Tilting at Windmills

Are You Experienced?

… he ate some roast beef and drank two pints of ale, stimulated by the flavor of a cow-shed which this fine, pale beer exhaled.

His hunger persisted. He lingered over a piece of blue Stilton cheese, made quick work of a rhubarb tart, and to vary his drinking, quenched his thirst with porter, that dark beer which smells of Spanish licorice but which does not have its sugary taste…

The above words are from this online edition of French novelist J-K Huysman’s 1884 A Rebours, translated as Against the Grain.

This novel was mentioned in beer critic Michael Jackson’s early work, but not in connection with the above quotation. Jackson examined the part where Huysmans (pictured) imagined an all-black meal, one featuring black soups, dark game, sauces the colour of “bootblack”, and ebon drinks such as kvass and porter.

Huysmann was looking to describe extreme experiences of the senses, both taste and perception, to counterpoint the moderation and juste moyen of bourgeois society.

His all-black meal is periodically reproduced in small food circles but has never caught on as a food fad. Today’s careening culinary and beverage worlds seem perfect for it, yet simultaneous appearance in happening restaurants in London, Paris, and New York, – need I add Berlin – is elusive.

(Anthony Bourdain would seem perfect for this gig, but anyway…).

The quotation though is further support that well-aged 1800s pale ale, often denominated IPA, had the barnyard Brettanomyces smack. Modern brewers sometimes seek to impart it in beer, with evident historical justification, were any needed.

Beers of various kinds have always featured “extreme” flavours, probably accidentally initially, that finally grab and retain drinkers’ affections. Bitterness itself, from hops, is the best example. Musk features in perfumes, soaps, and other things: why not eatables? It becomes a whet, a stimulant, and this is what Huysmans was getting at both literally and as metaphor for artistic sovereignty.

I argued in my American musty ale study last year in the journal Brewery History that the signature of late-1800s U.S. “musty” may well have been the brett tang, analogous to the contemporary “Bass [pale ale] stink” identified and documented in the same article.

A good example of the palate today is Belgian Trappist Orval beer. In taste and colour, Orval may well be close to Huysman’s Gothic-tasting English pale ale. A number of ironies abound in that proposition but I’ll let it be.

The accidental irony of the English translation of the book’s title, Against the Grain, is more satisfying to contemplate: the book bruits the flavours of Victorian English beery specialties, it didn’t deride them. The comment on porter underlines this: it had a liquorice note, well-known as an acquired or “grown-up” flavour, while avoiding a sugary taste.

Sugar rightly or wrongly is the sign of the undiscriminating, or inexperienced – its beverage zenith was probably Coca-Cola which probably not ironically was invented around the same time. I’m not knocking Coke, I like it myself, but I’m trying to write some cultural history here.

The term à rebours has also been translated as “against nature”, or “at loggerheads”. It sounds literally as a rebounding, against something. Anyhow, the sybarite protagonist evidently had nothing again floor-malted English classic beers.

My current collaboration with Amsterdam Brewery to produce a c. 1870 AK, a lower-gravity, “domestic” form of India Pale Ale, sought intentionally to avoid brett character. The reason was storage of pale ales for a few weeks, even in the 19th century in uncoated wood, probably didn’t produce brett, or not invariably.

Brett generally needs longer to appear in beer as the yeast type awaits the finish of fermentation by the conventional brewing yeast – unless of course we inoculated with brett for primary or secondary fermentation, but we wouldn’t do that here.

I’d think a lactic note was perhaps more frequent, but I didn’t want that either. And anyone with a glass before him can emulate a lactic character by adding a few drops of Seville orange or something similar.

The beer will be ready in about a month, incidentally.

N.B. Huysmans, who was about, um,10 years younger than I when pictured, appears the picture of bourgeois propriety – as expected from someone with a 30-year career in the French Fonction Publique. Maybe he was a secret hippie at heart.

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