Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Moeder Lambic vs. Stone.

I ought to be happy for all those Belgians who get to try Stone beers for the first time this weekend. For some of them, maybe, it will be the first taste of a true American-style IPA. It will also be a welcome event for the handful of expats who care about such things. I know I hankered for an occasional C-hop fix when I lived there. Being a good American and all.

Plus, the Stone mini-festival at Moeder Lambic Fontainas is sure to be a hell of a party. They've closed the street out front. Even the New York Times is talking about this thing (cheers to Evan Rail).

It all starts at 11 a.m. on Friday when Greg Koch will say a few words and drink some beer with Brussels and U.S. Embassy officials... which is just plain weird, if you ask me. Oh, Koch makes sense; being much like the rest of us (albeit more successful) he would happily spend more of his life at Moeder Lambic if he could, drinking Belgium's finest. You can learn as much from this video he made last December. So it's not Koch, it's all the stiffs in suits that don't fit. Isn't this the counter-cultural café of Belgium's counter-cultural beer scene? Still, they should be good for a few laughs. Hopefully Koch will make another video.

So what is it about all this that bugs me? Hard to say. Maybe it's all that American beer invading what I personally think is the best Belgian beer café right now. It could be that simple. It could be that I'm nostalgic for the days when American craft beer was impossible to find in Belgium, and Moeder Lambic focused only on the best that Belgium has to offer. But the café has since been offering excellent German, French, Italian and Spanish beers, among others, and I think that's pretty exciting. So why should Stone bug me? Because it's American?

Is it jealousy? Would this be like me going out with some really hot Belgian girl who spoke no English, having to leave her, and then learning that she's been practicing English and dating an entire American football team? Because that would sting.

Or maybe it's the fact that the Stone event is overshadowing Zwanze Day. Jean Van Roy of Cantillon will be at Fontainas to tap the new Zwanze lambic at 9 p.m. on Saturday, in coordination with 22 or so other pubs around the world. Yet even Moeder Lambic's announcement describes Zwanze Day as an "event within the event." No café in the world is more dedicated to Cantillon than the Moeder Lambics, so I'm sure they didn't mean to make it sound like Van Roy is playing second fiddle to Koch. But that is what it sounds like.

Or maybe there is an elephant in the pub, and that elephant is the business side of things. Maybe, in the back of my mind, I am remembering something about Stone -- which makes upwards of 100,000 barrels of beer a year, and is the USA's 14th largest craft beer company -- planning to build a second brewery in Europe. (In fact, that's apparently part of the reason Koch is in Europe; he's scouting locations.) Stone may be a craft brewery in the American sense, but is it a brasserie artisanal in the Belgian sense? For example: There are certain discriminating beer enthusiasts on the Belgian scene who have nothing nice to say about Duvel Moortgat these days. Duvel has been expansion-minded, but a few years ago it was not much bigger in terms of production than Stone is today.

Maybe this illustrates the dangers of focusing too much on brewery size. One day, you open a café dedicated to small artisanal breweries. Later, a bigger one from another country is throwing a party at your house... and hey, the beer is pretty good.

"I think for the most part, most European beer fans won’t know what hit them," Koch told the NYT, which also noted the presence of a "vanilla-bean smoked porter, imperial black I.P.A. and brews aged in red wine barrels."

"Frankly, every single one of them is completely unique in the European market," Koch said.

Does he really believe that? Excuse me, Mr. Koch, meet Struise. And Alvinne. And various concerns brewing at Proef. And Mikkeller. And Brewdog. And a whole host of other lesser known outfits in various countries that have -- partly inspired by Americans like Koch -- been more than willing to make exactly those sorts of beers in recent years.

There it is again: That pesky transnational craft beer scene, doing its best to make us uncomfortable in our old assumptions. Maybe those days I spent wandering Brussels, with nary a Cascade hop in sight, were the last days of a Modern Age that was already on life support. Now we are well into the Postmodern, and things are getting surreal. Hell, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium might be drinking Arrogant Bastard before lunchtime Friday.

Or maybe I'm just pissed because I'm going to miss the party. Yeah, that must be it.


  1. Don't be depressed. You are comparing a PR event for national craft to the good stuff. Don't get me wrong. I like Stone at the moderate price point but it's not like I'd cross the lawn to shake hands.

    A Good Beer Blog

  2. I miss Cedric the Bartender. And all his beers.

  3. Cheers, Alan. Not depressed, I think. More like disoriented.

  4. I was there on Friday and was a bit underwhelmed. Sure, it was early (I was gone before 7 pm), but it was, for reasons I can't exactly figure out, the least enjoyable time I've had at Fontainas. Greg Koch seemed to be enjoying himself and looked like he was making a good PR effort, but it didn't rub off on me. I tried only 2 beers: Levitation IPA and Oaked Arrogant Bastard. The Levitation (the lowest ABV Stone beer there at 4.4%) was good and I'd happily drink it again, but I wasn't wowed. As for the AB, well, it was fun to try as something different, but it also didn't live up to expectations. I've had AB before and really enjoyed it, but the oak just seemed like an afterthought. The best thing going on that evening was the food stall with the noodles. Damn, those were good noodles.