2005 | COLUMNS | BEAUMONT
The Case For Context
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
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
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,
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).