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The Case For Context
By Stephen Beaumont

There is a Web site I'm certain I've mentioned previously in these pages that goes by the alliterative name of the Burgundian Babble Belt (babblebelt.com). It's a beer discussion board devoted primarily, though not exclusively, to Belgian beers, and the voices of some critics and nonparticipants notwithstanding, it is one of the best informed and most intelligent of such pages on the Internet. It is also one of only two beer chat sites in which I actively participate, although never as often as I would like.

Earlier this year, the Babble Belt played host to a particularly lively thread, one that struck a definite chord of interest for me. At the outset, it concerned a handful of perennially highly rated Belgian ales and the gray market route through which they make their way to the United States, the issue at hand being whether this should be allowed to happen despite the wishes of the brewers to confine sales to their home market. Further into the discussion, I raised the question of whether it's even desirable to export such beers out of their native element, since the context in which they are enjoyed will inevitably have an impact on how they are perceived.

In my post and follow-ups, I made it clear that I was speaking of a "Perfect World" scenario when suggesting that some beers are simply best when enjoyed in situ, and I acknowledged that I was in the enviable position of being able to do so on a far more regular basis than are most punters, simply because of my line of work. Nevertheless, several non-beer-writer Babblers voiced similar sentiments in their posts, with one most eloquently expressing the opinion that "there is an excellent and ineffable component to being there." Others, of course, disagreed, stating that if they couldn't sample such ales in Belgium, they were perfectly content to appreciate them at home, and idealist scenarios be damned. As with most such debates, there was no definitive conclusion to the thread, just a full and frank exchange of views.

While this particular slice of Babble Belt life was relatively free of emotional extremes — which even the most loyal Babblers will openly admit is not always the case — one prominent American beer importer, Dan Shelton, apparently took great exception to the matter being discussed. I say "apparently" because Dan did not post his always-opinionated and ever-entertaining comments on the board, but rather spun the entire discussion into a thinly veiled satire that he added to his company's Web site, sheltonbrothers.com. In said lampoon, he not only took broad potshots at the Babble Belt, but also snuck in some rather personal jabs at yours truly.

There's just something about being there that allows a person to better understand, and therefore enjoy, this glorious brew.

I mention Dan's reaction to the thread not because I'm smarting from having been poked and prodded by his poison pen, but because I find his intolerance ironic, given that his company's original import is a beer that goes a long way towards proving the very thesis he finds so disfavourable. I refer to Cantillon Gueuze.

The Cantillon brewery in Brussels is a remarkable place. So much so that I not only take great pleasure in visiting nearly every time I make it to the Belgian capital, but recommend a tour to any and every beer aficionado planning a trip to Het Bierland. It is, simply put, the kind of place that induces epiphanies.
Years ago, when I made my first trip to Cantillon with my former wife, Christine, she arrived at the brewery as a beer drinker with only a marginal appreciation of lambics — those tart, dry, spontaneously fermented wheat beers that are Cantillon's forte. Not to mince words, she didn't like them. At all.

Knowing this, and cognisant of the fact that Christine's French was about as advanced as was the English of Jean-Pierre Van Roy, the patriarch of Cantillon, she and I had earlier devised a plan. First off would be a brewery tour, we theorized, followed by the offer of a glass of Cantillon Gueuze, which we would both graciously accept. This would be my cue to explain to Jean-Pierre, in French, that gueuze was not Christine's favourite style of beer and that while I would happily partake of many more lambics, this would be her one and only glass, merci beaucoup.

Sure enough, the visit played out exactly as expected, with one exception. After we had all had a chance to have a sip or two of gueuze, and before I was able to offer my explanation, Jean-Pierre smiled widely at Christine and asked her, in heavily accented English, how she liked the beer. Without a moment's hesitation, she responded enthusiastically in the affirmative, receiving in mute reply an even broader grin from the man who had crafted it.

And she wasn't kidding! In the span of one short hour, Christine had gone from hating lambic to loving it, all because she had been able to visit the brewery and witness firsthand the romance of this great, individualistic brew.

Were this tale unique, I would give Mr. Shelton's dismissal of the Babble Belt discussion a lot more weight. But it's not. A good friend of mine who is a prominent French-speaking beer writer used to talk of loving Cantillon beers when at the brewery, and more or less dismissing them elsewhere (although he is now an ardent fan regardless of locale). And I have spent enough time at Cantillon to have witnessed more than a couple of conversions of the kind Christine experienced, including a few I personally orchestrated during impromptu tutored tastings. Simply, there's just something about being there that allows a person to better understand, and therefore enjoy, this glorious brew.

Which is not to suggest, of course, that no one can develop an appreciation of gueuze without first visiting the Payottenland, the district in which all traditional lambics are crafted, or that I don't have several cases of Cantillon beers in my Toronto cellar. They can and I do, and no one is more appreciative than am I of the efforts of importers like Dan Shelton who bring such great beers to our shores.

But at the same time, I would suggest that there most definitely is "an excellent and ineffable component to being there," and that people such as Christine likely would never have learned to appreciate these beers were it not for the experience of visiting the brewery, or the stuck-in-time countryside café, or the raucous urban beer hall. And that context, as with most all foods and drinks of distinction, is vital to true understanding and appreciation.

CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).


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