How do wars start? In some explosive countries, the trigger can be as simple as a disputed result of a soccer match. In Belgium, the argument is more likely to be over beer. A civil war seemed on the cards recently, when a leading daily newspaper misinterpreted my attempts to name the “Ten Best” Belgian beers.
The newspaper, aimed at the half of Belgium that speaks French, was angered by the fact that I listed only two beers from its territory: Orval and Chimay Grande Réserve. Given the decline in the complexity of Chimay, I had a tough time deciding between it and Rochefort. Perhaps I should have sidelined both in favor of Saison Dupont. That is one of the many problems in compiling such lists.
If the newspaper is a daily, you will be put on the spot. You may even start a war. The reporter, behind his notebook, or at the other end of a telephone line, or perhaps on email, will want instant answers. He may be the only non-drinking journo on the paper. After a night on the town, your brain may not be working very well. Geographical balance is something I always consider, though it distorts the end result. No doubt people would complain about that, too.
The greater problem was the ranking given to the beers. The Belgian newspaper had placed them in order, like a league table, with Duvel (from the “Flemish-speaking North) at “Number One” and Orval way down. The newspaper argued that these positions be reversed.
The “positions” were based on a page layout in another newspaper. The Belgian paper had taken its story from The Independent, a national newspaper published in Britain. The Independent had photographed each beer in the bottle. Each had a separate text, displayed like an extended caption. The beers had then been arranged on the page in a way that highlighted the differences in the shapes of bottles and the colors of labels. I had not ranked them or scored them.
Even then, I was annoyed with myself when I saw The Independent and realised that I had not included Saison Dupont—or, for example, its neighbor, Bush Beer. In these situations, even in my books, I always miss something which, in retrospect, I would have included. This can be embarrassing. These are not tablets handed down by Moses, but word does get around.
The awarding of points or rankings is notoriously difficult, but the word “best” is superlatively troublesome. In some categories of beer, there may be an obvious best; in others, there isn’t. The Ten Best Belgians? In that case, as you might expect, I wanted also to demonstrate the diversity of styles. A further factor was that they all had to be available n Britain.
So, were these really the ten best? I am not sure it is possible to devise such a list. Why did I try? Because they offered me a whole page, in an influential national newspaper, to highlight beers that the consumer can find in the supermarket, and that are substantially more interesting than the usual drinks.
I could have told The Independent that, while some beers are better than others, none is “best.” They would not have changed the name of this series to accommodate me. To turn down the offer of a whole page in a national newspaper would have been to look a gift horse in the mouth. After years of fighting for coverage, I would hardly do that.
Treasured Memory Syndrome
After the difficulty of scoring and ranking comes the problem of treasured memories. My first tastes of Orval and Chimay, in the early-to-mid 1970s, were delightful shock.
The bitterness of Orval was even greater than that of the legendary British ale White Shield Worthington. I later learned about the semi-wild yeast Brettanomyces, and recognised its influence in the woody, hessian-like, horse-blanket dryness of Orval. Another semi-wild strain, or perhaps several, gave a clove-like spicy dryness to the White Shield of my youth.
In more recent years, none of these brews seemed quite as I remembered. Was I suffering from the “treasured memory syndrome?” This thought renders me cautious in revising my written opinions, though I will do so once I am convinced. No beer can remain exactly the same. Strains of barley and hops change over the years, as does equipment. Nor is a brewery obliged to do what writers desire but, if a great beer loses some of its character, that should be reported.
Younger writers have a lesser context, but fewer treasured memories. One aspirant who beat a path to my door some years ago was a student called Christian Debenedetti. I encouraged his interest, and he later very ably documented the changes in Orval. Though they were significant, and to be regretted, it is still a great beer.
Chimay’s beers are still complex brews, but markedly less so than they were. At first, I blamed this on adjustment to a new brewhouse, but years have now passed. Another writer friend, Jim Leff, raised some questions in an article and was dismissed by Chimay as having “misunderstood” a discussion with a brewer there. Jim recently drew my attention to the ingredient labelling on French bottles of Chimay:
“Made exclusively from natural products: water, malted barley, wheat starch, sugar, malt extract, hop extract, yeast.” None of this will kill you, or even corrupt your morals, but it does not evoke a monastery garden.
The Brewing Father
The last time I was at Chimay, I raised some of these points, and my comments were greeted with pained indignation. “We thought you were our friend” seemed to be the message. I am. Chimay was one of the first breweries I visited when I was researching the original edition of The World Guide to Beer in the mid 1970s.
The brewery was scarcely known outside Belgium. I was a highly experienced journalist, but it was only as a consumer that I reckoned to know my beers. There were no “beer writers.” My every naïve or stupid question was addressed with clarity and care by Father Theodore, the brewer.
I did not know then that this puckish monk had worked with the great brewing scientist Jean De Clerck in the shaping of the Chimay range. De Clerck must have been a wonderful tutor. Father Theodore had a brewing scientist’s knowledge of water, barley varieties, hops and yeast.
He demonstrated a quality which he identified 15 years later, in my ”Beer Hunter” TV films, as “Benedictine patience.” He was keen that I should understand brewing, especially its Belgian dimensions—not just the ways of Chimay. He complimented me on the tenacity of my questions, and later told me that my writing was causing Chimay to flood the world.
My memories of Father Theodore are aired in my book The Great Beers of Belgium. My favorite recollection was the day, soon after his retirement from the brewery, that he faxed me, saying he was bored. The Order is silent, but St. Benedict did not legislate for communication by fax. With holy thoughts to think, I don’t suppose monks are supposed to permit boredom. In the last two or three years, I lived in hope of a text message.
Earlier this year, Father Theodore slipped away to the Auberge in the Sky. I was on the road somewhere, and did not hear in time to publish an obituary. He was in his eighties, and his achievements were commensurate with his long life.