The sign appeared as I walked eastwards along the Hackney Road, at the turning immediately before the one I intended to take. For a few moments, its strangeness drew all the purpose out of my advancement. It pointed the way – the alternative way, the way not considered – to the “God Worshipper’s Church”. My intended way would take me to the Ales Tales Belgian Beer Festival. But first I had to contend with this sign.
In its peculiar non-conformist way, the sign rejects all notions of the catholic or the universal while tolerating all error as the inevitable symptom of a fallen world. It simultaneously recognises the existence of other objects of worship, and even other churches devoted to that worship, while insisting upon the uncompromising sectarianism of John Milton’s forbidding “church of one”.
Even the placing of the apostrophe contributes to the soteriological mystery: is this the place where individual God worshippers just happen to gather; or, despite the belief of all who attend, the place where the one-and-only God Worshipper prays? Might that one be you? Might this be the sign that it is you?
“Why do you continue to the Beer Worshipper’s Church, when the God Worshipper’s Church is presented to you, like a fork of lightning, on this Hackney Road to Damascus?”
The truth was incontrovertible. I was not on my way merely to drink beer, but to worship it. I wore my red shirt with its La Chouffe gnome logo, marking me out as one of the pilgrims. I did not need to seek beer out in vain camaraderie, for there was beer in my cellar at home.
God is not in my cellar at home.
Brian Devine, in his recent Beer Advocate article, “Drinking Games: Have Social Media and Apps Like Untapped Changed the Way We Consume Beer?”, instinctively reaches for the mystical, koan-like thought experiment about the tree falling in the forest when he considers his question.
“If you drink a beer, and your friends aren’t instantly notified about it,” he asks, “did it really happen?”
There is something communion-like, church-like, about this “ritual of drinking” he describes. Just as there is something hieratical, even archiepiscopal, about the anointing power of the “craft beer” designation. The social signalling is part of the point, indeed perhaps the entire point. Authentic experience is a challenge to the hierarchy (in the word’s original sense). The hierarchy’s rituals scrub away at authenticity until it all but ceases to be, until drinking itself becomes a ritual.
In one of his sermons, the poet and Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, John Donne, suggested that “an Hypocrite at Church, may doe more good, then a devout man in his Chamber at home”. It was not an uncommon trope in England’s turbulent seventeenth century. The less-celebrated Humphrey Sydenham also sermonised that to avoid “publike service for the Church, under a pretence of humilitie, speakes the delinquent”.
For Donne, the hypocrite at church at least set a visible “good example”. By contrast, “these particular spirits in their Vault-prayers, and Cellar-Service, shake the Pillars of State and Church”. After all, “wee cannot know, that he that is absent from Church now, is now at his prayers in his Chamber”. He could be fomenting rebellion, or enjoying the wrong kind of beer.
God is not in my cellar at home.
He is on Instagram. He is on Untapped. He enspirits the Golden Calf whose name is “craft beer”.
“And he took the calf which they had made, and burnt it in the fire, and ground it to powder, and strawed it upon the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.”
This week on Twitter a writer let us know her “pet peeve”: “listening to beer nerds name drop back & forth at the bar trying to out ‘cool’ each other about their brewery visits.”
She added, exasperated: “No talk about their beer experience or which beers they liked and why.”
Frippery, mumbo jumbo and magic words taking the place of beer theology.
Here was a voice of authenticity. To hear it was to endure pangs of amusement, recognition – and chagrin. I’ve done the visits, I’ve bought the shirts with gnomes on. And so I committed nice equivocation in my passive-aggressive defence of and attack against the beer nerds, arguing that I ought at least to be free to tell the tale of my pilgrimage to Brasserie Fantôme, miles on foot through the Ardennes and the cascading rain.
I became that beer nerd, her pet peeve. I ritualised like an idolater, even as I styled myself a God Worshipper. This was no mere visit, you see, it was a pilgrimage. As if the very act of walking somehow transubstantiated my glass of Coffee Ruby into the Sangreal, as the footsore ordeals of medieval pilgrims had once turned pig bones into saintly relics.
There was no great pilgrimage to the Ales Tales festival. Bethnal Green is only six miles from home and I traversed three-fourths of that on a train. Still, one cannot deny that it has a Chaucerian ring.
The most renowned pilgrims in world literature begin their journey to Canterbury Cathedral in a pub, “In Southwerk at the Tabard”.
Indeed, there was at least one connoisseur of beer among the 29 that made up their number: “Wel koude he knowe a draughte of Londoun ale”, writes Geoffrey Chaucer of the boil-riddled, blancmange-stewing Cook, a medieval version of our modern hipster chef.
I bet he lived in Bethnal Green.
As every schoolchild knows, Chaucer’s pilgrims never made it to Canterbury. The poet may have simply run out of the time, the resolve or the tales required to finish his over-ambitious project. Then again, perhaps there is some more profound meaning in his decision to cut proceedings off with the promise of revelation and shriving just over the next hill, just beyond the falling night, while “The sonne fro the south lyne was descended / So lowe”.
