Defining the Indefinable
There is a cafe in Brussels. It is close and cozy, feminine in a way that is unlike pubs anywhere else I've visited. The walls are so coated in objects and pictures that you are able to confirm their existence largely by inference. The tables are small and dainty, as are the chairs. The beer list is extensive, but I didn't bother to consult anything but the lambic selection. This is the only place on earth they're made, and they've been made here for centuries. When you order one, the waiter arrives with a little basket; once he decants a portion into a pleated tumbler, he lays the bottle so that it reclines with its head resting on the edge--a vision of happy repose.
The beer list is extensive, despite my single-focus, and inside one finds a dozens of offerings spanning the range of local styles. In Belgium, the word "style" is especially fraught, since the local breweries work to make each of their beers different from everything else on the market. But whether we call them a dozen styles or three dozen, they are all there, well-represented. You could visit this pub every night for a month and not drink all the beer on offer.
The lineage of those lounging bottles dates at least to 1400, and they have been so ingrained in this city's heritage that they appear in paintings by Flemish master Pieter Bruegel, the Elder. Other Belgian beers have been brewed by Catholic monks for over a century (with a tradition dating back 1500 years). There is a selection of ambrée and brune beer, which cast back to Belgian brewers' old habit of boiling their worts for many hours to caramelize the wort. There are foeder-aged red ales, which took a lesson from 19th-century London porter, and there are beers called "stout" which have inevitably gone through that unmistakable Belgian cultural distortion filter. There are even the "new" blondes, which started to become popular a few decades into the last century.
What one doesn't find is the latest release from Stone or Mikkeller--or even classics from Weihenstephan or Pilsner Urquell. There are a few places to find these beers, as the international craft brewing movement noses into even places with beer culture as well-established as Brussels--but they are by no means prevalent. And Brussels doesn't need them; the native drinking culture, the living history found in each bottle, the famous brewing school at Leuven, twenty miles from Brussels' Grand Place, the strange way brewers make their beer, the local ingredients they make it from, and even--especially--the respect and knowledge local drinkers have for this fixture of national identity. For a beer fan, casual or fanatic, there are few better places to drink beer.
Surprisingly, this isn't an opinion shared by everyone. There is an argument about what constitutes a good city for beer drinking, and it was on bright display yesterday when Jason Notte made a case that
I spent an hour debating with Jason on Twitter--the second time in the last couple weeks we had this dispute. I'd considered doing a debate-style rebuttal about why I find this such a perverse position to take, but I'll limit it just to the acknowledgement that we understand "good" in very different terms. For Jason,
"...that ignores one of the key purposes of small brewing and craft beer: To try new ideas, to take chances and to explore. Sure, in lager-soaked Manhattan — where beers I had with friends at non-craft bars included Heineken, Labatt’s Blue and Rolling Rock — you have to go a bit out of your way to find a broad selection of craft beer. But those who do are rewarded with some of the best beers that all corners of the country have to offer.
I mentioned on Twitter that by this definition, Copenhagen would be a better beer city than Brussels. He made an adjustment to my comment, but agreed: "No, my argument would still apply: It's not a 'better' beer city, it's a more diverse, cosmopolitan beer city. But the Portland-Brussels parallel is a great one. Both have great beer, both are fairly insular and heavily emphasize local."
It is not possible to square this circle--we think of "best" in very different terms. For Jason, a "truly great beer town won’t be afraid to explore what’s brewing beyond the horizon line." For me, judging a city by how much of the local beer is brewed elsewhere seems a bizarre metric for assessing "truly great." New York and Copenhagen do have lots of foreign beers available in their bars, but it's precisely because locals haven't developed a taste for local beer in the way they have in Prague, Munich, and Brussels--and brewers in Copenhagen, for their part, are
a local tradition like Brussels has.
I'll never convince New Yorkers that their hometown is by most of my metrics one of the poorer beer cities in the country, and I don't know that there's any point in trying. (It's a promising sign that they are defending New York with such gusto!) But would I rather drink a Drie Fonteinen in a Brussels cafe, from a bottle my waiter has decanted and laid in a little basket, or go to a New York City bar that offers a menu of the world's beers, removed from their context and shipped across an ocean?