An American insults a Belgian (a contextualising essay)

two women sit in front of the beer taps at the bar of a pub, while the bar tender pulls a pint
Photo: Sven Becker
d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 14.09.2018

There is a place where people go to find higher meaning. Once a week, sometimes more, you congregate here to shed the woes of this life. In its sacredness and warmth you can grapple with Heaven and Hell, travel to strange worlds of truth, and see yourself in the divine shade of something perfect.

The place is, of course, the pub.

A Belgian friend and I were in my favourite pub recently, in Lampertsbierg. We were trashing colleagues and solving the universe’s problems when a 40-something American couple interrupted us.

“Is this seat taken?” one of them asked.

They sat down next to us and warmed to the chat. Turns out they had just moved to the Grand Duchy three weeks ago, keen for a European twist of change, and had rented a flat nearby. They toasted us and took that first golden sip of the evening, in this case of Battin.

“You know what has really disappointed me,” one of them said casually, “is the beer in Europe. I mean, everyone said that European beer is so good, but you know we have craft beer in America now? You get some really, really good beer over there. The stuff here... pfft. Nothing special.”

I wasn’t sure whether to call the police or, knowing they would never make it in time, an ambulance. One does not speak this way in front of a Belgian. Fearing that my associate would go full Leopold II on these dopes, I opened my mouth to scream (having no cleverer plan) when they merrily changed the topic of their own accord.

When the chatter died away and the couple returned to their own private sphere, my friend and I of course started discussing beer, the sacred liquid of this region. It fell to me, a longtime expat from the States, to try to situate the apparent belligerence of our interlopers.

I will attempt to do the same, here, starting with my understanding of what beer is to Europeans: like so many things, it seems to be strung deep through the centuries. There is an inevitability to it that reaches far beyond the individual. Order “a beer” and, in many bars, you can expect the regional brew: a standard, known and accepted, an old drink that belongs to the culture. Occasionally, circumstance or spontaneity will put another one in your way, which is fine—but, no matter your opinion on its taste, the ubiquitous beer of the land (in Luxembourg, probably Bofferding and Battin) undeniably characterises the identity of the region.

In the States, there is no parallel to this idea. Americans relentlessly define themselves by their individuality, far more than by regionality. Over there, if you ask the bartender for “a beer,” your question had better be met with another question: which one? Such exchanges serve the thrill of personality, letting you express yourself as a believer in Oberon, or Two Hearted Ale, or All Day IPA. For many, the odder your choice, the more developed you are as a person. People of any nationality will of course have preferences, mounting to the same potential zealousness, but in northern Europe what’s at stake is your favourite beer. In North America, what’s at stake is your entire personality.

In that context, the definitive rise of American craft beer, distinguished by artsy, stylised labels and clever or bizarre names, makes sense. And indeed it has risen, with new, artisanal stuff emerging in every state. Some of it is impressively subtle, too, helping atone for the light beer atrocities (the beer is light, not the atrocities—the atrocities are unforgiveable) done by Coors, Bud, and Miller.

But the two beer scenes, culturally, could not differ more. No Belgian can ignore beer; even those who prefer wine, gin, or peach schnapps must defend Belgium’s drink. In the States, people construct their whole identities themselves, using whatever elements they want (or can’t avoid): a drink, a food, a little piece of nostalgia, their parents’ homeland, a social milieu, a brand of comedy. A Bostonian friend recently told me that Milk Duds is the greatest American culinary export of all time (sticking to his guns even after craft beer was suggested as an alternative response), while an aunt from Michigan barely registered what Milk Duds were. At least in a culinary context, Belgianness is bigger than any Belgian; the same cannot be said for Americans.

Extreme tastes thus often thrive in the States, as compensation for what is by comparison a far less defined national culture. If beer is your personal enthusiasm, you might defend some of its strangest incarnations: Kahlua, bacon, maple syrup, pig bones, and key lime pie are all ingredients of various, current American craft beers. (My Belgian friend began sweating unstoppably when this list was read to him, and it took him two La Chouffes to settle down). This is not to say that Americans summarily prefer weird things, but more that to them (us) it is not the thing that is sacred; it is an individual’s experience of the thing that is sacred. It really doesn’t matter what the thing is (craft beer, Milk Duds, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air). The popular accusation that Americans lack culture is really describing the same phenomenon, just in a tone less sympathetic: Americans do lack culture, in the sense that culture means having a shared ideology of such things as drink, food, architecture, and so on, with metrics of quality roughly known to everyone.

Now, then, to circle back to the clueless new arrivals in Lampertsbierg. Being not even a month outside the States yet, they can reasonably be forgiven for not realising that condemning European beer insults my friend at the core of his Belgianness. In context, the comment sounded like a wildly bold assertion of expertise in the arts of zymurgy, which is to say brewing, but they almost certainly did not see it that way. To them, beer is a plaything without any connotation beyond what an individual makes of it; it cannot be comprehended as an institution. To them, this was small talk.

Having said all that, however, one does wonder what type of confidence it takes to crusade against all European brewers after just a few weeks in Lampertsbierg, of all places. It would likely be recommendable to practice tolerance of other beers, and perhaps even to visit some ancient Belgian abbeys in search of higher understanding.

Jeffrey Palms
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