As a beer traveler and sometimes tour guide I admit to a certain one-upsmanship. That being the occasional need to outsmart the geekiest of the beer nerds. I dig out tidbits that never hit the mainstream websites and aren’t in the more well-known guidebooks. If I’m on top of my game I don’t even make a big thing of it, but behind the scenes I am really doing my homework.
Of course it’s work. You have to shuttle yourself through the warp and weft of local customs, language, and geography. In Belgium, I dress in plain, dark clothes, speak softly, and don’t ask anything important in the first hour. Unlike a lot of American tourists, I have no objection to changing my dress code and lowering the volume of my voice in a beer café. I’d like to think that I’m not the American that gave American’s a bad name in the first place.
Point being, it’s the little nuggets you accumulate while exercising discretion that really make you worth hiring as a tour guide or as an author. Same’s true for an earnest traveler with a thirst for experience: little facts just make the journey more tangible, more memorable.
Once, in Namur, Belgium, I met an interesting chap named Georges. He told me he had found a great beer near Charleroi that nobody knew about. By telling me, he was giving me, in his words, “a scoop.” Georges’ mom was American and his pop was a Walloon. In true Belgian style he spoke a basket full of languages. His English was so good he spent Saturdays translating British comedies into French.
“It’s called Cuvée de Trazegnies. It’s really good,” he told me. “Go there and find it. Then you can tell your people about it.”
Right! So, on to the little town of Trazegnies (pron: trazsh-knee). I gassed up in the small town and asked directions.
“Excusez-moi monsieur. Connaissez-vous la bière Cuvée de Trazegnies?”
“Ah, Brasserie Lannoy…” and then some patchy directions, which managed to get me a few streets closer. Repeat. Get closer. Then finally to a shop window with said beer. But the place was closed. The lady in the market across the street told me the father of the man who made the beer ran a charcuterie, through the next town, near the motorway. He might have some beer in the cooler.
This was followed by trying to solicit more help from a lady in the next village’s town hall. We were going nowhere fast until she realized my French pronunciation was not due to being a Dutch-speaker from the north of Belgium. See, dressing like the locals confused the locals!
“Non, je suis americain,” I replied.
“I speak a bit of English,” she offered, now that she didn’t have to defend her heritage to one of those Flemish brigands. There were soon maps being photocopied and outlined in yellow marker, and in due time (actually about three minutes down the road) I came to said charcuterie. Indeed the beer was there. I bought a bottle of the blonde and bottle of the brune.
That evening I ended up at another brewery. I brought the beers with me. The brewer and his wife studied the labels, scrutinized the corks. Tasting seemed to be secondary. After a short tête à tête they said they had no idea who made the beers and knew nothing about this brewery. It was less than 20 minutes away from them! We decided the blonde was a good one and the brune “not so good.” I still didn’t have my scoop. I hadn’t met Monsieur Lannoy, I hadn’t seen the brewery. To make matters worse, my companions told me that the labeling on the two bottles was so precise and equal, that this beer could only have been made at a large and somewhat modern brewery.
Later, after more research on my own, I discovered the beer was being brewed on contract for Lannoy by Brasserie la Binchoise. It was a bière d’etiquette (literally “label beer”), a contract beer made on behalf of someone who didn’t even have a brewery. Well, it might have been a scoop.
I’m telling this cautionary tale to make a point: that it takes a lot of effort to chase down beer in Belgium. Same’s true for a lot of places. This was just one example. Similar pursuits have lead me to all sorts of wondrous places, like a cheese ripener’s caves or a Vermont farmhouse cidery with big dogs (but no cider in sight) or a descent into private lambic maturation cellars. The outcome may or may not be important, but the process can bring on a mighty thirst.
Esoteric beer guidebooks and travelogues are some of my resources. Wherever there is beer there will be some person with too much ambition and a spouse with a good salary. They take up the cause and chronicle this region or that style or other. I have a shelf load of out of print doozies. And what’s odd, half the time the book is written by an outsider. Sure Michael Jackson came to America and told us about real beer. Larry Hawthorne wrote the best book on the Munich beer scene. And a sometimes dodgy clutch of Brits have devoted themselves to describing beer in Belgium, Holland, France and elsewhere.
Today I’m giving up on one of my trade secrets. Why? Well, I’m not running any trips soon and the landscape of lambic beers is so tenuous that I’d be just plain mean for keeping this timely information to myself. Take my little story about Cuvée de Trazegnies and multiply it by a hundred. That is what Tim Webb and his co-authors have endured to produce the second edition of LambicLand – A journey round the most unusual beers in the world.
I met Tim a few years back in a Bruges beer bar. I found him easy-going and super knowledgeable. I already owned an earlier edition of his Good Beer Guide to Belgium, now in its sixth incarnation. One thing I’ve always liked about his books, they don’t draw arbitrary lines between the brewery and the retail establishments where you can find the beer. Sure, sometimes the brewery itself is atmospheric, but it can be anything from awkward to impossible to get into some breweries. Continental formality really requires advance appointments for most brewery visits. If you’re contrary to that, if you’ve coerced brewers to give you tours on just showing up, then you are the Americans that give Americans bad names. Pay attention.
Mr. Webb, along with Chris “Podge” Pollard and Siobhan McGinn, have chronicled every lambic brewer, gueuze blender (geuzesteker), cherry steeper (kriekenweker), and diminutive local serving everything from faro to kriek to oude geuze to the most challenging vieille lambic. One of the peculiarities of the lambic scene is the small number of actual brewers and the vast number of permutations created from their beers by the brewers themselves and blenders and steepers.
When I think back to my escapade of looking for that scoop on Cuvée de Trazegnies, I realize I have nothing on these guys. Their level of dedication and effort at once humbles me and pisses me off. Why am I pissed? Because with a short, claustrophobic jump through the Chunnel, these bastards are there drinking lambics and gueuze while the rest of us are destined to take what little the importers can wrangle, or be happy with armchair travels through the most peculiar and rewarding beer landscape that ever draped the planet.
My hat is off to the authors for this excellent work. I hope they at least break even. If you are planning explorations of any kind in the great Republic of Belgium, this book is a must-have. Available from Cogan & Mater, along with several other great titles on beer.