Smeirlap! (Taras Boulba, De La Senne Brewery)
As a now-elderly man who must scuttle around on bad knees while nursing a case of low-grade sciatica, I have few remaining childish joys left to indulge. One is purchasing beers from foreign lands, particularly when the label is inexplicable and bizarre. One has a sense (however romantic and inaccurate) that the beer represents something essential about the country, and that decanting the beer is a little like pouring out a bit of the country. (I should note that less than half the beers acquired in this manner have been worth a damn. Still.) It turns out there's a story behind the label (with Belgians, there almost always is), but more about that later.
It turns out the beer is a paltry 4.5% alcohol--substantially lighter than Full Sail Session--but I didn't know that until after I drank it. Absolutely nothing tipped it off. It is a corked beer, and comes roiling out like a Belgian strong. The head is absolutely magnificent, as thick and well-structured as whipped egg whites. (In the picture, you can see the peaks.) It's a hazy golden and sports a massive bead. Upon visual inspection, I had already concluded it was going to be a big beer.
The aroma and flavor mislead as well. The aroma in particular is complex and interesting--at first just peppery, but then I detected something that made me jot down "soap," and later it hit me--lavender. It is predictably rocky and effervescent on the tongue, which draws out the "extra hoppy" character advertised on the label. The bitterness--robust, but not out of balance--is of an almond/apricot pit quality. Far different from our green hoppiness. I detected no candi sugar (for reasons now obvious), but it felt every bit as big and substantial as many of the complex Belgians that ring in at 7-10%. No funk in the yeast, but it is very, very dry. A great beer, and a revelation when I learned it was a session ale (though at ten bucks a bottle, you won't be drinking it by the liter). I would like to hear about the 4.5% beer that has more flavor and more character than Taras Boulba.
The brewery is brand-spanking new--so new they don't even have a brewery. They borrow De Ranke's. (Interesting. Wonder if time-sharing is an option here? I have a sweet little brown I wouldn't mind trying to take to a wider audience. Kurt and Rob?) Their lineup features five beers, but only two are imported to the US. The other, a 4.5% stout, I did not see.
Okay, so what about the label? Don't bother trying the website--it's in French or Dutch, your choice. English, tantalizingly listed on the splash, is not yet operational. Fortunately, Shelton Brothers, the importer, has the details.
It's all been explained to us by the brewers, but we're still not entirely clear about it. What we can understand is that a young Flemish man has gone and married a French-speaking Wallonian girl, and his father, Taras Boulba, is very angry. (Smeirlap means 'fool' in a bizarre local dialect, which combines Flemish and French, somehow.)I am pleased to hear that the explanation only makes the whole thing more charming, if no more coherent. I recommend you try a bottle, should you see it. Another wonderful mold-breaking beer from Belgium, and only a smeirlap would fail to see that.
This is all a bastardization of the original story by Gogol, whose protagonist was Russian, a Protestant. His son marries a Polish girl, a Catholic, during the religious war between the two countries in the 1600's, and the Russian father simply kills his son to eliminate the shame.