Monday, October 06, 2008

Ta Mère Est Belge!

Am I the only one who’s been drinking Belgian beers since high school?

That’s an exaggeration, as the only beer I had prior to college was one Coors Light at a shitty house party.

But still, I’ve been drinking (and loving) Chimay for about a half-dozen plus one years now. Also was drinking Orvel, Westmalle, Stella, Hoegaarden, Duvel, Delirium Tremens, and all the other readily available Belgian beers for a long time. Belgium makes rockstar beers. Fabulous fucking beers. And many many different kinds of beers. Every neighborhood seems to have its own style.

I’m not knocking Belgian beers. I have something else to knock.

Why the fuck does every single upscale bar in LA have a fucking hard-on for Belgian and Belgian-style beers?

To be fair, you also can’t swing a dead racehorse penis in the Bay Area without hitting a new Belgian-themed gastropub. It expanded more slowly and organically up there though. A Luka’s here. A Trappist there.

There are numerous bars and gastropubs that will only serve Belgian/Belgian-style beers. That’s like a restaurant only serving French wines. It shows a myopic view of the culinary world under the guise of pretentious class.

What bothers me the most is this attitude that somehow Belgian beer is superior to other premium beers. That somehow because it comes in a corked bottle and is served in a quaint glass that makes it an elegant experience—something superior to a quality pint of porter with a plate of chili cheese fries.

And why would you serve only Belgian beers? Despite their diversity, you’re still limiting yourself. With the exception of the mass market Belgians like the aforementioned Stella Artois and Hoegaarden, you’re dealing primarily with robust, high-alcohol ales that knock you out after a glass or two. Session beers they aren’t.

And that’s the beauty of beer: swilling pints with friends over the course of an evening. It’s not wine. It’s not something to be savored as slowly as wine. It’s meant to be drunk, gulped, chugged, and enjoyed in broad strokes, just like the food you drink it with. Pizza. Fish and chips. Burgers. Fries.

How do they drink beer in England? Proper pints. In most cases, 20 ounce pints. In Germany (outside of Berlin anyway)? Half-liters, and in Bavaria the one liter “Maß,” while not necessarily the default serving, is almost universally available and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. The Czech Republic? Half-liters. Australia? Seven gallon gravity-tapped backpacks. And in America the 16 ounce pint used to be the universal. These are the proper beer-drinking countries of the world. Hell, Belgium serves most beers in a half-liter too, but try to get yourself a half-liter of Maredsous in California and some sideburned bartender in thick-rimmed glasses will look at you like you’re an uncultured, unhip lunatic.

With the Belgianization of our beer experience has come the shrinking of our beer servings (why can’t I get a goddamn proper pint in an upscale restaurant?) and after that comes the worst trend of them all… beer pairings.

I’m pretty laissez-faire when it comes to pairing wine with food, so the thought of nuanced course-for-course beer pairing is rather nauseating. Beer is great with food. In many instances better with certain foods than wine is. A pint of real pilsner with a dozen oysters hits the spot better than any sauvignon blanc for example. A schwarzbier with Black Forest ham on rye. A well balanced pale ale with pretty much anything.

I like a Belgian beer the same way I like a scotch: a glass or two every now and then. It’s not a go-to. It can’t be. You’ll go broke and get hammered.

And it sucks that the growing pretentious beer crowd has got me thinking about Belgian beer the same way I think of Courvoisier cognac, Rolex watches, and Grey Goose vodka: faux-upscale beverages for those whose conception of class begins and ends with the advertisements in GQ.


Zack said...

Am drinking a 22oz Stone Ruination right now, which I think communicates my dislike of small beers, my love of "robust, high-alcohol ales," and a preference for American flavor bombs over Belgian flavor bombs. Still, I do really like Belgian beers!

In most cases I'd rather have one knockout beer than a few session pints.

Anyhow, (shallow?) people need class markers to identify themselves and others, and since "uncool" people catch on they need to keep changing the locks. If Belgian beers are the lock now, just wait it out and the problem will fix itself.

James said...

This is a dead-on observation that speaks to one of the most annoying aspects of drinking beer in California: The typical beer drinker here has established an association of "quality" with "Belgian" or "hops for days."

The best Belgian beer I have ever had, without question, is a 5% amber ale called Palm that is not distributed in the US. In Brussels you can get a 6 pack of Palm for five or six euros. It's a balanced, refreshing, utterly drinkable session beer- as described by a Belgian native to me: "I love Duvel, but this is exactly what a beer should be."

I enjoy a great Belgian or a nice IPA every so often, but these new bars really have to balance their heavy shit out with Marzen, Kolsch, black ales, and everything else that makes the beer universe diverse and delicious.

I can go on about how ridiculous America's entire vodka culture has become, but mostly I just want to back you up on the Belgianization of beer in California. Well said.