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A Letter From Belgium

A Bridge Too Far
Features September 3, 2003      
Written by JorisPPattyn

Wilrijk, BELGIUM -

Once upon a time, there was a mid-European country in the mountains, where tidiness was more a pledge than just a virtue. The people were living from what their beautiful country produced (and also a bit from what their neighbours produced and gave to them for safekeeping). One of those prides was cheese, and it was famous worldwide, as it was full of holes, which made it quite distinctive.

But of course, these people wanted to tidy up as much as possible, even there where it was quite tidy already – as in the cheesemakeries, and they issued even stricter guidelines. So the cheese was produced even more tidily. But lo-and-behold, on a fatal morning, the holes in the cheese were gone. Because those holes were the work of tiny animalculae of the kind that in the mind of people is not associated with tidiness. Now, not only is it more profitable to sell holes full of air than holes full of cheese, but people demanded the holes, and refused to buy the full cheese. Thus the omnipotent lawmakers had to step back and the little animals came back with their holes.

In Belgium, tidiness might not be that hot an item, but imposing laws and restrictions is definitely a national sport. So is brewing beer, but to a politician, that’s no reason to exempt brewers from all kinds of silly stipulations, dreamed up by functionaries behind a desk, having never seen a brewery from the inside (and that is hardly a joke – a brand-new excise officer who had to come and inspect the first microbrewer in a region until then a beerdesert, saw the hopcones and exclaimed he had had no idea brewers added Brussels’ sprouts to beer!)

And as fate will have it, here in Belgium roams the last living fossil of brewing, the lambic beers of spontaneous fermentation. As the cheese-cum-holes, these are the product of microorganisms, not out of a culture in a little plexi pot, but free-floating, living and multiplying in the micro-environment of a lambic brewery. Just as their little Swiss counterparts, they sit uneasily on spotless-clean inox. They love dusty, mouldy, dark surroundings.

So the EU & Belgian lawmongers might, in their endeavour to regulate everything and something else besides, kill off those ugly germs. And lambic, real lambic, with it. Last year, Belgium’s circle of beerlovers was struck by the demise of one of the last, the Oud Beersel brewery. Truth to be told, here was more at hand. Familial problems, not to name them. But who – unless a complete possessed madman – would want to start with a new brewery, or save such a relic from destruction, with all the official and legal harassment?

Comments on international beerforums prove it: lambic/gueuze is an acquired taste. But even those not really embracing the shock of lactic, acetic and other acids, agree it is a world heritage relic. I think the American beerlovers’ community, might join beerlovers all around the world and speak out and point regulators to the fact that not everything can be channelled in clean-polished ways. Art is worth more than a tidied-up museum.

Joris P. Pattyn, June 2003



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start quote a brand-new excise officer... saw the hopcones and exclaimed he had had no idea brewers added Brussels’ sprouts to beer! end quote