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Belgians invade France: It's another beer war altogether

Personal commentary by frontline reporter Michael Jackson

The big hitters of Belgian brewing rolled over their southern frontier this week, to mount an attack on the French government. Once across the border, they set up camp on strangely familiar ground: a café called La Taverne Flamande, opposite the old railroad station, on one of the main squares of Lille.

The invaders were a blend of the two nations that together comprise Belgium: Dutch-speakers from Flanders and French-speakers from Wallonia. They had crossed into the city of Lille, in a region where Flemish and French cultures have long been stirred together. In Lille, the historic architecture is Flemish, as are many of the family names on shops and businesses. It is more elegant than might be expected of an industrial city, known for textiles and a nearby coalfield. It is also the main city of the most interesting brewing region in France (its rival being Strasbourg, on the border with Germany).

In population, Lille is the fourth city of France, but how often do you hear mention of it? The city can hardly compete with Paris, but might well resent the glamor allotted to Lyons and Marseilles.

The Belgians were invading their half cousins, perhaps hoping to enlist their beery sensibilities in an attack on the snobbier folk further south.

A dollar a pint

The issue was a French proposal to levy a tax of €2.00 per liter on any beers with more than 8.5 per cent alcohol by volume. If you don't recognise the symbol €, that indicates the Euro, which is worth about the same as the dollar. The tax amounts roughly to a dollar pint. Beers that would be hit include several top-of-the-line Trappist or abbey beers and some of Belgium's best known strong ales. Among the breweries represented in Lille were Chimay, Westmalle, St Bernardus, Bush and the producers of Delirium Tremens, Malheur and Kasteel.

Several others brewers of strong ales did not take part, on the grounds that they were not exporting to France - or not in significant quantities. Similarly, brewers whose ales are below the threshold stayed away. So did Belgium's international giant Interbrew and its local rival Alken-Maes (part of France's Kronenbourg, which is in turn owned by Scottish and Newcastle).

My view is that the success of Belgian brews in world markets is built on a foundation of the nation's distinctive beer culture, of which the very strong specialities are an important feature. Remove or damage one such feature and the whole culture is de-stabilised. It therefore behoves all the brewers of Belgium to defend any colleagues who are under attack.

Let me make this point to the absentee brewers: If you are not there to defend your colleagues, who will be left to defend you? I am assuming that the taxmen will be back. Next time, it could be all beers above 5.0 abv. The brotherhood of brew was incomplete in Lille, though the industry's trade organisation did send its two top people.

It seems that cheap super-strong beers from The Netherlands, along the lines of American malt liquors, may have triggered the proposed tax. It is the Belgian brewing industry that stands to suffer: first, because it is the principal producer of super-strong brews; second, because language and geography make France its most immediate export market.

The purported reason for the measure is to discourage, on health grounds, consumption of extra-strong beers. The use of taxes to discourage drinking has always seemed to me to be patronising and undemocratic. The message appears to be: "If you are poor and have difficulty in affording a drink, we will render it more difficult by making it more expensive. Your poverty is probably caused by your lack of intelligence, judgment and self-control, if not the booze itself. So we will protect you against yourself. If you are wealthy, you probably made your money be being intelligent, and are unlikely to drink to excess." Should you wish to anyway, you are rich enough to afford it. Not much liberté there. Or egalité. Not much to mention fraternité.

I especially resent the suggestion that alcohol is a typical cause of poverty. Correction: not alcohol in general, but specifically beer. I believe that self-destructive drinking is more likely to be a symptom of poverty than a cause. Nor is beer the only agent of self-destruction, I have seen wealthy men destroy their lives with the benison of good living. Their poison was rarely beer, though first-growth Bordeaux wine often featured.

The event in Lille was a Press conference to put Belgium's case. "Is the health issue valid?" A television reporter asked me. My own view on this might surprise the French government in the unlikely even they ever hear of it (or would care if they did).

My view is that alcohol exists, and cannot be made to vanish, as Prohibition proved. Nor would I wish it to vanish. While having the capacity to endanger health - and cause social problems - it also one of life's great civilised pleasures The French, of all people, surely know that. They themselves produce more variations on the theme than any other nation: pastis, patent aperitifs, wines, brandies, liqueurs.

Some of those categories are themselves further examples of virtuoso alcohol production. There is not merely "French wine", but a whole range of classic styles, from Champagnes to Clarets to Sauternes. You want brandy?: Armagnac, Cognac, Calvados, an Alsatian "white alcohol" distilled from pears, plums or some obscure berry, a marc...?

