Today is auspicious: the 77th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. We offer our remembrances, with the thought that while time’s flight makes such events seem remote, they must always be remembered for the lessons they offer for future tests of freedom.
Can You Show me Where you Are?
Ben Morgan in the comments here recently made some interesting points about a visit to Watou in Belgium and the new restaurant and centre at St. Bernardus there.
St. Bernardus is a secular brewery that for many years brewed the ales of Westvleteren, the Sint Sixtus monastery famous today for its strong top-fermented beers. This was a licensed arrangement, inaugurated in 1946 and terminated over 20 years ago when the fathers resumed brewing at their retreat a half-dozen miles from Watou.*
St. Bernardus overcame the loss of monastic approbation and continues the old recipes, while those of Sint Sixtus have evolved. The two breweries, in this and other respects, have a modus vivendi. It is a good example of the special character brewing has in business. The religious element probably favours it in this case, but still.
The worldwide popularity of Belgain beers occurred in the last 40 years for quite specific reasons I’ve discussed earlier and won’t rehearse.
That trend built on and expanded the special position beer has held for centuries in Flanders and Wallonia. Beer was part of gastronomy in Europe, in these regions and a few others, long before the world caught on via inquisitive journalists and clever publicists.
The social history of beer in Belgium and northern France remains to be written, vs. many aspects of its technical and business history. But there is no doubt beer enjoyed a special respect in Belgium that endured even under unfavourable circumstances. Nothing similar had existed in North America or Britain, certainly.
This press story in the Rochester Democrat Chronicle chronicled the abundant food and drink, free of any ration system, available in Belgium in 1948. As little as three years after the war, the author could write:
This morning I had orange juice, two eggs, coffee, rolls and more butter than I could eat at the continental breakfast they
throw in with your room rent. I had lunch yesterday at the Palace Hotel, the fanciest spot on the line, and though the
grunt—or tab—bore more than a slight resemblance to the national debt, it was wonderful again to taste roast beef and ice cream with thick chocolate sauce.
The pastry cooks are having a field day and their luscious looking creations are everywhere on display. You can buy the finest chocolate candy, the Trappist beer (I never touch the stuff, so I am no practical authority on this), they say is the finest beer on the continent…
Sadly the writer, Henry W. Clune, was a self-professed non-beer drinker, so we get no direct assessment of 1940s Trappist beer, but his report is clearly based on informed opinion.
Think about it: only three years before, a cruel German occupation meant, if not great physical damage as the article notes, privation for most and death or jail for not a few. Just 36 months later, a rich culinary and catering tradition is restored.
It was probably more or less the same in Paris, but Britain still struggled under food rationing. It seems the occupied nations were in some ways better off than the victors, not America of course but it was much further away from the fighting except as noted in Hawaii.
This recognition of Belgium’s own appreciation for Trappist beer, something that evidently predated WW II, is one of the first international acknowledgements I know of for the genre.
A second followed in the 1969 article by Phillipe Mercier I discussed in this post, which showed that Trappist breweries were using all-malt in 1969. But Mercier was writing in an obscure scientific journal vs. Clune’s general audience.
The Belgians simply have a special relationship with beer, and food. Even though they took to mass-produced lager like everyone else, cranky artisan styles survived there long enough to help found an international brewing revolution. In turn that helped ensure the health of abbey and other specialist brewing in Belgium, whence the vibrancy of St. Bernardus today.
Maybe if Clune had liked beer and praised this rare specialty of Trappist beer in 1948 it would have spiked interest in the U.S. much earlier than the mid-70s.
Some Trappist beer was available in the U.S. before Michael Jackson’s 1977 The World Guide to Beer, but it was just another oddball import. And some reviewers dismissed it, and other idiosyncratic Belgian ales, as an obscure byway not likely to interest their readers.
I discussed some of this commentary in my recent article in Brewery History on 1970s, pre-Michael Jackson American beer writers.
Every country, at least in pre-globalized times, had its interests, its priorities, its special gifts. It wasn’t even a question of one category trumping the same in another. British beer arguably in 1950 was as diverse and interesting as Belgian beer, more so in some ways.
But the British, and North Americans in their considerable wake, at least until the consumer revolution of the 1960s, were interested mostly in other manifestations of culture: cars, music, film, fashion, sports. Germany, despite its reputed obsession with beer, was not much different by the postwar era.
Can one imagine a foreign journalist being told in New York in 1948 that the “in” beer was Ballantine India Pale Ale? Or in London, Colne Spring Ale?
No way José. Don’t be barmy. You want a good beer do you? Here, try Miller High Life, it’s much better than the stuff the pokey Brooklyn breweries still foist on us. Have a go with this Barclay’s lager, it’s brilliant, the future for beer in this country.
Times did change, finally, both Stateside and Blighty for wine, beer and the eating arts. And they play rock and pop in Belgium now, the chansonniers had to give way, hélas.
Fair exchange, we think.
Posctscript: Henry Clune died in 1995 at an impressive 105, long enough to see the beer revolution take root in America. He lived near Rochester, NY, not all that far from Ommegang in Cooperstown, the Belgian-inspired brewery that made its own contribution to the beer revival. The Trappist beer Clune didn’t taste but took note of in 1948 wrought a change in American customs he could hardly have imagined then.
* See Ben Rogers’ correction on this point in the Comments, the fathers at Westvleteren had never ceased brewing.