Sais Who? (Part Two)

The most fascinating debates are those between disputants who disagree vehemently over what appear to be the same set of facts. These debates remind us of the importance of subjective biases, of ideology, and of differences in research methods. As a result, they occasionally reveal deeper truths about the object of the debate itself.

One of these debates recently erupted between the Dutch brewing historian Roel Mulder, publisher of the excellent Lost Beers website, and the Belgian brewer Yvan de Baets of Brasserie de La Senne.

The object of the debate was the nature of 19th-century Saison.

De Baets is the author of the most influential modern history of the style, his contribution to Phil Markowski’s Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition (Brewers Publications, 2004). Mulder has devoted a number of his Lost Beers articles to puncturing “myths” about 19th-century Belgian beer and brewing, based upon his extensive archival research. On October 31, he turned his critical lens explicitly upon De Baets’ work.

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The heart of the dispute is quite simple.

De Baets’ thesis is that, while modern Saisons vary widely in style and have generally evolved from sourness to bitterness, the classic examples, such as Saison Dupont, have inherited a family resemblance from the Saisons of the 19th century, particularly in their high attenuation. Furthermore, he locates the brewing of this style of beer on farms in the rural parts of Wallonia, and speculates that some of the ingredients would have been cultivated on those farms. He does not dispute the fact that other, very different beers called Saison were brewed in urban centres, or that the highly-attenuated style he regards as the true Saison influenced later, urban beers such as Grisette—but he firmly believes that Saison is, in origin and essence, a farmhouse beer. I, and many others, have tended to accept the basic outline of this thesis.

Farhouse Ales

Influential

Mulder, for his part, does not dispute that beer was brewed on farms in the rural parts of Wallonia, or that these beers may have been called Saison. However, he reports that his reading and archival research have revealed few signs of this 19th-century farmhouse brewing tradition. Instead, he has found lots of evidence that sweet, poorly-attenuated beers called Saison were being brewed in urban centres such as Liège. His conclusion is that, “to a 19th century Belgian, ‘saison’ almost always meant ‘Liège saison’”, and that the widely-accepted notion of Saison as a dry, refreshing farmhouse beer is little more than a romantic myth. That myth may or may not have been accentuated by modern farmhouse breweries to create a tradition for themselves, but it is certainly “a very narrow view of what saison actually was”.

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Mulder’s main criticism of De Baets concerns his use of written sources.

“I think De Baets was desperate to write about what happened at farms, but found very little material to work with,” he suggests. “Instead, he turned to brewing literature that obviously described what professional brewers were doing – and then was happy to misquote it.”

To illustrate this, he draws attention to the way De Baets’ uses certain details about 19th-century commercial brewing practice to speculate about farmhouse brewing, and to the way he juxtaposes claims about how grains and hops for farmhouse Saison were grown locally, in Hainaut, or even on the farms themselves, alongside tenuously-related passages from contemporary brewing manuals.

De Baets and his publisher are definitely guilty of some carelessness. That, rather than “misquoting” sources, seems to be behind the two historians’ differences on whether barley, or other brewing grains, or no brewing grains at all, were grown by brewing farmers themselves. But it is a dispute about hops that gets to the heart of the matter and is far more interesting.

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In Farmhouse Ales De Baets quotes what a contemporary brewing manual on Hainaut beers had to say on the quantity of hops used in keeping beers, before going on to say that “it is well understood that Belgian hops, traditionally grown in the province of Hainaut, were most often used”.

As Mulder points out, that same brewing manual states that “The hops that are most often used [in Hainaut beers] are those of Aalst and Poperinge”, in Flanders. He takes that as evidence that De Baets is misquoting his sources in order to support his thesis that Saison was a product manufactured from very local ingredients.

However, De Baets did not attribute his statement about Hainaut hops to the brewing manual. His evidence was prima facie—“it is well understood”. In his extensive response to Mulder he acknowledges that contemporary brewing manuals recommend “better hops… instead of the local ones” that had “quite a bad reputation”, but maintains that it would be absurd to assume that hops cultivated in the Mons area of Hainaut would not have been used for brewing, and suggests that this would have been more usual than the idealised practice described in the brewing manuals.

The two historians disagree in a similar way about the use of old, rather than fresh, hops. De Baets assumes that, because sourness was a desirable quality in 19th-century Belgian beers, old hops with lower bacteriostatic potential would be used if a brewer wanted to make a predominately sour Saison. Mulder laments that he “provides no evidence for this” and suggests that De Baets is “simply inventing this out of thin air”.

But that criticism seems unfair. Mulder himself has referred elsewhere to evidence of the use of old hops in 19th-century brewing. If one accepts that beer was made in farmhouse breweries, and that many of them were sour and that sourness was desirable, practicality alone suggests very that old hops would have had a role to play and that farmhouse breweries would have stocks lying about from one year to the next.

I went through the same thought process as De Baets appears to have done when I made a hoppy, lactic-sour pale ale earlier this year. I figured that the bacteriostatic risk of the high-alpha Chinook hops I had to hand would be offset somewhat by the fact that they were “getting on a bit”. Moreover, rather like the 19th-century farmhouse brewer that De Baets imagines, my choice of ingredients as a homebrewer is often determined by the odds and ends that I have left to use up, rather than what modern homebrewing manuals would recommend.

These are, indeed, the terms in which De Baets couches his response to Mulder’s criticism: “Old hops were, in the real world, very frequently used, even if not recommended by the scholars—for good reason—except indeed for some specific styles of beer.”

