Mikey likes it; will America follow?

September 22, 1998

By Kurt Epps

The setting was the Belgian Consul's elegant residence on Fifth Avenue across from NYC's Central Park. The assemblage was a mixture of dignitaries, Belgian brewers, publishers, editors and distributors. Also on hand was the delightfully ubiquitous Brewers' Priest Fr. Larry McCormick who regularly blesses beer, those who make it and now those who write about it (who says in heaven there is no beer?). And -- oh yes, a few very lucky beerwriters were there, too.

The event was the official launching of beer guru Michael Jacksonıs newest US release, The Great Beers of Belgium. But this was no ordinary cocktail party/book hype, partly because the affable and accomplished Mr. Jackson has achieved such fame in his field that he hardly needs the boost.

It was special also because some of the greatest beers in the world were on hand in the understated elegance of Her Excellency Mrs. I. Kristoffersonıs home. The hospitable and gracious hostess, here just two weeks prior to offering her place for the event, spoke of the fierce pride she and fellow Belgians take in their beer.

Because Belgians consider beer to be more than just beer; to them it is a way of life. Beer is to Belgium what wine is to France apparently, and they consider themselves unabashedly the best brewers in the world. When Ben Vinken, co-publisher of Jacksonıs book, made the remark, there was no trace of haughtiness or hubris in his tone -- just a simple statement of fact. The beers on hand, already thoroughly sampled by the assembly, were typical examples of this countryıs ancient commitment to the brewing arts, and no one in the house thought Vinken was exaggerating.

The Great One himself makes no bones about his favorite beer country being Belgium, nestled as it is in the cradle of the great grain growing regions of Europe, and he's been saying so for nearly 20 years. In fact, this book (the only book about the beer of one single country) is actually the third edition of The Great Beers of Belgium, but itıs the first time it's been launched with such purpose in the US.

"America's beer drinkers are becoming more educated and ready to take the next step in beer drinking," said Vinken. Jackson, who admires the exceptional quality and individualism associated with Belgian beer, agreed.

Still it remains to be seen if the beer drinkers of America are willing to be wooed to the more than five hundred varieties of Belgian beer. Certainly the target market is not that of the BudMillerCoors mainstream. Instead, the thrust seems to be toward those beer enthusiasts, probably less than five percent of the beer-drinking population, who are seeking more flavor and style in the beer. They are the craft beer lovers who have helped keep the microbrew industry afloat. Vinken is unfazed. "We will always stay small," he says.

It may not be an easy task to turn an occasional raspberry wheat beer drinker into a devotee of Affligem (sometimes called "God in a glass"), Hapkin, Corsendonk or Kwak. The American palate may not yet be so conditioned and discriminating.

Fortunately, that problem can be solved through education -- which is what Jackson's book purports to do. But while education will help, nothing will turn heads in Belgiumıs direction like a direct sampling of its fare.

Belgian beer, though, is meant to be sampled with more than just the palate. The eye and the nose play critical roles in helping people appreciate the Belgian brewer's craft. Indeed, the variety of glassware designed expressly for the various aspects of Belgian brews presents a cornucopia of art forms. In sum, if you like craft brews, you owe it to yourself to experience the Belgian approach to beer.

Like the Belgian beers he loves, Michael Jacksonıs book is not meant to be guzzled in one sitting either. As autumn and winter approach, snuggle up in your favorite easy chair with Jackson's colorful, informative tribute to Belgian beer. Pour yourself a Karmeliet, a Petrus or a Duvel. Or maybe sample some of the more curious names like Lucifer, Scotch Silly or even Delirium Tremens.

Savor the whole experience of your Belgian beer as you digest the book, and youıll be surprised at how much brighter  the Darker Seasons get.  If you're a craft brew lover, it's difficult to imagine an evening better spent.

The Great Beers of Belgium Third Edition
by Michael Jackson
Published by Running Press
125 South 22nd St.
Philadelphia, PA 19103-4399

®Kurt E. Epps 1998 All Rights Reserved

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Kurt Epps