As life inspires beer, so too does beer inspire life. Just look at John French Sloan’s McSorely’s Bar and Edouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergere . Like no other ales can, Belgian beer spurns conversations ranging from the tangible to the surreal, and all these conversations carry the potential to grow into something incredible. A state of mind, if not altered, rests in the realm of consistency and expectation. The realm of reliable comfort. When the right people get inspired, for better or worse, all that can be swept away.
Take our present, where politicians have risen to heights once only imagined by churches and kings. It’s happened before, but are we to suffer the same fates that befell our predecessors? Or do we fancy ourselves truly unique, the likes of which the world has never seen? To paraphrase Ravenscroft’s thoughts on Mr. Grinch, I wouldn’t touch those questions with a 39-and-a-half-foot pole. Besides, this is an article on beer.
That being said, the roots of Belgian brewing often found themselves entangled in politics. Going back 2,000 years, long before Belgium was a country, Julius Caesar declared the Belgae the bravest under the Gauls. Smart guy because he went on to defeat the Gauls, making him the bravest by his own volition. He soon found himself surprised, I assume pleasantly, to discover the high potency of their beers. The area’s next 400 years were filled with influence from Roman culture, which included a hedonistic thirst for wine.
As the Belgae enjoyed the fruits of wine making, it was the Germans, pushed west by Attila the Hun, who would next influence Belgian culture. With their Wits and Weizens about them, the Germans brought brewing techniques that the area’s residents readily put to good use.
So why were the traditions of others adopted by the Gauls? Unlike other countries at the time, soon-to-be Belgium had managed to maintain a sort of libertarian republic, which looked nothing like the parties branding themselves in kind today. Libertarian because, where brewers in surrounding countries had regulations on the beer they could make, Belgian brewers were unrestricted. And a republic because, where surrounding countries favored hierarchies and monarchies, Belgian politicians were part of the people.1
Around 1790, 40 years before Belgium became a country, the French Revolution led to an influx of fleeing monks to Trappist monasteries in the area. With 500 years of perfected brewing tradition, the monks began operation of Belgium’s first Trappist brewery in 1836. The beers, however, were for monk lips only. “The monks, when they wanted to create something, they wanted it beautiful, they wanted to drink it,” says Chris Riphenburg, head brewer of Ale Asylum. The allure of money eventually led to the first Trappist beer being sold in Belgium on June 1, 1861.2
Let’s bring that history to today, where the consumer has a wealth of Belgian-style beer available to them. Belgian beer can mean a lot of things to different people; Page Buchanan of House of Brews explains why, “A Belgian is distinguished by the yeast and, in many instances, bacteria that are used to ferment it, which gives them distinct ‘funky’ flavors, such as tartness/fruitiness and spicy characteristics, like pepper and clove.”
Take a look at the beer next to you. If you need to go get one, I’ll wait. Think about what went into that beer. If it’s a Belgian—any variety will do—think about those funky flavors. Frank Zappa once said, “Jazz isn’t dead, it just smells funny.” That’s not just jazz my friends.
As our political landscape continues to shape into something many of us can’t prepare for, am I so bold as to claim that a more daring approach to the beers we drink and the conversations they evoke would’ve left the majority more prepared to assimilate to the coming present? Sure. Why not damn Ravenscroft’s pole and grab the truth by the throat. A mirror only reflects what we want to see. Hate bears disgust, happiness sees perfection, and comfort finds stagnation. Through it all, the world has a tendency to keep spinning, and, with beer, it’s a beautiful thing.
Consider, for example, the result of Belgium’s history and brewing amalgam, which brings forth something much more unique and worthwhile. Through the crazy rollercoaster of prosperity and corruption, incredible beers were born. “They’re really a painting,” says Chris. “It can be something very simple, like a Belgian table beer, which they made for children, or you got a Belgian Quad that is 13 percent alcohol; it’s winesque, and it’s got all kinds of flavors going on just like wine. You can have all kinds of things going on, on the canvas or not very much at all, and they can still be beautiful.”
We are quite alive, and beer only needs us to bring to life its potential. Page discusses this life force with acuteness, “Growth of internet access has also played a role in exposing more people to new beer styles and promotion of beer and breweries in general, including what I would refer to as the hobby of continually trying new beers, called ‘ticking.’” Take the concept to a macroscopic level and see where we are now.
The world of beer has never been more open to us, and Belgian beers provide a foundation to showcase this. Whether sour, floral, fruity, or funky, the Belgian beer taps into its brewer’s heart and soul. What better way to show appreciation for their efforts than making that incredible focus and reflection part of yourself? After going to your local bar or brewery and taking in the estranged breadth of flavor offered by Belgian beers, take your ideas, culture, and life and paint your canvas with a jazzy brush that doesn’t judge the weird you only known by a handful. Op uw gezondheid, à votre santé, and cheers.
Kyle Jacobson is a copy editor for Madison Essentials Magazine, and a writer and beer enthusiast (sometimes all at once) living in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin.
Ale Asylum Beers
• Triple Nova
• Satisfaction Jacksin
• Pilot Batches on Tap
Chris’ Non–Ale Asylum Belgian Favorites
• Wisconsin Belgian Red – New Glarus
• Raspberry Tart – New Glarus
• Golden Ale – New Glarus
• Brett Beers from O’so
House of Brews Beers
(beer names yet to be decided)
• Mai Bock
• A new IPA
Page’s Non–House of Brews Belgian Favorites
• Ale Asylum’s line up
Other Recommended Wisconsin Belgians
• Bière de Seigle – Door Country Brewing
• O-Gii – Milwaukee Brewing Company
• Belgian IPA – Grumpy Troll