lack of specialized distributors – capable of marketing and selling products at the nexus of the beer and spirits industries – in key markets like Germany. The global context of business is evolving and there’s a need for infrastructure to rapidly evolve with it.

Amidst all the meetings, I still had time to visit with friends and former colleagues and visit cool new places, like the Brussels Beer Project –- one of the country’s first microbreweries. The mix between the old and the new, and all of the chaos of terrorism chaos around it, reminded me how important Fletcher’s “contextual intelligence” is in helping whatever country students love or call home preserve the good, change the bad, and survive in a dynamic and –- often unexpected –- global context.

Ali Edelstein was a 2016 Master of International Business Graduate from The Fletcher School. She currently works as ‎Director of Social Responsibility at the Kentucky Distillers’​ Association.