By then, Chaucer had already twice deployed the device in The Canterbury Tales, first when he has the Franklin interrupt the deadening slowness of the Squire’s narrative; and again when his own comically-dreadful Tale of Sir Thopas is cut-off, mid-verse, by the Host Harry Bailly.
The final, dour and sermonising “tale” delivered by the Parson certainly feels like a deliberate ending, a return to sober contemplation after the boisterous fun of so many of the other tales, and of the pilgrimage itself. That goes even more so for Chaucer’s closing “retraccioun”, in which he beseeches Christ’s mercy and forgiveness for his “enditynges of worldly vanitees”, among which he includes the earthly miracle of The Canterbury Tales itself.
While the book’s own words consign it to the flames as a work of “synne”, The Canterbury Tales is surely worthy to be saved, as indeed is the idea of the pilgrimage, however vain, idolatrous and inauthentic. And so I pressed on, past the God Worshipper’s Church and on to the Beer Worshippers’ Church, moving both my feet and the apostrophe to the tune of my appetites.
I hope, if He witnessed this hypocrite forsaking his cellar, that this God is “ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness”.
In fact I bet He is. Let’s call it Pasc-ale’s wager.
I think it was worth the gamble. Ales Tales was an exceptionally thoughtfully-curated festival designed for genuine Belgophiles.
If De La Senne, Trois Forquettes, De Glazen Toren and Des Légendes are relatively well-known outside of Belgium, they were the exceptions. Others ranged from relative newcomers Carrières and Siphon, through beer commissioners-turned-brewers such as Fort Lapin, and industry veterans striking out alone such as Monsieur Rock and Bertinchamps, to longstanding small-batch brewers who remain on the margins of commercialism, such as Jeff Goetelen of ’T Hofbrouwerijke.
Here was a superb opportunity to sample beers that are all but impossible to get hold of outside of Belgium – or even outside of their immediate regions.
Breweries at Ales Tales Belgian Beer Festival
- Brasserie de la Senne
- Monsieur Rock
- Brasserie des Légendes
- ’T Hofbrouwerijke
- Brouwerij Fort Lapin
- Brouwerij Hoften Dormaal
- Brasserie de Cazeau
- Brasserie des Carrières
- Belgo Sapiens
- Siphon Brewing
- Solvay Society
- Brasserie les Trois Forquettes (Lupulus)
- Brasserie de Bastogne
- Brouwerij de Leite
- En Stoemelings
- Brouwerij de Glazen Toren
- Brasserie Deseveaux
- Brouwerij de Dochter van de Korenaar
First word should go to those breweries whose wares I did not sample.
One has Belgian roots but is based in London: Solvay Society.
Others were breweries I already knew fairly well: Brasserie des Légendes, from general accessibility of both their Ellezelloise and Géants brands; Brasserie de la Senne, from general accessibility and visits to Brussels, Ghent and Bruges; Fort Lapin, from visits to Bruges; and Brasserie les Trois Forquettes, whose Lupulus beers were popular in the bars and restaurants that my wife and I visited on our tour of Namur and Luxembourg.
Those I simply ran out of time, tokens and drinking capacity for were Bertinchamps, Belgo Sapiens, Monsieur Rock, Siphon, Dochter van de Korenaar and Carrières – the latter pair being the ones I regret the most.
On to what I did drink.
I began with two Saisons.
The first was from Brasserie de Cazeau, which had impressed me with a sophisticated dark porter called Tournay Noire some years ago. This Saison was a well-hopped interpretation of the style, with a kick of lemon zest and spice.
Next up was the one from Brasserie Deseveaux, available with or without organic hops. My understanding is that Sébastien Deseveaux is an agricultural consultant – hence the interest in organic ingredients – who started out brewing small batches at the Proef brewery-for-hire but now works out of premises in Boussu. No farmhouse, then, but an agricultural consultant has a more authentic claim to be a Saison brewer than most.
Appropriately enough, the Deseveaux example was very traditional, not a million kilometres away from the classic Saison Dupont with its heavy doses of leather and lemon zest, underpinned by fresh, grassy hops.
Two beers later I made a late return to the style, as the beer that caught my eye on Brasserie de Bastogne stall was Ardennes Saison. Here was a modern take, showing more similarity with the fashionable London interpretations of recent years: again, well-hopped with traditional Hallertau and decidedly untraditional Cascade, with a notable hit of yeasty funk and sourness in its foundations.
Looking for something light and zesty to follow the Saison, I zeroed in on a Witbier from Hoften Dormaal. Far from being breezy and playful with a tang of coriander, however, their Wit Goud was big (I would guess 8-9% ABV), a surprisingly dark amber, and it delivered a rather difficult blend of cloying sweetness and lactic sourness. Above it all was a strong chicory bitterness, which may have been phenolic or the leaf itself deployed in the boil.
I returned to this brewer towards the end of my session, looking for something deep and indulgent for the finishing straight.
