What is Sweet Now, Turns so Sour

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.





4 thoughts on “What is Sweet Now, Turns so Sour”

  1. You might like to try the Christmas St Bernardus, Gary, the clove flavor is dialed down in favour of spices. It is smoother and less complex on draft, but nonetheless delicious.

    The 75cl would be my recommendation – the packaging is superb, IMHO, and for me adds a certain something to the enjoyment of the beer. Neophytes who I share them with are always impressed. I bought 3 (12 x 75cl) cases this week.

    Not the best Belgian Christmas beer perhaps, but certainly one of the most ‘fun’ – the self-dubbed ‘Happy Monk’ on the label always entices me. He isn’t actually a monk, as I am sure you know the Catholic Church had some influence in changing the tone in the early 1990’s, rather a merry imbiber in his beer co-fraternity robe.

    The St B website is about to updated according to the CEO I met, but you might like to have a look at photos of the new facility, it is truly impressive. Maybe a bit over the top, even. I am assured it is rammed on the weekends as our Flemish friends love to take a spin in the countryside by car or bike and enjoy a decent beer either there or up the road and around the corner at Westvleteren.

    • Thanks for this, will take a look and maybe try the Christmas version. Good to see their expansion and current health, all to the good for the brewing business!


  2. Thanks for the acknowledgement, Gary, I am chuffed, as they say here.

    One thing – it is my clear understanding that the monks and St Bernardus brewed in parallel during the period 1946-1992 – Westvleteren continuing the brewing begun in 1839 in small quantities for sale at the gate, and St B brewing the same beers under license, which were marketed as ‘St Sixtus’, in much larger quantities.

    Tim Webb claims (in “100 Belgian Beers To Try Before You Die” 2008, p.103) that those St Sixtus beers were seen as imitations and were “never taken in to the heart of beer lovers”.

    The monastic beer, of course was not marketed at all, and to this day have no labels – uniquely I think in the beer world.

    It is therefore the St Bernardus recipes which had to evolve following the loss of the license, not those of the monastery.

    I saw the current range of Westvleteren for sale last week in 2 places – at a shop in Brussels Midi railway station and at a beer warehouse in Gent. Prices were high, as befits a beer not officially available anywhere apart from the gates (and the café across the road).

    I hope too someone, someday will write a social history of Belgian beer as I think it is a fascinating story, although I think getting people to agree on that story will be a very difficult task indeed.


    • Ben, thanks you are right that simultaneous brewing occurred from 1946 until 1992, it changed when Watou was not able to use the name St. Sixtus or Trappist as changes were envisaged by ’92 to require brewing in the monastery under monks’ supervision for Trappist certification. I do believe Westvleteren ramped up production after 92 but still they hadn’t stopped earlier, that is right. However, I’ve read that Bernardus uses the original yeast from Westvleteren and the fathers use yeast derived from re-supply by Westmalle. In this sense arguably Bernardus continues the earlier tradition with more fidelity. Although, as Mercier’s article shows when considered in light of later information, Trappist procedures, at least at Chimay and Westvleteren, probably Rochefort too, have evolved anyway since 1969, so it’s relative really. I should try Bernardus again, that banana/dates/clove defeats ne every time but I find beers do change (once again) or perhaps I do. Westvleteren 12 in contrast is a subtler beer I’ve enjoyed more.

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