How can a country with so many more potent drinks suddenly develop a neurosis about strong beers? Once again, snobbism comes into play. A beer-lover is a north-facing incompetent. The consumer of Pineau de Charentes or Chartreuse is a sophisticate

In my view, states or countries that the ban or restrict alcohol create a "forbidden fruit" (I am not referring here to the Belgian beer of that name). With no culture of social drinking, young people are introduced to beer, wine (or, recently, alcopops and suchlike) as a sweetish, bland, easily drinkable, mind-altering substance, useful in courtship rituals.

My daughter was offered a small beer with dinner each evening precisely to ensure that it was not a forbidden fruit. It is a shame that, in Belgium, the tradition of table beers is dying. Their availability at family mealtimes helped children develop a taste for beer, the most moderate of alcoholic drinks. In a country where styles range from a table beer of one per cent to a strong ale of ten or more, consumers are obliged to make choices, to be discriminating.

That is the opposite of being an indiscriminate drinker. In my native Britain, people who have fallen from the bottom rung of the ladder, and now live in a cardboard box or a shop doorway, are usually seen clutching a can of Tennent's Extra or Carlsberg Special. In no country have I ever seen a street person drinking Chimay Grande Réserve.

People who drink speciality brews, belong to beer clubs, or read books and magazines on the subject, are the most discriminating of consumers. Ben Vinken, the publisher of Beer Passion magazine, chaired the Ppess conference. He asked me to give a short closing speech, summing up my feelings.

My key points:

Beer is as central to Belgium's national culture and gastronomic heritage as wine is to the French. Beer is an agricultural product, and much Belgian beer is grown in France: the barley comes from the Champagne and Gatinais regions. Belgium admires French culture and gastronomy, and buys French produce. The Belgian brewers ask for fairness and respect in return.

Belgium was once part of Burgundy, and honours that memory. In Belgium, to call someone "a Burgundian" is an admiring term. When the Flemings and Walloons talk of their most robust beers, they call them: "The Burgundies of Belgium". These beers are not just high in alcohol, they are also very complex in aroma and flavour, like the wines of Burgundy. These barleycorn Burgundies are now in danger. Does France really wish to be the country that imperils such a distinctive contribution to the world of food and drink?

The Burgundians of Cluny begat the Cistercians of ”teaux, who begat the abbey of La Trappe. Belgium is the only country to have Trappist breweries. Their strongest beers would be endangered by the proposed tax. Does France wish to be a party to such sacrilege?

A great Frenchman, Louis Pasteur, set brewers on their way to a proper understanding of yeast. Among the brewing nations, Belgium is the one most devoted to the legacy of Pasteur. The Belgians are the brewers most sophisticated in the use of yeast to achieve complexity in their beers. The production of very strong beers requires yeasts that are very tolerant of alcohol. This quality is also required of yeasts that are used for re-fermentation in the bottle. This is Belgium's answer to Méthode Champenoise, though three brewers have in the last few years adapted further techniques from Rheims and Epernay. Much of the work done on yeast in Belgium has been inspired by the success of the country's strong beers: from the time of Jean De Clerck and Father Theodore of Chimay to today's work at Leuven and Louvain. The work that Pasteur began ... does France wish to curtail it?

Those are some of the ways in which Belgian strong beers occupy a special posit in the world of brewing. I deliberately considered aspects that illustrate the strong relationship between Belgium and France. I am neither Belgian nor French. I take an international view of beer, but the European country whose brews have especially excited me for many years is Belgium While all my other books on beer have been international in content, I wrote one devoted to a single country: The Great Beers of Belgium. I was asked to come to Lille to speak for Belgium. I was glad to do so because I feel this proposed tax discriminates against one country: Belgium. That is unfair, and completely contrary to the fraternal spirit of the European Community.

The other great brewing nations will not suffer.

The Czechs are joining the Community, but the golden lagers of Pilsen and Budweis are safe from this tax. This tax is a smack in the mouth for Belgium.

Germany will be little affected. The wheat beers of Bavaria and Berlin need not worry about this tax. This tax is a punch in the stomach for Belgium.

The United Kingdom can relax. The pale, bitter ales of England and the dark malty brews of Scotland are not hit by this tax. This tax is a thump below the belt for Belgium.

Punching below the belt is not permitted. It is grounds for disqualification. I know that - I like the noble art, the sweet science, of pugilism.

Published: JAN 24, 2003
In: Beer Hunter Online


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