Two Top Books on Belgian Beer
So what is it about Belgium? We’re talking about a country roughly the size of Massachusetts, with an annual GDP less than many profitable pyramid schemes. And yet, in beer circles, Belgian brewing figures quite prominently—universally understood to be one of the world’s premiere beer capitals. And the constant subject of beer writers. Two new books approach the subject of Belgian brewing from different, yet complimentary, angles.
In the fifth edition of his Good Beer Guide Belgium, Tim Webb spotlights 800 Belgium beers to try and 600 bars to explore. Along the way, he discusses all 120 of the country’s active breweries. A series of essays at the front of the book sketches a flavorful portrait of a quirky and creative land. (Perhaps the best comment on the country’s trademark idiosyncrasy comes from French president Charles de Gaulle, who observed that, “Belgium is a country invented by the British to annoy the French.”)
The Good Beer Guide Belgium then delves into profiling each of the 14 major styles associated with the country, everything from lambics to oak-aged ales to seasonal varieties. Another section of considerable utility for the casual tourist will be that devoted to major Belgian cities. With it, thirsty vacationers can identify the best brewery cafes, whether their travels take them to Antwerp, Brussels, Bruge or any of seven other Belgian cities.
Webb’s zeal for the subject matter is clearly evident in the Good Beer Guide Belgium, although it’s difficult for anyone to match the passion for Belgian brewing shown by the dean of beer critics in his latest work.
Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium celebrates one beer writer’s obsession with an entire school of brewing. Jackson’s affinity for Belgian beer is well documented, as has been the writer’s own role in popularizing Belgian beer styles. (In 1994, Crown Prince Philippe bestowed upon Jackson the nation’s Belgian Mercurius Award, for meritorious service to Belgium’s breweries.) He has made it a key part of his critical mission to help bring attention to this once-forgotten family of beer, and it is generally conceded that the beer writer from London has done more to promote Belgian brewing than any other major beer critic. By this point, Jackson seems as much a part of the place as the oaken barrels and sweet-sour flavors that permeate the country’s oddly wine-like brews.
His new book is divided into 22 chapters, each tackling a different part of the essential mystery: how and why did this particular European locale develop such a peculiar zest and art for making fermented alcoholic beverages, to the extent that the country’s representative beers are packaged in Champagne bottles, swaddled in elaborate tissue-paper wrapping?
Like Webb’s book, this is the fifth edition of Jackson’s study of Belgian brewing. Unlike the CAMRA volume, Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium opts for a more personal and reflective approach to the subject, with less attempt at being a comprehensive reference work. In terms of its production values, the Jackson book is the slicker of the two, resembling a textbook glossy enough to be kept on a coffee table.
Sometimes a nation’s best art is better understood by an outsider. Like a Frenchman whose instinctive understanding of Jazz surpasses that of even American critics, Michael Jackson’s command of this subject exceeds even many Belgian sources. In some ways, that’s the highest compliment that could ever be paid to a book such as this.