Recently I revisited parts of Michael Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium. I have the first edition and the last issued in his lifetime, the fifth.
This is the only full-length book he wrote on the beers of one country. He is famous for having promoted the previously obscure (at best) beer tradition of Belgium, which caused a slowly growing importance of the genre in the beer revival.
I say “slowly” because while Belgian beer was reputed in beer circles immediately after 1977 (when The World Guide to Beer appeared), it took time relatively for craft brewers to emulate the styles in their brewing, or for importers to feature the beers in their inventories. As late as five years ago Belgian beer bars were still opening in New York for example.
And only in the last few years do you see a proliferation of Saison, sour or wild beers, abbey-style, and Wit from North American and U.K. craft brewers. It’s always thus, those who innovate are at first ignored, then given glancing recognition, then a broader one, until their work makes an impact as cultural change. (True in beer writing as in any area of culture).
My own tutoring in beer circles was mainly through, a) extensive reading of Jackson and other writers, b) sampling quality imports, and c) trying local beers on early foreign travels, mainly in the U.S. and Britain but also Belgium, France and later further east.
In terms of palate, the fine points of English pale ale and bitter and German and Czech lagers made the greatest impression on me. I still feel those beers are the best in the world.* Jackson’s promotion and adulation of these only reinforced it.
Yet, I never followed him as closely in the Belgian arena. In this respect I am atypical I think in the craft beer community where there tends to be an obeisance to Belgian styles.
I first had Chimay around 1980 and remember it being perfumed and flowery. I admired it more than liked it, though. The next Trappist I encountered was I think St. Sixtus, so not technically Trappist Westvleteren but brewed by an outside brewery. I recall its lush cinnamon, banana, and brown sugar note to this day – again not my thing.
I think that beer was not analogue to the famed “12”, but a lower gravity iteration. As issued by Westvleteren itself, I must say the 12 did make an impression a couple of years ago, with a subtlety and quality few Trappists and abbeys have IMO.
I just had Chimay again, the Red, and notes of yeast and cinnamon seemed prominent, a fresh hop quality lying below and the malt too. That spicy taste is surely from the yeast and typically high fermentation temperatures used in Belgian top-fermentation brewing.
It’s a taste I recognize in most Trappists except Orval, a taste I recognize in Antwerp’s De Koninck, in Saison Dupont from the Ardennes and other Saisons, in Leffe, in Grimbergen, in…
Most North American Belgian-style beer seems to have it, too. It pleases lots of people and taste is famously personal. I don’t knock it for others and if it helps the craft segment grow, great.
The Gueuze and Lambic styles don’t feature it, that signature tends to be lactic, acetic, and with a funky yeast background, not my cup of tea either.
The wheat-based Wits are probably my favourite taste in the Belgian range. I like it especially when coriander and similar flavourings are used. And good Belgian lager, especially Jupiler, is not to be disdained. Fresh Stella is quite good too although the flowery nose I recall from 20 years ago is gone.
So, I don’t dismiss a whole country’s beers. Occasionally I’ll run into a non-classified Belgian I just like for its idiosyncrasy, a stout here and there, a pale or Scotch ale. The sub-genre of Belgian beer that Jackson wrote about in 1977, Scotch Ale (before the La Chouffe era, theirs is more artisanal), was excellent: rich, malty, clean-tasting with a clear U.K. influence. Campbell’s, say or Douglas Scotch. I’m not sure if those still exist or taste the same.
What I really like about Belgian beer, finally, is how Michael Jackson wrote about it. How he singlehandedly created a pantheon of types that remains enormously influential. He just had that ability. He was and is a pleasure to read, and I was always happy to read him whether I liked the beers described or not – the sign of a good writer of course. Could a Jackson of today do the same for American adjunct lager? I wonder…
Note re images: Second image above was sourced at this excellent Belgian beer-label collector’s site. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.
*I would add some Alt Bier as well, from Dusseldorf.