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My first Belgian beer

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This month’s Session topic (posed by rotating members of the beer blogging community) comes from Breandán Kearney of Belgian Smaak. Kearney wants to talk about Belgian beer, or more specifically, our first taste of Belgian beer.

After a bit of reflection, I settled on a fairly embarrassing thought for someone with the job title of “beer editor”: My first Belgian beer experience wasn’t a big deal, mainly because I didn’t think beer was worthy of much thought. Bring out your pitchforks!

The first time I sipped an American-born Belgian-style beer was during a humid summer night in 2004, back when I was attending James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. (all of you olds can now accuse me of being green; all of you millennials can now shame me for being old). Since it was summer, and the only course I was taking was the History of Hip-Hop (liberal arts degree for the win!), I spent many late nights at a triplex our group of friends creatively referred to as “the triplex.” Poker in the basement every Thursday night. Drinking, listening to music and watching “Mr. Show” DVDs most other nights.

For a few weeks, one of my friends, who worked as an assistant brewer at a now-closed brewpub in Harrisonburg’s court square, had been informing us that he had a line on a pony keg of some beer called “Prankster,” which was alleged to be super-delicious and super-expensive. Given his position, he was able to order it on the cheap. I remember being mildly interested, wondering how the beer would taste in comparison to the copious amount of Natty Ice I was accustomed to drinking while away at college.

One particularly intoxicated night, my friend finally produced the keg. I have a vague recollection of the evening, but I do recall a group of us hanging out in the backyard, putting down our aluminum cans while he passed out cups of the strange beer. I’m pretty sure he mentioned GABF medals, but I didn’t know what GABF was in 2004. I don’t think that keg was ever finished, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he tagged a few of us as uncultured after we returned to the cans. He’s still committed to waking people up to good beer in the college town, and is in the process of opening a brewery called Pale Fire Brewing in downtown Harrisonburg. Go check out his beer later this year if you’re in town.

Looking back, it’s strange to consider my total lack of interest in thinking about beer as a thing with a history, a culture and an entire web of styles. It’s kind of like remembering a time before you got into music—like, really into music and its genres. A song was just a song.

The concept of Belgian beer? That didn’t register. Beer simply wasn’t something worth intellectualizing. Case in point: Two years prior I was actually in Belgium, sitting in a Bruges bar underneath my hostel, knocking back goblets of some weird tart cherry beer, which gave me acid reflux the next morning. And no, I didn’t visit any breweries or intentionally seek out good Belgian beer while I was there. I never considered those pours an entry point into a wide world of beer. I didn’t know that world existed. I was too busy focusing on other pursuits to notice that painfully obvious detail. Clearly, I am a person with many regrets in life.

Of course, now I know that the backyard college beer was North Coast PranQster, and the Bruges beer was a kriek. But, back then I was oblivious.

I suppose we’ll learn only as much as we’re willing to, even if knowledge is staring up at you from the glass (or coming from a friend while he shares a rather expensive keg of beer).

My first Belgian pours weren’t life-changing events. There was no “aha!” moment. But, they clearly left an impression, and planted the seed for more adventurous drinking in the future. It just took a few more years for my pursuit of beer knowledge to catch up.


Chris Staten is DRAFT’s beer editor. Follow him on Twitter at @DRAFTbeereditor and email him at chris.staten@draftmag.com.


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