Opinion: Why Belgian beer tastes so good

Opinion: Why Belgian beer tastes so good

May 16, 2010
Written by Eric Elnes

I love a good, cold beer. I say a good beer, not the watery swill my friend "Ron" drinks (name changed to protect friend's dignity). I am particularly fond of Belgian beer. There's nothing quite like popping the top off a full-bodied, monk-brewed St. Bernardus Abt 12, sitting on the porch with Ron on a hot summer day and insulting each other's beer. Gotta love those monks.

Years ago, a group of us beer snobs, or enthusiasts as we like to call ourselves, were sitting in a local brewpub making a list of all our favorites. No small number of Pacific Northwest, California, and Colorado microbrews made the list. A few German, French, and Scottish brews appeared, as well as one or two from Great Britain, Mexico, and South America. Yet a disproportionately high percentage of our favorite brews were from Belgium. Considering that you could fit about eleven whole countries of Belgium inside the single state of Nebraska, and that Belgium's population is only slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles, we tried to guess why one out of every four of our favorites was a Belgian.

A minister friend of mine, Karen Ward, finally set me straight. Karen leads a funky, artsy church called Church of the Apostles in the Freemont district of Seattle, less than a mile from one of the greatest Belgian ale houses I've ever seen. A Belgian beer freak herself, who apparently has done more research on the subject than I, Karen insists that Belgian beer quality is directly related to the fierce spirit of experimentation that exists among Belgian brewers.

"They'll put anything in beer - fruits, nuts, spices, you name it - and try it once. If it works, they go with it. Heck, a Belgian brewer with a cat may decide to let the cat do a few laps in a beer tank for added flavor, and then offer it to friends as Swimming Cat Ale."

Part of what explains Belgian beer creativity - its triumphs and disasters - is the absence of a "purity law" like Germany's Reinheitsgebot, which mandates that beer may only contain four ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast). Karen asserts, "When you have a purity law, you can mostly guarantee that all the beer will be 'decent' by limiting allowable ingredients. Thus in a purity law beer culture, Swimming Cat Ale would never exist." Of course, neither would my beloved St. Bernardus Abt 12.

If one's desire is for decency and consistency in beer, a purity law culture will produce it. Every so often it will even produce an example of high excellence - a Spaten Optimator or Warsteiner Oktoberfest, for instance (both German beers). Yet a survey of my "beer enthusiast" friends would suggest that if one desires to consistently produce the most excellent beer that can be made, Belgium's culture of fierce experimentation and artistic freedom works best.

Of course, such freedom may lead to occasional disasters - a Swimming Cat Ale or a Truffled Trout Triple. Yet what keeps Belgian beer craft from devolving into mayhem and chaos is the brewers' artistry and full-tilt commitment to producing the best beer that can possibly be made.

Karen insists that what makes for good beer makes for good theology and vital faith communities. I think she has a point. When Christians maintain a rigid orthodoxy, their theology and community life may attain a certain level of decency and order, but they rarely produce something that raises our hearts to the heavens or makes us "new creations."

By invoking the term "rigid orthodoxy" here, I'm not simply thinking of churches at the conservative end of the theological swimming pool (or beer tank, as the case may be). I have in mind the churches in which we "live, move, and have our being" - those of the United Church of Christ. Can it not be said that we in the UCC have our own rigid orthodoxy - or "purity of form" - with respect to worship and mission, to community life and theological articulation? Particularly with respect to worship, my forty-six year experience in the UCC leads me to conclude that we have a more rigid (though largely unwritten) sense of orthodoxy than even much more conservative denominations. God forbid we change our Communion format or mess with the music!

To be sure, purity of form occasionally produces faith communities of exceptional beauty and grace. Over the years, I've visited a handful of such communities around the country. Each time my heart fills with joy and appreciation over the level of authenticity and discipleship they exude. I think to myself, if all our churches were like this, there'd be no such phrase as "mainline decline." But these churches are the exception - one or two percent - not the rule. In making this observation, I do not mean to imply that other churches are not working hard or trying to be faithful. Rather, I believe that many are working hard and striving to be faithful to the wrong paradigm.

In my experience, purity is wildly overrated. Christian faith has never been about purity. It's about transformation and forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption. Adhering to a lofty vision of purity - of any sort - does more to mess things up than put things together. What consistently produces full-bodied, robust spiritual community is not purity of form, but a fierce and creative spirit of experimentation. Call it a "heady heterodoxy." A culture of "heady heterodoxy" is not an "anything goes" culture, but one that is so heavily invested in following where the Spirit leads that it is not only willing to make mistakes in the process, but views mistakes made in this way as signs of faithfulness, not heresy.

If people of faith aren't willing to try stepping out of the box and into the darkness to follow a fresh hunch from the Spirit, things get stale about as fast as a Budweiser left in the open air. And while many people, like my friend Ron, enjoy drinking a weak, watery Budweiser, they find stale Bud distasteful and stale churches even more so.

What keeps a "heady heterodoxy" fresh and vital, and ensures that it does not devolve into mayhem and chaos are the same principles that ensure that bad beer is the exception in Belgium not the rule: intense love of the craft and commitment to producing at the peak of one's abilities, not the midpoint ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength ...").

What would happen if the average church held as high a commitment to excellence and experimentation as a Belgian beer brewer? While church versions of Swimming Cat Ale certainly arise now and then, a fierce, creative, "heady heterodoxy" makes most Christian churches, well, more Christian.

Perhaps those Belgian monks know more than what makes for good beer.

Note: If you're not familiar with Belgian beer and would like to try some, I suggest starting with a brand called Chimay, brewed by Cistercian Trappist monks. "Chimay Triple" is one of those rare beers that appeal to people whose tastes range from Budweiser to Guinness Stout. Even Ron likes it!

The Rev. Eric Elnes is Senior Pastor of Countryside Community Church (UCC) in Omaha, Neb. He is the author of several books and publications including an article on worship innovation in the most recent issue of UCC Musicians Network Magazine and a book on Incarnational Worship (Igniting Worship: The Seven Deadly Sins [Abingdon, 2004]).

In 2006, Eric helped lead a 2,500-mile walk from Phoenix to Washington, DC, to promote awareness of progressive Christian faith and practice, and meet with Christians at the grassroots to hear their hopes and dreams for the future of faith in America. His journey was the subject of a feature-length film, The Asphalt Gospel as well as a his most recent book.

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