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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Defining the Indefinable

There is a cafe in Brussels. It is close and cozy, feminine in a way that is unlike pubs anywhere else I've visited. The walls are so coated in objects and pictures that you are able to confirm their existence largely by inference. The tables are small and dainty, as are the chairs. The beer list is extensive, but I didn't bother to consult anything but the lambic selection. This is the only place on earth they're made, and they've been made here for centuries. When you order one, the waiter arrives with a little basket; once he decants a portion into a pleated tumbler, he lays the bottle so that it reclines with its head resting on the edge--a vision of happy repose.

The beer list is extensive, despite my single-focus, and inside one finds a dozens of offerings spanning the range of local styles. In Belgium, the word "style" is especially fraught, since the local breweries work to make each of their beers different from everything else on the market. But whether we call them a dozen styles or three dozen, they are all there, well-represented. You could visit this pub every night for a month and not drink all the beer on offer.

The lineage of those lounging bottles dates at least to 1400, and they have been so ingrained in this city's heritage that they appear in paintings by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Other Belgian beers have been brewed by Catholic monks for over a century (with a tradition dating back 1500 years). There is a selection of ambrée and brune beer, which cast back to Belgian brewers' old habit of boiling their worts for many hours to caramelize the wort. There are foeder-aged red ales, which took a lesson from 19th-century London porter, and there are beers called "stout" which have inevitably gone through that unmistakable Belgian cultural distortion filter. There are even the "new" blondes, which started to become popular a few decades into the last century.

What one doesn't find is the latest release from Stone or Mikkeller--or even classics from Weihenstephan or Pilsner Urquell. There are a few places to find these beers, as the international craft brewing movement noses into even places with beer culture as well-established as Brussels--but they are by no means prevalent. And Brussels doesn't need them; the native drinking culture, the living history found in each bottle, the famous brewing school at Leuven, twenty miles from Brussels' Grand Place, the strange way brewers make their beer, the local ingredients they make it from, and even--especially--the respect and knowledge local drinkers have for this fixture of national identity. For a beer fan, casual or fanatic, there are few better places to drink beer.

Surprisingly, this isn't an opinion shared by everyone. There is an argument about what constitutes a good city for beer drinking, and it was on bright display yesterday when Jason Notte made a case that "New York cares more about craft beer than Portland." I spent an hour debating with Jason on Twitter--the second time in the last couple weeks we had this dispute. I'd considered doing a debate-style rebuttal about why I find this such a perverse position to take, but I'll limit it just to the acknowledgement that we understand "good" in very different terms. For Jason,
"...that ignores one of the key purposes of small brewing and craft beer: To try new ideas, to take chances and to explore. Sure, in lager-soaked Manhattan — where beers I had with friends at non-craft bars included Heineken, Labatt’s Blue and Rolling Rock — you have to go a bit out of your way to find a broad selection of craft beer. But those who do are rewarded with some of the best beers that all corners of the country have to offer.
I mentioned on Twitter that by this definition, Copenhagen would be a better beer city than Brussels. He made an adjustment to my comment, but agreed: "No, my argument would still apply: It's not a 'better' beer city, it's a more diverse, cosmopolitan beer city. But the Portland-Brussels parallel is a great one. Both have great beer, both are fairly insular and heavily emphasize local."

It is not possible to square this circle--we think of "best" in very different terms. For Jason, a "truly great beer town won’t be afraid to explore what’s brewing beyond the horizon line." For me, judging a city by how much of the local beer is brewed elsewhere seems a bizarre metric for assessing "truly great." New York and Copenhagen do have lots of foreign beers available in their bars, but it's precisely because locals haven't developed a taste for local beer in the way they have in Prague, Munich, and Brussels--and brewers in Copenhagen, for their part, are actively trying to invent a local tradition like Brussels has.

I'll never convince New Yorkers that their hometown is by most of my metrics one of the poorer beer cities in the country, and I don't know that there's any point in trying. (It's a promising sign that they are defending New York with such gusto!) But would I rather drink a Drie Fonteinen in a Brussels cafe, from a bottle my waiter has decanted and laid in a little basket, or go to a New York City bar that offers a menu of the world's beers, removed from their context and shipped across an ocean?

Rhetorical question.


  1. Even by that measure, it doesn't seem like NYC would place particularly high on a list of craft beer cities. I can't speak to Portland, but while NYC has isolated pockets of great beer, it is frequently a wasteland of good beer. Things have improved dramatically in the past couple of years (they even have some new good local breweries popping up like Other Half, Grimm, and SingleCut), but they're still lagging behind.

    I'm from Philadelphia, so I'm biased too, but we seem to have a pretty solid mix of local breweries (ranging from longstanding regional craft like Victory, Yards, Troegs to newfangled hipster joints like Tired Hands, Forest & Main, upcoming La Cabra, and everything inbetween) but also a frankly astounding selection of craft beer from the rest of the country as well as Europe and other foreign markets. I'd love to go to Brussels for that lambic basket treatment, but I can settle for the several local bars that specialize in obscure Belgian beer and their baskets for now...

    Maybe I just need to go to NYC more often and explore more. While I'm at it, I should get to Portland some day too. And Brussels. Maybe it's better that we have different options...

  2. Ha! Watching that debate unfold I was reminded of a comparison I used to make between drinking in Brussels vs. drinking in Amsterdam: in Brussels you get all the great Belgian beer; in Amsterdam you get all the great Belgian beer, Dutch beer, Danish beer, English beer etc. Copenhagen works almost as well as the other side of the equation.

    And it is an equation.

  3. If diversity is your metric for "goodness" you could probably argue many cities have a better pizza scene than New York since they don't focus so exclusively on just a single style or small range of styles.

  4. Having just returned from Brussels, I would agree that their notion of beer culture is driven by the fact that they have a history of producing local beer and maintaining its presence in the area. We visited Brewdog while there, and it was a happening spot, but didn't have the feel of Delirium, or many of the smaller beer venues that were visited. These 'local' brew sellers were focused on delivering a local beer experience, which I can say was unmatched by many of the locations I have traveled.

    Portland does well to bring local and international together, as it loses little in doing so. Oregon beers are great, and we have built a brand around them being from Oregon, but there is not a style of beer named after our state. We have a deeply rooted history in the craft brewers circles, along with many pioneers who helped bring craft beer to the masses, but we are still young in comparison to the Belgians and Germans. That said, we have started a beer revolution, the likes that have not been seen. Portland, and Oregon should be proud of its beer heritage, and needs to determine a means to propel us ever upward.

    In traveling, it becomes obvious to me how spoiled I am living in Oregon, but the world isn't fully aware yet. Which means that while we have come a long way to get where we are, there are many years ahead of us until we surpass the Monks and Abbeys.

    Still, well written and well thought out discussion.

    Cheers all!