Belgian Beer, me, and Michael Jackson


[Replaces an earlier post due to editing and updating].

Michael Jackson’s important book, Great Beers of Belgium was first issued in 1992. Five editions were issued during his lifetime (1942-2007). While never selling great numbers the book proved highly influential.

It is the only full-length book he wrote on the beers of one country. In earlier writing he promoted numerous obscure or minor (at best) beer traditions in Belgium, which caused the initial interest internationally.

It rippled through the craft world he helped create in general. Slowly but steadily Belgian beer acquired a connoisseur’s reputation it has never lost, despite reality checks such as use of malt adjuncts or sugar in much of its brewing, and a sameness of palate across many styles.

I say “slowly” because while Belgian beer has been reputed internationally since 1977 when Jackson’s landmark The World Guide to Beer appeared, it took time for craft brewers to emulate the styles, or for importers to feature examples in their range.

As late as 10 years ago Belgian beer bars were still opening in New York, maybe still for all I know. This attests to the long gestation of Belgian beer as a key member of the pantheon.

But certainly in the last few years we see a proliferation of Saison, sour or wild, abbey-style, fruited, and Wit beers from North American and British craft brewers.

In terms of palate, English ales and German and Czech lagers have always impressed me most. I still feel those beers – at their best –¬† are best in the world.* Jackson’s promotion and adulation of these reinforced, but did not create, my basic regard.

I never followed him as closely for Belgian beer. In this respect I am atypical in the craft community where obeisance to Belgian styles continues unabated, at least professedly. This includes for example corrosively sour Belgian beers.

Jackson’s writing, directly, or indirectly via countless other writers, tweeters and bloggers, had a lot to do with this.

I first had Trappist Chimay around 1980 and remember it being perfumed and flowery; perhaps it became less nuanced later. The next Trappist encountered was I think St. Sixtus, so not technically the revered Westvleteren but the formula brewed by an outside brewery. I recall its heady cinnamon, banana, and brown sugar notes to this day – not my thing.

As issued by the monks at Westvleteren itself, the famed “12” did make a better impression, with a subtlety and quality few Trappist and abbey beers have. That’s one out of a relatively large group.

Although the Chimay labels can vary by batch and aging (imo), I recognize the basic yeasty profile in most Trappist beer except idiosyncratic Orval. I recognize it in Antwerp’s De Koninck, in Saison Dupont from the Ardennes and other Saisons, in Leffe Abbey Ale, in Grimbergen, in Floreffe, in…

Much craft Belgian-style beer, e.g. Belgian I.P.A., has it too. I don’t knock it for others, and if it helps the craft segment grow, great.

Gueuze and Lambic styles don’t feature it. Their signature tends to be lactic, acetic, with a funky yeast background, not my cup of tea either. Flanders red and old brown are similar, sans the funk (no spontaneous fermentation).

As to the wheat-based Wit, I like it especially when coriander and similar flavourings are used. Fresh Stella Artois, a lager, is quite good although the flowery nose I recall from 30 years ago is gone.

Most other Belgian lager I’ve encountered, Jupiler say, seems rather ordinary, mass-market-styled.

Occasionally I’ll run into other Belgians I like, Leroy Sweet Stout, say, or a pale or Scotch ale. I like the (family-owned) St-Feuillien range, which doesn’t overdo the yeasty phenolic taste.

A sub-genre of Belgian beer 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 Scotch or Douglas Scotch were examples. I’m not sure if these still exist or, as important, taste the same.

What I really like about Belgian beer, somme toute, is how Michael Jackson wrote about it. How he singlehandedly created a pantheon of styles that remains enormously influential. He just had that ability.

He was (and is) a pleasure to read and I was happy to read him whether I liked the beers or not.

Had the tables been turned, and he was a new writer entering the kind of field he helped create, could he have created a similar mystique for American adjunct lager, the antithesis of what the craft revolution stood for?

Probably, given the relativity of taste and the large role promotion and publicity play in its formation.

Craft brewing has itself taken tentative steps toward this end, eg by vaunting rice lager or Asian rice lager. Maybe we will come full circle, back to American adjunct lager.


*Some Alt Bier as well, from Dusseldorf.

2 thoughts on “Belgian Beer, me, and Michael Jackson”

  1. Great post!
    One time in the Netherlands I stayed for a few days in a place where the only two options were Heineken and Palm. I’m glad the Palm was available, but I also don’t want to ever have one again! Life is too short for banal beer, but I also didn’t want to shorten my life with that Heineken.

    I’m glad to be here now in the this world of choice. At least we get to also choose what we don’t want. Although, there seems to be a creep of crap (IMHO) into the mainstream of a lot of nasty adjuncts or obsession over making beer taste like something else other than beer; I’m looking at you vanilla, pumpkin spice, etc. etc.

    I reread some of Jackson’s musing on Belgian and other abbey and farmhouse traditions a few years ago and it struck me that there is almost an anti vaxer style cult to some of this. As if science and consistency were so evil that anything that spontaneously ferments must be somehow better, even if it’s undrinkable.

    • Thank you.

      Perhaps as these farmhouse and artisan categories have grown, especially in the hands of large Euro groups, a certain sameness has set in, or was it always there? Hard to say. I did notice too that many northern French beers including craft are flavoured – it was hard to find a French porter that wasn’t on my recent trip, although I did finally. French brewing has stressed this for a long time, with e.g. Desperados (very popular) and similar beers.

      My issue is really to see those Flanders hops, and malts of France, Belgium and elsewhere advertised proudly on labels, have more of a say in palate, and not have that Belgian yeast character dominate the palate of so many of the beers. A few of the older school French brewers did succeed in that, Choulette say, or Trois Monts.

      The anti-corporate focus was strong in Jackson, and modern craft (North American, British) has followed him there. I guess he had his reasons, seeing them close so many smaller English and American breweries, but today the focus can seem too intense, naive in a sense, especially when big business “got the message” and undeniably makes a lot of distinctive craft beer in the Anglosphere certainly.


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