In his autobiographical book, “The Factory of Facts,” the Belgian-American writer Luc Sante recalls the drab post-WW II industrial reality of his childhood home of Verviers, a city in the Wallonian rustbelt. Reading Sante’s reflections on a society stratified by factory life and traumatized by its wartime experiences, my thoughts turned to lager beer, which originated in and around the German lands, to the east of Belgium.
We know that lager developed in lockstep with the industrial revolution throughout Europe, gradually departing from its original, artisanal methods to fatally embrace pure science utterly devoid of a guiding aesthetic, eventually supplanting traditional ale styles – many of which survived only in the countryside in cantankerous places like Sante’s Belgium.
By Cold War’s end, lowest common denominator lager had become perhaps the most imperialistic consumer item in world history, conquering Europe, America and the planet as a whole – taking full advantage of modern manufacturing techniques, improved distribution methods, and a consistent psychological bludgeoning sufficient to make Josef Goebbels smile with undisguised glee. In its unprecedented trajectory to a worldwide stranglehold, mass-market lager isn’t entirely alone. Numerous parallels exist, most prominently in contemporary processed foodstuffs. The rise of mass-market lager also parallels the dissemination of cigarettes; more than one sociologist has observed that cigarettes represent the perfect adaptation of design to the necessities of time and space brought about by the industrial revolution, as well as reflecting the reduction in prices stemming from mass production.
In the beginning, cigarettes were cheap, effective conveyances for addictive nicotine, capable of being consumed in minutes while waiting for the tram. Pipes and cigars took more effort – and more leisure time to use properly. Mass-market lager, as stripped of its more costly fundamental aesthetic (does anyone remember classic lagering times of up to 90 days?), is a quick and easy alcohol delivery device, familiar and trusted through frozen simplicity, reinforced through saturation advertising, capable of maintaining price points through multi-national economies of scale, and benefiting from “market rationalization,” which is geek-speak for “species extinction.”
But if mass-market lager didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it, seeing as something wet and yellow always must be handy to cook beer can chicken.
Through it all, and in spite of domestic consumption now favoring bland, mass-produced lagers to the tune of 70-30 or more, Belgium somehow has managed to retain a representative semblance of its diverse brewing heritage. It’s probably an accident, although it might be a miracle.
It can be argued whether the survivors of pre-industrial brewing traditions – Saisons, Lambics, Sour Reds and Trappists – are as “good” now as they used to be, but it remains that Belgium is a country where there is customary proximity to beers differing from the industrial lager norm. Importantly, just as in America, craft brewing has exploded in Belgium, and shoots of creativity eagerly rise from the burgeoning grassroots. New generations of brewers are assured, and this is comforting to know.
And then there’s Stella Artois, with an accompanying gag reflex so very hard to suppress through the years. You can lead a tourist – even a native, for that matter – to diversity, but you cannot make him think.
For this reason, American visitors to Belgium all too often fail to notice the numerous beer choices available to them, even though the country’s smallest tourist offices have long since taken to actively promoting the Belgian ale heritage. Instead, the world-renowned timidity of the American psyche is exercised by subsisting on a beer diet of Stella Artois, Jupiler and Maes Pils – mass market lagers entirely unrepresentative of the Belgian brewing heritage.
Before Stella Artois flooded the United States a few years ago in the run-up to the monolithic merger of monopolists that yielded the AB-InBev abomination, I’d often be asked to help folks find the beer they loved so much while in Belgium. I’d cringe by rote as they mispronounced Stella Artois, and then recite the familiar litany in a desperate, forlorn hope that something – anything – might come of the lesson proffered them.
So, once more … with feeling.
Stella Artois is a formless, insulting industrial lager. Specifically, it is a soft, forgettable Pilsner variant, mild and golden, complete with digestible alcohol, and mass-produced by a nefarious multinational corporation that became even nastier after it hopped into bed with Budweiser and began squeaking bed springs in the Leuven bean counter’s night.
As an import, Stella Artois is priced twice as high as American mass-market beer of the same insipid stripe, and while it is marketed as quintessentially Belgian (thus justifying the premium price), there is nothing remotely Belgian about it.
If you care so little about what passes between your lips, you might as well drink another Silver Bullet. You deserve it — even at half the price.
Just as a pound of ground chuck from Kroger somewhat vaguely hints at the many possibilities inherent in the concept of beef, Stella Artois at least makes us aware of Belgium, a country with so much more to offer in terms of the glories of beer. My favorite beer cafe in Brugge, ‘t Brugs Beertje, does not offer any Pilsner brands, because the style originated elsewhere.
Quite simply, when it comes to Belgium’s considerable native brewing heritage, Stella Artois isn’t a factor worthy of consideration. The tradition does not go back “more than 600 years,” as proclaimed by one of AB-InBev’s PR flacks when Stella Artois was declared the official beer of the Kentucky Derby. It goes back all the way to 1926.
What of the unique Stella Artois chalice, glassware craft-blown to the specifications of Charlemagne, or some such nonsense? It is wasted on liquid more suitable for consumption from a red Solo cup at a fraternity kegger. By and large, Stella Artois is a marketing concept, one pitched as “Belgian” by a parent shyster thriving on eternal deception, with the sad result that many tourists come away with an extremely misshapen impression of what Belgian beer is all about, returning home to America to find Stella Artois being further recommended to them on the basis of Belgium’s great beer reputation – which has nothing whatever to do with Stella Artois.
Come to think of it, I really, seriously dislike Stella Artois.
Now, did you get all that?
(Editor’s Note: If you didn’t, check out Roger’s other article about his loathing of Stella Artois. Then you’ll really get it.)