Judging Beers – Musings from Germany and Belgium by Jack Van Paepeghem

From the Chimay tasting room

Jack Van Paepeghem works at Meridian Pint and is a Certified Cicerone® You can read his previous post about Oktoberfest here.

I promised you an update and with just one week left I want to leave you with some musings from the road. I have been traveling Europe, specifically Germany and Belgium for the past two weeks with my Pint cohort and fellow beer enthusiast (nerd, if you will), Mike in search of great beer among other things. I am sure most of you out there in PoPville are well traveled so I will spare you the “European beer guide” type post. My takeaway from all of this is nothing much of an epiphany, but a steadfast reinforcement of one popular idiom: respect beer.

I’m writing this from the couch of my long lost Belgian cousin, Daniel, as we watch the Belgium vs. Serbia soccer match on television and i cant help but to continue recalling the events of the afternoon. We spent the entire day touring the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont, better known as Chimay, the most recognized Trappist brewery in the world. Our host and contact Fabrice walked us through just about every nook and cranny of the abbey, brewery, and packaging facilities. We tasted a 16 year old cellared bottle of Grand Reserve (better known as Chimay blue), dined on grilled veal kidneys, moules frites, the Trappist’s cheese selection, and other extravagant things which may begin to run counter to my claims here. I first tasted Chimay as a sophomore in college at a time when I was getting into craft beer and discovering my own Belgian heritage and I never looked back. Chimay has the most accessible and approachable lineup of Trappist ales and because of this, tends to be denigrated as pedestrian or unrefined compared to sexier beers like Orval or Westvleteren. Chimay became an afterthought, another beer dwarfed by the growing selection of rare and unique Belgian ales as I went further down the rabbits hole, as they say. Eventually I gained appreciation for the beers of Chimay but never went out of my way to drink one. Having the beers fresh and served properly threw me for a loop as I forgot how amazing they could be. It also made me think a little further into the context of this trip and how we approach beer in general. On the grounds of the abbey where the beer is made and life is lived in simplicity and austerity Cistercian monks pray seven times a day. These are my seven meditations, and while common sensical for most, they may serve as a reminder for others.

Meditation One:
Respect the classics, the originators, and then the pioneers. Think back to when you had your first Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Boston Lager, or Chimay for that matter. It is probably the reason why you are even reading this post, because it was a life changing experience and you haven’t looked back. Don’t forget about these beers. Beers like Old Rasputin and Sierra Nevada Bigfoot still hold a place in my heart and I know when all else fails I can always come back to them. Without them, we would have no craft beer culture as we know it today.

Continues after the jump.

Meditation Two:
Respect quality, consistency.
Chimay produces only three beers (aside from the rare one-off production) because the brewery cannot expand its production beyond monastery walls and their three flagship beers have stood he test of time and continue to sell better every year. From brewing to bottling there are 9 stages of production in which the beer is scrutinized by quality control in every single batch. Believe it or not, big name breweries like Budweiser have panels of highly trained experts on QC and the margin of variability in their products come falls close to .01%. This is not to discredit those smaller brewhouses whose beer is artisanal and waivers from batch to batch, it is to praise those who take the time to approach perfection in their craft (even if it is piss-water they are in fact perfecting).

Meditation Three:
Respect your choices and lack thereof.
Last week while in Bamberg, Germany, the Aecht Schlenkerla brewery had their annual tapping of their Ur-bock: a moderately sweet and smoked dark lager. It was incredible seeing hundreds of people milling about the brewery’s courtyard all knowing they were happily guzzling down the same thing while cask after cask fell to the wayside. America however has become obsessed with the freedom of choice, especially with beer, as mega-church type beer bars have rolled through cities and even unexpected suburban settings. This has allowed for smaller start up breweries and obscure drafts to be available to the public, but not without its costs. There is something to be said about going to a bar and having to choose from just two drafts, knowing they will be spot on every time. Such is the case in the majority of cafes I’ve been to so far in Germany and it is more than sufficient.

Meditation Four:
Respect fresh. Respect local.
This ties in with he previous point. In several areas I have traveled, sometimes the local beer is the only option. And that is just fine by me. We were in the far south corner of the Black Forest in a city called Freiburg and they had one or two local pilsners, a hefeweizen, and that was about it. The locals loved it and for good reasons. The beer was fresh, quenching and a symbol of pride for them. Here was little place for giants like Carlsberg or Becks. The same goes for Cologne where you can’t throw a rock off the Dom and not hit anything but one of the city’s fine kolsch’s. Starting to sound like the D.C. beer scene to me.

Meditation Four:
Respect craft, not just “craft beer.”
Craft beer is now a household term and has been continued to be muddled together with all things hip, fancy, and pretentious and otherwise confusing. Who cares. Don’t think that just because a beer is made by a “craft brewery” it is superior to those which are not. Large German breweries have been producing no frills lagers for centuries and while sitting in the Augustiner beer hall in Munich drinking a dunkel, I had no question regarding the quality of the beer because it simply tasted good. It needed no qualification as being “craft” and frankly, that type of conversation is idle chatter in over here.

Meditation Six:
Respect others respecting beer.
Part of the reason for us taking this beer-Mecca quest was receiving our Cicerone Certifications, but again, who cares. Few people if anyone so far knows what the hell a Cicerone is or does, and it has been great. At home my job is to make sure beer gets to a customers glass in the best possible condition and that the customer best knows what they are receiving. There is a certain gratification in helping one find a beer they are looking for and opening people up to good beer in general, but I’m on vacation. So far I have yet to run into anyone who has criticized my drinking choices and it is a breath of fresh air from the “craft culture” of the states. Working in an American craft beer bar I encounter snobs and the sort every day. I once had a customer send back a double IPA because it was not “West Coast” enough for him. Don’t be that guy. Respect and help those who are looking for a beer like a Blue Moon or a Stella because we have all been there. Not being able to read a beer menu, even if it is in a different language is a reason to start a conversation. Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know.

Meditation Seven:
Respect people, not just beer.
You can judge the character of a people by the beer they make and drink, but don’t forget to actually talk to the people. While there has been somewhat of a language gap on this trip (beer jargon aside) everyone I have had a chance to talk to has a different take on their beer and their culture. Don’t jump to the conclusion that all Belgians are eccentric and wild like saisons or lambics just as the Germans are not all straightforward and direct like their lagers. I was told that while the locals in Bamberg love their smoked beer, some can only stomach a beer like the ur-bock a few times a year. Likewise, my Flemish cousin says that all beer tastes like… beer. This trip has been more about the people who make and drink the beer rather than fetishizing those holy beers, even though we so religiously seek them out from time to time. Even in a holy place like the Chimay’s Scourmont abbey, it is humbling knowing that such creations are made by men, and the kind you can talk with over a beer or two.

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