Life after lager
John Lennon and Yoko Ono were holding a "Bed In" at the Amsterdam Hilton; elsewhere in the city, gay sex had burst out of the closet; and soft drugs were the choice of cafe society. I had gone to Amsterdam as a journalist and somehow stayed for the summer of love. Like Lennon I refused to conform - I favoured the opposite sex. And I eschewed cannabis in favour of its sister plant the hop.
Amsterdam was abroad in those days. "Abroad" meant that there was only lager; no other type of beer. So I thought.
The local brews were Heineken and Amstel, though Grolsch was delivered by the milkman (an arrangement I have not found anywhere else in the world). These were acceptable enough, but they seemed to taste pretty much the same, and I was soon bored with them. The best I could hope for was occasionally to find a lager from a less well known, smaller, brewery. I gradually learned that most of the smaller breweries in The Netherlands were in the Catholic south.
My girlfriend and I headed down there for the pre-Lenten Carnival, the Dutch equivalent to the German Fasching or Louisiana's Mardi Gras. Somewhere, we got off the train. Which town? Maastricht, perhaps? That day, they all looked the same. We were sucked into a crowd, beers in hand, who seemed to be in endless circulation through the station cafe. The station square was full of drinking, dancing and Beatle music. The whole town was drunk, and soon we were, too.
Amid the endless golden glasses of Dutch lager, someone wearing a John Lennon mask handed me a chalice containing a darker beer. Caution long to the winds, I took a gulp. I was quite unprepared for the richness of the brew and, a moment later, the hit of alcohol, somewhere around the top of the head.
"You like it?!" He looked surprised, dazed even. Perhaps he had enjoyed a few glasses himself. "Yes", I replied. "It's terrific".
Then he gave me some advice, which I would take, groggily, the following morning. "If you like that sort of beer," he intoned almost gravely, "you really ought to go across the border." Then the night and the alcohol and the jostling crowd and the music took us our separate ways. I never learned his name, nor saw the face behind the mask.
Next day, hungover and bedraggled, I crossed the border, a refugee from
The Netherlanders' annual moment of uninhibition.
It was my first visit to Belgium. I had discovered that not all foreign beer was lager. I soon began to realise that Belgium had a selection of beer-styles such as I had never seen. I stayed for a long weekend. When I left, something inside of me had changed. The process had begun that would make me devote the rest of my life to one story. I was already becoming a beer writer, though I did not know that at the time. Nor was there for the moment such an occupation. Twenty years later, Prince Philippe of Belgium presented me with an award for my services to beer.
Today, I read travel articles about Belgium, in which the writer will observe: "Remember, they have great beer in Belgium." I don't know whether to laugh or cry. If the article offers no more information, the visitor will ask for "a beer" and be presented with a Stella Artois, which he could equally well have found at home. I usually ask what is local. Or in my best "When Harry Met Sally" mode: "I'll have what he's having."
Something the colour of an English bitter, but in a generous curved glass, was what most people seemed to be having on that first visit. It was the local beer, and still is. I know of no city in the world, other than Dublin, where a single local brew inspires such pride and loyalty.
We were in a street-corner bar, lavatorially white-tiled, but somehow cosy nonetheless. I pointed to a glass and gestured that I would like the same. "Bollecke?" responded the barman. It turned out that this vulgar-sounding riposte referred to the shape of the glass. A bolleke ("little ball") always contains a beer called De Koninck. This is technically very similar to a British ale, but more aromatic, softer and spicier. In this instance, it is the particular yeast culture that contributes the spicy flavours. Other Belgian beers do use spices, herbs and fruits.
De Koninck is soft that it slips down with soothing sociability; so tangy and perfumy that each glass invites another. I lost an afternoon in that bar, and never found it again.
Almost every beer about which I rhapsodised would subsequently appear in the United States but less quickly, if at all, in Britain. Then someone told me that De Koninck was available at the Bank restaurant, at that time new and very fashionable, in London. I went to see for myself. The bar was very busy - surrounded four deep. I shouted to the bartender: "Do you really have De Koninck?" He smiled, lifted his bollekes (he had two) and triumphantly banged them together above his head.
Published Online: DEC 10, 2001
Published in Print: JULY 1, 2001
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