“Gone Abroad” by Charles Graves (1932). Part 1.

I can’t improve on Wikipedia’s biographic sketch of Charles Patrick Ranke Graves (December 1, 1899-February 20, 1971), so to follow me effectively, read it first. Graves was an English author and journalist, part of the distinguished Graves writing clan that included his siblings Robert and Philip.

Charles’ mother, Graves Sr.’s second wife, was of German descent. This probably explains the in-depth coverage of Germany in Charles’ 1932 travel book, Gone Abroad.

The book is excellent travelogue, with museums, bars, restaurants, hotels, transport, zoos, war memorials, seasides, and landscapes a plenty. The quality of the writing sets it apart from the usual run, especially his dry sense of humour.

The book deals with Germany for the first two-thirds, and the remainder on Belgium. The German part mentions beer numerous times, which I will return to. The introduction makes a number of social and cultural observations on Germany, one claiming it lacked “national resentment”.

I am not sure that was quite correct, at the time, but most of the statements ring true enough, e.g. the liking for the English. He relates a story that an English visitor wandered into Hofbrauhaus in Munich one evening when it was reserved for a soldiers’ association. The chap was welcomed with bonhomie and good humour. Graves said in the reverse case, that wouldn’t be so in England!

The interesting statement is made that Britain was becoming tired of war while Germany, being “young and resilient” (less conflicts in its past to that point, he says), was losing the memory of the Great War, despite the millions lost. This was prescient, I think.

There is no reference to the Nazi Party (that I found), and only a couple (anodyne) to Communists. The book is apolitical, essentially, at a time when it was still just about possible to do that.

The Belgian part is equally interesting, including the beer observations. There are no screeds against sour beer although many visitors in the 19th century couldn’t restrain themselves. There is one passage where via his driver Alphonse (mentioned below) dismissed a beer for being “washy”. Graves calls much Belgian beer “watery”, in another passage.

In fact though, Graves barely notices Belgian beer at all. By this I mean, he states that in the cities, beer had a foreign cast. The beer was made in Belgium, but every effort was made to present it as German- or (inferentially) U.K.-type.

This shows the great prestige German lager had by the first third of the 20th century, and British ale at least in Belgium. Of course, some bars actually carried German or British beer, which he often mentions.

In his words:

It may be said here that the Belgians are rather English in the way they admire anything foreign, and most of the Belgian brewers give fancy German names to their purely Belgian beers. All kinds of variations on the words Spatenbrau, Pilsen, and so on, are coined, in order to encourage the public to buy them. At the Ancienne Belgique [!] though, one is really able to get Munich beer.

Given that modern craft brewing sprang in some part from an admiration of Belgium’s idiosyncratic, age-old brewing tradition, this reads oddly indeed. But a truism is revealed.

The truths of one age can mean nothing in the one before, or after. A variety of reasons explains this that may or may not be connected to inherent quality (always hard to define anyway). Fashion and peer pressure can demolish traditions, for example, which then need to be rebuilt.

The success in the U.K. of thin, gassy “keg” ale in the 1970s and oft’ Teutonic-named lagers did serious damage to a distinguished tradition of naturally-conditioned beers. Yes, it survived, but just.

North America earlier lost its original ale and porter tradition to a wave of German-American brewing. The new beer type soon adopted corn or other adjuncts in the mash, a lightening that got ever more pronounced through the 20th century. Craft brewing had to recreate what was lost, and inevitably, the new school differed in many ways from the old.

In Brussels, Graves does not mention its ancestral lambic, faro, Mars, or gueuze. He does state:

The inhabitants of Brussels … like … music, light colours, hard work, pale ale, and trams…

Further: “Belgians are very fond of English stout and ‘pale-ale’ as they call it”. Graves mentions as well a Whitbread Tavern in the Boul. Adolphe Max in Brussels, which is long before Whitbread brewery built the Britannia Tavern for the 1958 World’s Fair in the city.

Belgium abandoned a good part of its venerable top-fermentation tradition in favour of U.K. pale ale, imported or locally brewed, or fizzy, stable, German-style lagers. Only when a Briton called Michael Jackson (1942-2007) wrote lyrically of its hitherto unsuspected beer riches did a sea change occur, certainly in export markets and to a degree in Belgium itself.

Suddenly, we needed to know about Trappist beer, saison beer, cherry beer, beers so tart they scrunched up your face, and lots more. None of that is in Gone Abroad. A revolution was caused by one man, or pretty much. If you need proof of the “great person” theory of history, there it is.

Now, there is a hint in Graves’ book that he found some “real” Belgian beer. He had hired a “large fast American car” with driver to take him through the hinterlands. They ended covering most of the country. The driver and guide, Alphonse:

… was a very conscientious chap.  Day after day he showed me cathedrals, statues, war memorials, and so on until I nearly dropped. In return, I took him to estaminets, tavernes, cafés, and restaurants, where we drank innumerable kinds of Belgian beer…

More than that he doesn’t say, but I’d wager Alphonse gave him pointers on lambic, say, or, the brown beer of Malines. Although, of all the beers he and Alphone got down, the only one identified by type is a Dortmunder.

Graves must have liked it as he mentions Dortmunder in another part of the essay, seeming to apologize it was a “lager”, not “beer”.  This was likely the Belgian “Dort”, an imitation of the Dortmunder style.

Still, there is a hint true Belgian beer was uncovered in the backroads, and appreciated, something that wasn’t a take on Germany’s or the U.K.’s best. If so, maybe the names are in his working papers for the book but didn’t make the final cut.

Here is a picture from the National Portrait Gallery of the dashing young Graves in ’32, the year the book appeared.