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Rather than ignoring or “misquoting” the written sources, then, De Baets cautions against mistaking the specific scope of those written sources for general truths drawn from “the real world”. He urges wider reading and the application of deductive reasoning to reach real-world understanding.

For example, while acknowledging the lack of written evidence for 19th-century farmhouse beer in the contemporary brewing literature—”the scholars didn’t really want to write on rural things”—he notes that there numerous contemporary farming treatises with chapters on brewing, both for the home and for a wider group of people, such as seasonal workers. There were “documented” farm breweries, he observes. And the elderly modern Saison brewers he has interviewed all tell the same story of their parents and grandparents making similar products on farms. They told those stories independently, and under critical assessment, De Baets insists, carefully distinguishing genuine oral history from mere oral tradition.

Faced with this circumstantial evidence, he regards it a peculiarly stubborn kind of blindness not to accept that farmhouse brewing was likely a common practice in 19th-century Hainaut.

“You’re approaching saison history from the wrong end,” Mulder argues. “The sources shouldn’t confirm what you already think you know, in my opinion they should tell you where to go.”

But De Baets would argue that, if those sources are limited and partial by nature, they may lead you the wrong way. You might as well try to hike across Belgium using a map that shows no footpaths, only motorways.

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It is not surprising that Mulder the archivist fetishises written documentation. De Baets the brewer fetishises the practitioner with equal zeal.

He writes of his “privilege” in speaking with “some of those old brewers before they passed or will pass away”. He attacks Mulder’s “arrogance” in claiming that “those old Brewmasters were lying, while you detain the truth about the beer they, their fathers and grandfathers, have been making all their life”. Of course, Mulder never really says these people were lying—in fact, he explicitly says there is no reason to doubt them.

As well as suggesting that the practitioners have access to some special kind of truth, De Baets implies that he, as a brewer, has a special kind of bond with those practitioners. He misrepresents a question Mulder raises about spices apparently in order to mock his “brewing-related claims”. The side-swipe in his “in the real world” remark is obvious. He concedes that he will never know everything on any subject related to beer, but only because 15 years of professional brewing “has forced me to be a bit more humble, as I’m touching its immense complexity every single day of my life”.

It’s not clear how that kind of practical brewing humility relates to humility about historical research, but nonetheless he presses the point further: “I don’t have much time (unfortunately) to do lots of research and even less for writing and publishing anything at the moment—as I currently have one brewery to run and another, new one, to build”. Doing is more noble than book learning, he implies, especially when we compare commercial brewing with a grubby little blogging pastime: “I suppose it’s important, when one manages a website, to get as much clicks as you can”.

De Baets is right to imply that written records present only a partial historical truth, one which needs to be supplemented by archaeology, technical knowledge, oral history and deduction. It is unfortunate that he did not try to make that case more constructively. The fact that he did not might imply that he feels the force of some of Mulder’s criticisms.

At the same time, we know that Mulder himself makes small batches of beer—exercises in experimental archaeology. That tells us that De Baets’ imputations of practical naivety are probably unfair, but also that Mulder is more sensitive to the value of non-written evidence than his combative blogs sometimes suggest.

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If De Baets’ subjective bias is to stretch the sparse written evidence to fit what he considers to be the common-sense history suggested by his interviews and his practical experience, Mulder’s is to accept too readily that absence of evidence is evidence of absence—especially if the absent evidence is a document. De Baets feels, reflexively, that it is essential to reason deductively from all types of evidence to get to the truth. Mulder feels, reflexively, that strict inductive reasoning from contemporary written sources is essential if we are to avoid perpetuating myths.

Of course, the truth, such as it is, will most likely be revealed when we coax it out from a range of sources, with both deductive and inductive methods.

Thankfully, both these excellent beer historians know that very well.

For his part, De Baets acknowledges that he deduces a lot, and sometimes more than can be supported, from contemporary documents—that was why he insisted on a full scholarly apparatus of footnotes, “written black on white”, for the document-based claims in his chapter in Farmhouse Ales. It is also why it was called “A History of Saison” rather than “The History of Saison”. “My original title for my text was ‘A historical approach of the Saison beers’”, he reveals. “I didn’t want the title to sound definitive, as I knew for sure it’s a never-ending work in progress.”

In return, Mulder moves from the position in his article, which holds that “the only actual saison these old books talk about is the saison of Liège”, and that therefore, “to a 19th century Belgian, ‘saison’ almost always meant ‘Liège saison’”, to something much more nuanced:

“I agree that saison de Liège poses a problem. Is it an ancestor of current Hainaut saison? Did the two develop separately? Did they influence each other? It seems that by WWI, at least in a few places spelt had been replaced by barley in Liège saison (this was the case at Maastricht in 1913). Hainaut saison is absent from 19th century brewing literature, so why does it appear on post-WWI bottle labels (plenty of examples on jacquestrifin.be, an excellent website), apparently as an all-malt luxury beer? Is there a missing link that can tie Liège and Hainaut saison together? I hope to find some answers to this.”

Anyone interested in the history of French and Belgian brewing must wish Roel luck with his research—into each and every kind of historical, documentary and archaeological artefact—and look forward to reading the results.

We must also hope that part of that research includes an ongoing dialogue with Yvan. As the Indian parable has it, we are all blind men with our hands on the elephant of truth. We can know its true form only by talking with one another.

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