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Oakes Weekly - Nov. 29th


Fallen Heroes of the Flavour Revolution
Oakes Weekly November 21, 2002      
Written by Oakes


Vancouver, CANADA -



<P>I posted last weekend about the untimely demise of the Oud Beersel café and brewery, one of the last authentic lambic producers in Belgium. Family problems were cited as the reason for the closure, and precious little information has emerged since then. However, the family problems must have been rather severe, since the closure appears to be very much permanent - the lambic stocks have been sold to Frank Boon, and the café's celebrated organ has also been sold. Considering that EU meddling has put the Girardin brewery on the watchlist, as reported by former Ratebeerian Belgik following his visit to St-Ulriks-Kapelle last year, and also considering the stead erosion of sour beer sales in Belgium over the last two or three decades, I have to wonder if there will be any traditional gueuze left for me to toast my retirement with. <P>But the demise of Oud Beersel had me thinking about other classic beers that have fallen by the wayside, or died only to be reborn, or had simply faded from glory, leaving drinkers with nothing but fond memories. I myself have lost a favourite beer - the wonderful No. 1 Barley Wine from Tall Ship Brewing Co. in Squamish, BC. I still have some in my cellar of course, but when they're gone, they're gone. This brewery suffered from much the same problem as many small brewers, including Oud Beersel - a reliance on one or two key individuals. One of the principals behind Tall Ship became seriously ill, and the brewery went on hiatus. It was revived by a Japanese firm, which purchased the majority of the firm's output for export to Japan. When problems arose with the Japanese company, it was all she wrote for Tall Ship.<P>I still have the second edition of the Pocket Guide to Beer that I wrote about last week. At the time, Michael Jackson had to be one of only a couple of people qualified to talk about the "best beers in the world". I took a look at some of the beers he considered to be the best on the planet back in the mid 1980's, and while many still stand today, many have disappeared from the ranks, according to his latest Pocket Guide. What happened to them? <P>Some of these beers have lost character. Augustiner Hell, from Munich, is one example, though it is still one of the better examples of the style. Flipping through the various Pocket Guides, Jackson pegs the decline of Kronen Export to recent years, and to me there is a big difference between the Kronen Export of 1998 and of today so I would agree with him on this one. The other classic Export of the day, from Thier, was laid to rest following the purchase of Thier by Kronen, who were then purchased by DAB.<P>A couple of English beers registered steep declines in prestige - Mackeson Stout and Shepherd Neame Masterbrew. In fact, bitter is worth a whole new column because their is no classic that has been established for the style, save the high-gravity Fuller's ESB. Not only do no two beer writers agree on the definitive bitter, but individual writers seem to change their minds fairly frequently as well. At the time, Jackson lauded a New World bitter as a world classic - Mitchell's ESB from the Spinnaker's Brewpub in Victoria, BC. I wonder what happened to cause the downgrade to ***, because I still consider this a world classic.<P>Other New World beers were vaulted to elite status quickly after their inception. The Empress Stout from Spinnaker's also enjoyed this top notch standing for a while, as did Grant's Imperial Stout. Both have since come down to reality as superior examples emerged. One brew that was considered world class at the time was the Dunkelweizen from one Hibernia Brewing Company, which brewed out of an old plant in Eau Claire, WI. In the Beer Companion was written in 1993, there is no mention of this product. I'm not sure if there is more to this story than a brewery before its time, but hopefully somebody in Ratebeerland can shed some light.<P>Samiclaus is on the list, and we should all know by now what happened there. The beer's Swiss brewery, Hürlimann, merged with Feldschlösschen and the beer was deemed redundant. A few years later it was reborn, the rights and recipe bought by Castle Eggenberg of Austria. Big brewery bullshit has claimed a few other classic brews, as well. Courage appears to have last brewed its Imperial Russian Stout in 1996, which is a real shame because people who think Stone's is the definitive example are wearing their lack of beer experience proudly - Courage is the king, and as long as there is one more bottle in someone's cellar, it will still be the king. The brewery could, quite frankly, brew another batch, and sell it to beer lovers around the world at $10 US per bottle and move the whole batch in less than a month. <P>The merger of every Kulmbach brewery into one entity cost beer lovers the Eisbock Baysrich G'frorns a few years back, as this brew from Reichelbrau sold less that EKU's eisbock, 28. The brewery eventually capitulated to beer lovers and is now offering G'frorns again, though at a reduced strength (8% from 10%). <P>Guinness was venerated by Jackson in the day, but he got over it, just as I did, and just as you will do if you haven't done so already. After all, Diageo's wizards are doing their damndest to forget what brought them to the dance, and the distinctive Guinness taste, if not already extinct, is certain on the endangered species list. The bottle-conditioned Guinness they used to have in Ireland is gone, Draught Guinness is being served at ice cold temperatures, and the Americans are being forced to drink vegemite-spiked Labatt's Blue with a Guinness label on it if they want a Guinness from the bottle. <P>Double Maxim, the famous brown ale from Vaux of Sunderland, had already lost something of its prestige by the time the brewery was closed in 1999.<P>Jackson's palate and knowledge have evolved since the mid-80's, and it is surprising to see what a neophyte the man was in some respects back then. His favourite bière de garde was Jenlain, which today can be purchased in cans. More telling than what he did like from France was what he didn't even mention - no Bavaisienne, no Sans Culottes, and no Trois Monts. It was inevitable that once he got his hands on these that Jenlain would be downgraded. <P>For berliner weisse, he tapped Kindl over Schultheiss for its sharpness. He's come around now to the realization that sharpness isn't everything, and the complexity of Schultheiss makes it the classic example of that style.<P>What we in North America don't always realize is that we are carrying some of the traditional classics of Europe on our backs. Fantôme doesn't sell bugger all in Belgium, probably because it doesn't taste like Jupiler, and if it weren't for the export market, they'd be in trouble. If the demand for traditional lambic continues in its current direction, maybe Cantillon could survive on its exports, but could any of the others? <P>Today, you have Rodenbach Grand Cru at risk from owners Palm, who have already executed Alexander. (Note to Palm management: If Rodenbach Grand Cru is ever "rationalized", Alexander won't be the only execution you have to worry about. I'm not joking.) <P>Germany has lost hundreds of breweries in recent decades. It used to be you couldn't throw a rock in Germany without hitting a brewery. In the same way that we don't really know what we're losing when the Brazilians burn the Amazon to the ground, we don't know what we're losing when obscure village breweries in Bavaria vanish off the face of the earth.<P>While the fall of Communism has ushered in a new era of drinkability for Russian beers, it has ushered in a new era of banality for the Czech Republic's famous pilsners. Pilsner Urquell is owned by SAB now, and is most likely to suffer the same fate as Guinness, where the parent only recognizes value in the brand, not in the quality of the actual beer. Jackson used to praise the richly hopped beers of Krusovice. These were empty shells of pilsners by the time 1998 rolled around, courtesy of parent company Binding. And with sub-par offerings like Radegast and Kozel being some of the most widely available Czech beers in the export market (along with the fragile Budvar), the image of the Czech Republic as a great beer nation is surely taking a beating.<P>While it is easy to argue that there are lots of new classics taking the place of old ones, it is hard to argue that another top-notch IPA is going to replace a classic lambic-maker like Oud Beersel. So this column is a toast to the fallen heroes of the Flavour Revolution. May they not be forgotten, and may all of today's heroes still be standing to receive their glory when the Revolution conquers the world.
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