by Hubert Smith (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 5, No.5)
The small bar has just opened on a Sunday afternoon and only three of us are in it: the dark-haired woman of about 30 who poured our beer, my wife, and me. We all stare out the front windows at a quiet road and the unremarkable suburbs of a small Belgian town. No people are in view. Sun filters through the fronds of potted plants and streams across the tiled floor. On the table before us, as yet untouched, are a glass of two-year-old lambic and another of one-year-old gueuze.
This will be a day about beer, wonderful beer, and a day about a nation and its peoples. Most of all, this will be a day in which a jaded beer lover regains something he had lost.
In my younger days I’d found a lot of truth in the words of Bokonon, a character from a Kurt Vonnegut novel. That man, a rascal, sage, and founder of an idiosyncratic religion, advised those who took it in their minds to roam. One of his sayings has remained with me: “Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.”
I took that to mean one should embrace the unusual while “on the road.” And when I did, more often than not, I wound up in a far more interesting situation than any I could have planned or imagined.
Now, past middle age and admittedly stale, I was looking once again for travel to renew me, just as it had done when I got interested in beer.
The Music Begins
Real travel began for me 25 years ago, after I quit the university job I’d held since college. I collected my fledgling retirement fund and hopped a train bound for Mexico. That journey initiated two decades of unusual twists, turns, and dancing lessons.
Outwardly my career became that of filmmaking anthropologist. But an inner journey was beginning as well. People and events set to work on me, issuing a set of marching orders I’d never have fashioned on my own. Some experiences were fun, others hilarious, but most were sobering, yet instructive, tutorials in life.
A Beer Epiphany
By 1973 I was fetched up in England with my bride-to-be, ready to begin editing a series of films we’d just shot in a village in the Bolivian Andes. My wife, a prowler of bookstores, purchased a thin paperback guidebook to traditional British beer. A cursory reading turned up several pubs within walking distance of our rented house in a Thames Valley town. We soon found ourselves, two lifelong Budweiser drinkers, in the Old Hare on the Beaconsfield High Street contemplating our first pints of cask beer. One taste and I was hooked.
Filmmaking continued for another 12 years, with beer its companion and, ultimately, its rival. Crews in London, Cologne, and Munich became accustomed to the idiosyncracies of their slightly deranged American director — whose films always had to be shot in close proximity to the shrines of brewing. One of my criteria for hiring crew members was that they love beer. If they didn’t, I reasoned, those long drives and even longer lunches on the sunny patio of Kloster Andechs might have imposed unreasonable burdens.
With time, though, the delights of dragging film equipment past scowling customs officials began to pall. As my 50th birthday approached, I found myself less and less tolerant of such annoyances as Paraguayan air hammers, idiosyncratic British bank holidays, and translators on the verge of a menopausal meltdown.
So I drifted from filmmaking to brewing. As a professional brewer, my love of beer became a life of beer.
The Music Falls on Deaf Ears
But was I the sort who brewed beer all day and then sat down and enjoyed a pint? Did I propagate yeast, keg beer, and clean tanks and then go home and savor a beer? No, I did not. I tasted beer, evaluated it, and even judged it, but rarely did I surrender to the enchantments that, just a few years earlier, had been such a big part of my life. Whereas once I had savored a glass, now I scrutinized it. I’d survey my happy customers as they downed pint after pint — didn’t they realize the hop was too low in that beer? Like filmmaking, beer had become something to worry about.
Then, the same phenomenon that had overtaken my passions for film and beer invaded my life as a traveler. Once a willing receptacle for the unique, I now became an obsessive strategist. Months of meticulous planning preceded each journey. Italy, Portugal, Spain, and even Britain became objectives to be stormed. The itinerary reigned; relaxation and enjoyment were secondary.
For example, we once debarked from our plane at Heathrow and zipped off to lunch at a pub whose location and range of cask beers had elected it to my itinerary six months previous. Woe betide the wife who missed the motorway off-ramp and put us perilously near closing time. God forbid we should get caught in a tight town centre’s noontime traffic jam. Affliction if we should have to fall back to an alternate selection that did not, horrors, boast a CAMRA listing.