The “barrel-aged project”, 2016-vintage Armagnac Blond sounded as though it would fit the bill, weighing in at 12% and having sat in the brandy barrels for some months.
By the look of it, these beers are produced mainly for the US market. This one might conceivably age into something more approachable, but for now it is a little rough around the edges, vinous, muddy, as if it does not know quite what it wants to be. Not unpleasant, but certainly unfocused.
In amongst the Saisons and Wits I enjoyed my first really outstanding beer of the day: Glazen Toren’s Ondineke Oilsjtersen Tripel. Deep amber and topped with a pleasingly fluffy foam, this began with sweet perfume that consolidated into a rounded orange flavour, balanced perfectly with prominent, herbal Hallertau hops and a warming finish of alcohol and subtle phenolic spice.
Superlative – I grabbed an elegant, tissue-wrapped 75cl bottle to take home with me.
From the exceptionally elegant to the exceptionally fun: next up was something called Flower Sour by Jeff Goetelen’s small-batch concern ’T Hofbrouwerijke. From my conversation with Jeff I gathered that this is a pale ale fermented on a mix of around 10% raspberry pulp and 90% blackberry pulp.
The latter is an unusual fruit in beer, and the flavour was certainly prominent. That sweetness was, however, set-off nicely by a solid base of tannins from the pulp, and pleasantly biting sourness from what I presume were Pediococcus and possibly Brettanomyces living on the skins of the fruits.
I should have liked a little more carbonation, but when I asked Jeff whether he had considered mixing younger with older beer to kick off more bottle refermentation he said that this was “too risky”. Joyful and refreshing, nonetheless.
By this point time was waxing and I was due some darker brews.
My first stop was at the Millevertus stall. They catch the eye with some entertaining marketing, especially the memorable cartoon characters that adorn their beer coasters and labels.
I was seduced by La Papesse – which I guess is some kind of French pun that suggests a female pope, nodding to the fact that this beer is brewed in the strong, dark abbey style. “S’il y a un paradis, il y a de la papesse,” as the blurb would have it, bringing us back to Pasc-ale’s wager again.
Heavenly would be going too far, but this was a tasteful strong ale, with a nice hint of almonds and a backbone of dried fruits, and perhaps a touch too much phenolic spice – although this might well age constructively in the cellar.
Then on to En Stoemelings, who had the temerity to bring a Porter to London from Brussels. They must be used to taking chances, however: “en stoemelings” is a Dutch phrase meaning something along the lines of “without speaking” or “dumb”, which the predominately French-speaking denizens of Brussels have made their own, to convey the sense of doing something “on the quiet”, or “on the sly”.
Fortunately, Noirolles, as this beer was named, was not bad at all. Its dryness and espresso coffee kick were bang on-style, but perhaps more impressively, so was the background note of berry fruits from the English hops and, I would guess, a London ale yeast. Not ’alf Robin ’ood, as they used to say around these parts before the hipster chefs moved in.
Now the final minutes were ticking by. I had one last token to spend. And at that moment something caught my eye. It was the word “Mam’zelle”. It was on the beer list hanging from the stall maintained by Brouwerij de Leite. It was the second sign of the day. The sensation of a tiny miracle, a circle closing, came over me.
A little over four years ago my wife and I ate at Den Dyver in Bruges. This was back when it was still a proper beer restaurant, run by Achim Vandenbussche and Kelly Van Houtte, a few months before it fell on hard times and changed ownership. (Vandenbussche and Van Houtte now manage the beer-tapas bar Vino Vino in Grawwerkersstraate).
The food had gone a little more upmarket since my first visit seven years earlier, celebrating my father’s 60th birthday, but the place had not been forsaken by its charm. When I got chatting about beer with Ms. Van Houtte, she told me she had something interesting that I might enjoy, and poured a blond, oaky, slightly sour beer that was not on the menu, and which overwhelmed me with its extraordinary balance and complexity. It was the highlight of the dinner, and one of the highlights of this trip to Flanders.
For some reason that I cannot recall, I failed to make a note of this beer. I do remember thinking that there was no need to do so, as it had a memorable name like “Mademoiselle”, and the brewer made a whole “family” of beers with names like “Femme” and “Père”, and the label had distinctive copperplate lettering.
Try as I might, however, I could not track it down – until this weekend, at Ales Tales.
There was Brasserie de Leite’s Cuvée Mam’Zelle, complete with copperplate lettering on a muted grey background.
This beer is made by taking the brewery’s Enfant Terriple, its amusingly-named but, by all accounts, rather hard-edged Tripel, and letting its harsh young phenols and fusels mellow out in Médoc barrels. The result is an orange-amber brew of light carbonation that perfectly balances oak tannins with subtle lactic sourness and juicy hop-and-ester fruits. A truly magnificent barrel-aged ale.
I picked up two bottles as I left Ales Tales, the circle closing behind me as it never will for the immortal, unshrived, twilight-bounded pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales.
The wager had paid an unexpected dividend.
And that, reader, is a true Ale Tale.