About four years into my short brewing career – 1996 to be exact – something completely unexpected happened: I became bored with it. I wasn’t bored with brewing or the process (how could I?) but the whole movement, as it were, was beginning to seem a bit cookie-cutter and was entering the realm of lame I thought. Maybe I was a bit of a punk, but I still remember those feelings and they occasionally pop into my head even today.
I’ve always struggled with the inauthenticity of “craft beer”. How can I do anything authentically as a craft brewer? Because if there were definition of what “craft brewing” actually is, it would have to address the fact that we’re appropriating traditional European cultures, tinkering with them and then selling them on. I know it sounds like I hate craft beer. Taking from tradition is at the heart of what I’m supposed to love about craft beer isn’t it? But a few paragraphs to put you into my young, punky brain will prepare you for the rest of this little story.
It was during that time I purchased a 330 ml bottle of Oerbier by De Dolle Brouwers in my neighborhood beer shop in Boston. The artwork on the label almost broke my brain, it was whimsical and colorful and bold. The print didn’t mention any beer “style” and didn’t seem to care! It just said where it was brewed, the a.b.v. (9% by the way) and “Nat & Straf”.
You must know that in 1996 U.S. “microbrewery” labels still had ships and historical landmarks on them exclusively, and our logos were always inside a flying banner, and there was always a lengthy and quasi-historical explanation of the beer inside. We travelled around in branded vans that usually said some version of “Taste the History in the Bottle” and used a highlighter when we read the Classic Beer Style Series books. We were earnest beer-brewers in matching fleece company vests that sold amber ale to nearly-converted Budweiser drinkers. To me this bottle was the Sex Pistols, a bolt of lightning that awoke and shook me. Beer could be this!
Oerbier the beer was just about the only thing I could imagine that could live up to this packaging. What on earth was it? It was strong and tart, a bit like candy and massively dark with cherry red hues but without any roasted character or obvious sugar. It tasted like a beer from another planet – so many things I’d never imagined. It really was too much to compute. Having had tasted other Belgian beers and sour beers from Belgium, I had been putting neat yellow highlighter categories together in my mind: abbey, lambic… Although I admit that I suspected that there was at least a 50% chance that what I tasted was a brilliant mistake or a “beneficial infection” or something like this. I bought the next bottle of Oerbier and tasted the same genius. How could something like this exist and the whole world isn’t talking about it?
Within a month I was in Belgium on my way to Esen, the home to this bottle. Either I was going to have the biggest experience of my beer life or… or what? What was the alternative possible outcome? De Dolle was so much more than I even dreamt and I’m happy to say that the beer was for real. The brewery was so “for real” that I’m still writing about it a few times a year decades later.
The thing that still gets me about all of this is the authenticity of the whole thing. Forget that the brewery is in Belgium, it isn’t necessary. That is our hang-up as drinkers and craft brewers, to put the “Belgian Beer” label on it. De Dolle does their own thing with the local ingredients they like. The have a strong dark one (Oerbier), a strong hoppy one (Arabier) and seasonal beers that carry the same house character, and one outlier: Special Extra Export Stout. So why not call Arabier an “IPA”? Why do we call anything an IPA? Why not? Because it’s an authentic creation. And that is the point of this whole little story.
It’s 25 years later and I still struggle with having to put “beer styles” on and in bottles. Why can’t I just brew an amazing beer, put the a.b.v. on the label, add some of my own funky artwork and a cryptic saying like “Nat & Straf” and that’s my brand? It would set us free from the inauthentic world of “craft beer” and into a space of our own. Well, the answer is back on earth and frustrating as ever: because it would be hard to sell. Martha and I don’t need much but we have a cat to feed.
Not far away another craft brewer De Ranke Brouwerij brews a beer called XX Bitter, the name is more of a literal rather than style type thing. The brewers are devotees of hop bitterness and built the De Ranke beers around this attitude. XX Bitter is a 6% ale with a mountain of Hallertau whole cone hops from Germany. There’s no other beer in the world like it. It would be a shame to have to label this with any beer style. Again, these are brewers that set out to brew something based on a fervent love of beer rather than a desire to slot into a commercial movement.
These Belgian craft brewers founded in the 1980’s and 1990’s such as De Dolle, De Ranke, Caracole, Fantôme, La Brasserie à Vapeur, Kerkom were such a huge inspiration to me as a young brewer. I just don’t think I’d still be a beer brewer without them. Look for these beers, drink them and travel to to see the breweries if you can.
Finally, in celebration of these brewers and their beers we at SMOD have put together two beers in a series called “The Battle of Frogs & Mice”, after an ancient tale of a pointless struggle. Martha, Scarlet, and I can’t wait for you to taste them. Hopefully we were able to capture some of the spirit of these brewers in our own beers and our own struggles aren’t pointless. And yes I know its rich that I’ve been writing about “authenticity” and then go and make two beers to taste like other brewers. Isn’t life grand!
“Mice” is a golden bitter beer at 6.3% and “Frogs” is a strong dark one at 8%. What more do you need to know? Haha.
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