Yet we arrived at the bar to find beaming British pub patrons who welcomed us, applauded our choice of beer, and gabbed happily at the Yanks who’d come from half a world away to enjoy it. Clearly, an invitation to dance a bit, right? Not so. Back at our table and with a brimming pint before me, I fixed the beer with a gimlet eye. Clarity confirmed, I sniffed. Hmm, bit of acetic acid there? A sip. Aha! Just as I feared, the beer was out of shape. My wife regarded me as anyone would an oaf. “Tastes great,” she said, digging into her tikka masala chicken.
Thus had become my sorry state: a middle-aged brewer, stewing over a pretty good beer and grumpily examining the lively lunch crowd bellied up to the public bar of The Duke of Wellington in Twyford one July day a few years ago.
We moved on to the Great British Beer Festival, an event I had been certain would be a peak beer experience. Instead, I slogged around the festival floor finding flaws in almost everything I drank. In the days that followed, I attempted to redeem my enthusiasm in the comfort of a magical country pub I recalled from previous visits. When we failed to locate the pub I realized, too late, that it never existed; it was a patchwork of the best features of several different pubs, an ideal that condemned every pub we visited to falling short of the mark.
“You’re jaded,” observed my wife. She was right. My second life as a beer lover and traveller began without any dancing. Music was playing but I couldn’t (or wouldn’t) hear it.
The next stop was Belgium. I had resisted this trip for years, unable to imagine beer more satisfying than cask ale or continental lager, but finally I could no longer ignore the praises sung by a legion of colleagues, who touted Belgium as “beer heaven.” And so I forged on toward Belgium. “We’ll see,” I said.
The English Channel is a short crossing, but when hydrofoil schedules went suddenly haywire, it took hours to exchange the tickets I had so prudently purchased stateside. My wife and I watched glumly as travelers with less foresight than I purchased their tickets and walked on-board. When will I learn, I wondered? I was becoming increasingly aware that my search for bliss had become a race in which clamor and bustle obscured the goal itself.
We made our way to the town of Beersel, located in the heart of Payottenland, just south of Brussels. We were in the car park of our hotel when we encountered two elderly couples departing after a long Sunday lunch. One man, slightly tipsy, approached us. His wife grabbed at his coat sleeve, but he persisted, “Hallo, are you British?”
“No,” I answered. “American.”
The man smiled, bowing slightly. “Then you are most welcome here.”
Something cracked inside me. He’s probably 70, I thought. It struck me that the first Americans he had ever seen were probably in uniform, helping the Allies push the German armies east. My wife and I grinned and — just like that — I heard music again.
A Dance of Renewal in Lambic’s Heartland
The warm welcome was just the beginning. In the next 10 days, the Belgians, as well as events beyond their control, conspired to revive me. Part of this lay in the sheer brilliance and singularity of their brewing. I was also surprised and heartened to encounter a beer culture that permeated every level of class and age. The Belgian culture lavishes attention on beer.
We were amazed time and again as we entered small Belgian cafés to be greeted by a vista of tables, all crammed with happy people, each with a handsome glass filled with their favorite beer. Waiters poured our beer lovingly and placed both goblet and bottle before us in picture-perfect symmetry.
The beers themselves were a revelation. Strong Belgian ales are wonderfully complex. Yeast notes and complex malt flavors bloom in the mouth before gracefully departing the stage to usher on a dry finish. Their immense alcohols are never burdened by sweetness. And no one who loves beer could fail to embrace a Saison by Dupont or DuBocq. These splendid thirst-quenchers attack the nose with pungent yeasty aromas reminiscent of perfume, flowers, and lemon. The flavors that follow are like blasts of arctic air, slightly tart and profoundly refreshing, with just enough dryness to cleanse the palate. Old brown and red beers also display an acid tang wedded to rich, dark malt flavors. Often, the unmistakable redolence of oak aging adds another note to these superb drinks.
But more than anything, it was the lambic and gueuze that astonished me (and petrified my wife). The best were astoundingly tart, alive with the acidity and racy flavors of (some say) as many as 150 different microorganisms. Yet they are, emphatically, beers. Malt and hops are readily detectable in their lineage, and any fruit added during the aging process compliments the palate as a whole.
