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Monday, June 16, 2008

Smeirlap! (Taras Boulba, De La Senne Brewery)

Since I've spent a few days castigating the Belgians, I think it's time to praise them. Last week I picked up a bottle from Belmont Station--I hesitate to admit this and sacrifice my street cred--based solely on the label. My knack for decanting beer is clearly greater than my skill at photography, but at right you can see the label that beguiled. The image shows a burly, teamster-looking guy about to crush a scrawny beggar-looking man. They are inexplicably near a circus, and the teamster screams "Smeirlap!" That and the three words I could read ("Extra Hoppy Ale") were enough to make the sale.

As a now-elderly man who must scuttle around on bad knees while nursing a case of low-grade sciatica, I have few remaining childish joys left to indulge. One is purchasing beers from foreign lands, particularly when the label is inexplicable and bizarre. One has a sense (however romantic and inaccurate) that the beer represents something essential about the country, and that decanting the beer is a little like pouring out a bit of the country. (I should note that less than half the beers acquired in this manner have been worth a damn. Still.) It turns out there's a story behind the label (with Belgians, there almost always is), but more about that later.

Tasting Notes
It turns out the beer is a paltry 4.5% alcohol--substantially lighter than Full Sail Session--but I didn't know that until after I drank it. Absolutely nothing tipped it off. It is a corked beer, and comes roiling out like a Belgian strong. The head is absolutely magnificent, as thick and well-structured as whipped egg whites. (In the picture, you can see the peaks.) It's a hazy golden and sports a massive bead. Upon visual inspection, I had already concluded it was going to be a big beer.

The aroma and flavor mislead as well. The aroma in particular is complex and interesting--at first just peppery, but then I detected something that made me jot down "soap," and later it hit me--lavender. It is predictably rocky and effervescent on the tongue, which draws out the "extra hoppy" character advertised on the label. The bitterness--robust, but not out of balance--is of an almond/apricot pit quality. Far different from our green hoppiness. I detected no candi sugar (for reasons now obvious), but it felt every bit as big and substantial as many of the complex Belgians that ring in at 7-10%. No funk in the yeast, but it is very, very dry. A great beer, and a revelation when I learned it was a session ale (though at ten bucks a bottle, you won't be drinking it by the liter). I would like to hear about the 4.5% beer that has more flavor and more character than Taras Boulba.

The brewery is brand-spanking new--so new they don't even have a brewery. They borrow De Ranke's. (Interesting. Wonder if time-sharing is an option here? I have a sweet little brown I wouldn't mind trying to take to a wider audience. Kurt and Rob?) Their lineup features five beers, but only two are imported to the US. The other, a 4.5% stout, I did not see.

Okay, so what about the label? Don't bother trying the website--it's in French or Dutch, your choice. English, tantalizingly listed on the splash, is not yet operational. Fortunately, Shelton Brothers, the importer, has the details.
It's all been explained to us by the brewers, but we're still not entirely clear about it. What we can understand is that a young Flemish man has gone and married a French-speaking Wallonian girl, and his father, Taras Boulba, is very angry. (Smeirlap means 'fool' in a bizarre local dialect, which combines Flemish and French, somehow.)

This is all a bastardization of the original story by Gogol, whose protagonist was Russian, a Protestant. His son marries a Polish girl, a Catholic, during the religious war between the two countries in the 1600's, and the Russian father simply kills his son to eliminate the shame.

I am pleased to hear that the explanation only makes the whole thing more charming, if no more coherent. I recommend you try a bottle, should you see it. Another wonderful mold-breaking beer from Belgium, and only a smeirlap would fail to see that.


  1. Hey there

    A little off topic but still somewhat relevant. My buddy sent me this video and I thought that since it is about beer, you may be interested in checking it out. I looked into it and it was made by Granville Island Brewery from Vancouver, Canada.

    These guys hold an intervention for their friends to get him to stop carrying around his ugly Chihuahua. It is actually fairly accurate depiction of some people in Vancouver!

    Some good one liners with a pretty obvious but funny product plug at the end. I thought it was humorous.


  2. Hi Jeff,

    We just received the De LA Senne Stouterik this afternoon. Haven't had a chance to try it yet, but if it's even half as good as the Taras Boulba it's worth picking up a bottle.



  3. 1. Google "Smeirlap". You'll be pleasantly surprised.

    2. Check out the Wall o' Smeirlap by Chris's desk next time you're in Belmont Station.

  4. You can count on El Gordo where the world Smierlap! appears. Smierlap!t-shirt rocks.

  5. Some corrections on Taras Boulba story:
    He was not Russian but Ukrainian, not protestant but Orthodox. It wasn't really a religious war either :)