We encountered poor lambics, to be sure. Most were so-called kriek and framboise beers, cloying with unfermented sugars and gloppy with cherry and raspberry syrups. These were marketing ploys to win over customers who supposedly wouldn’t tolerate the real thing — the same people who would enjoy Fruit Loops washed down with white zinfandel.
Invitation to the Ball
But we hadn’t come just to savor the beers. Before leaving the United States, I had written to Frank Boon (pronounced “bone”) and arranged to visit him at his brewery. Boon is a Flemish lambic brewer and gueuze blender who took it upon himself to build a lambic brewery 20 years ago, at a time when older brewers were either dropping dead or selling their brands to large companies. His brewery, Brouwerij Frank Boon, is attached to his house near the town of Lembeek. As he strolled to greet us he explained that his wife and kids were out shopping; he would have plenty of time to provide a tour.
But the day was much more than that. A relaxed and contemplative Boon conducted a seminar. He took us to every corner of his brewery. His observations ranged from the influences of the European Economic Community (EEC) to the profundities of lambic fermentation. Before he fell under EEC rules he used cats to control the rodents in his grain stores. Now the cats are gone and he must offer the rodents snacks of gypsum to, he told us with more hope than conviction, “… give them constipation.”
His brewery is in a green belt, a perfect habitat for the wild yeasts he draws in through fans to infect the new wort resting in his koelbak, or coolship (a shallow, open vessel adjacent to the brewhouse). Boon described for us the ensuing succession of biological steps in which each organism performs its own niche function and, in so doing, prepares a new niche in which yet another legion of bacteria will thrive. Yet this process is no passive exercise for the brewer. He doesn’t invite and then trade upon unchecked spoilage. Rather, he sets the table for some organisms and shuts the door on others. Both brewing processes and hop protocols provide a measure of control over Boon’s microscopic employees. The lambic and gueuze products do not see the light of day with less than a year’s aging, and some lambics spend three years in oak casks before they are released either straight or in blends.
Our afternoon concluded with a leisurely tasting of Boon kriek beers. The brewery produces two; the first is Boon’s “Manage Parfait” (perfect marriage), a stately drink that offers an elegant palate of lemons and pie cherries laced with the kind of nuttiness found in old sherry. His “Kriek Boon” presents a sharp, bicarbonate aroma that belies a clean but relatively sweet palate. Boon explained, “Rather than compromise a single beer, I make two kriek and also two gueuze. One is traditional, the other is more approachable.”
Five hours passed before my wife and I found ourselves in the brewery courtyard again. Boon complained, mildly, about his driveway access. It was blocked for some time by the local government, which is dominated by Walloons, the second-largest of Belgium’s three ethnic groups (the smallest is German). The Walloons live in the south and identify with France. Boon is Flemish, part of the 60% of Belgians who speak a Dutch dialect.
Boon reflected on the very recent death of Belgium’s king, Baudouin, a man he credited with keeping the Flemish and Walloons from each others’ throats. The king, a man of action and ethics, was beloved. Boon remarked on the king’s ability to embrace all the nation’s ethnic groups, “He was the only Belgian.”
As we leave the gracious brewer, we think back to Sunday and our visit to the small bar of In’t Bierhuis Oud Beersel. Our glasses of lambic and gueuze have remained untouched. The dark-haired young woman who poured them still stares out the front window. Some minutes ago the pop songs that had been playing on the radio stopped and the broadcast funeral mass for the king began.
The young woman had turned up the volume and returned her gaze to the empty road outside. For long minutes we three listened to the mass. The young woman’s expression does not change, yet she has become unutterably sad. I think she must be Flemish, but the only word I can bring to mind is French. “Triste?” I ask. She nods and smiles.
A few moments later she turns the dial to another station and goes to a room behind the bar. We are certain she has gone there to cry. When she comes back, two men are approaching the front door. She says to us, “He was a good king,” and turns to greet the men. Both order the house lambic, an uncompromising beer and a very nice drink.
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