Smeirlap! Taras Boulba is a Summer Classic

The magazine I used to write for, All About Beer, officially died when owner Christopher Rice filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. To preserve some of the content I've contributed over the years, I'm reposting some of my favorite pieces here. This article was published in Volume 38, Issue 2 on May 1, 2017.

If you found yourself in one of the beerier precincts of Portland, Oregon, six or seven years ago, there was a good chance you noticed someone wearing a T-shirt with a single, strange word, punctuated for emphasis: Smeirlap! This was an insider’s reference to a particular Belgian beer—but not, as you might expect, Cantillon Brewery, Orval Brewery or De Dolle Brouwers. Smeirlap referred to Taras Boulba, one of the initial offerings of the fledgling Brasserie de la Senne.

What transfixed these underground fans, the label—surely one of the most interesting and obscure ever—or the beer inside, a tiny, powerhouse pale ale? Both. The beer, the label and the inspiration behind them are bound together inseparably; they conspire to make one of the most-compelling recent beers to come from a country already awash in them.

Let’s start with the label, which features a curious setting. Illustrated in simple art are two men. The first is thick and powerful—a stevedore, perhaps—and holds a wooden cask over his head. Underneath him, cowering, is a smaller man with a down-on-his-luck look and a pleading, Willy Loman expression. Red-faced with fury, the first man barks out “Smeirlap!” As if to compound the mystery of this scene, the brewery has helpfully added a note that appears, even on American bottles, in indecipherable local dialect.

To understand this, we have to turn to—obviously—the 19th-century Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol. Taras Boulba (or Bulba) is his novella from 1842 that tells the story of a heroic soldier and his two sons. As they fight endlessly throughout the story, one of his sons falls in love with a Polish girl—one of their sworn enemies. This ill-fated turn concludes sadly when Taras Boulba, confronting his traitorous son, issues perhaps for the first time in a literary medium a version of the declaration, “I brought you into this world, and I will take you out of it,” just before killing him.

This unlikely source material isn’t as Dada as it sounds. Co-founder Yvan De Baets explains. “We have transformed the story to mock the stupid community problems we have in Belgium between French- and Flemish-speaking people.” In Senne’s version, the Flemish-speaking father is angry at his son for marrying a French speaker. “Smeirlap” translates roughly to “bastard” in that dialect. “The idea is to show that this is ‘zwanze,’ the typical Brussels humor which likes ‘nonsense that makes sense.’ ”

The moral, then, is unity among difference—and here we come to the beer.

The liquid Taras Boulba is at once a model of conciliation as well as a perfect example of the way Belgian beer, even when taking cues from other countries, ends up tasting perfectly Belgian. It is a modest 4.5% in strength, revealing one of its sources of inspiration. “If I have one beer style that is my favorite ever,” De Baets says, “it’s a good English bitter properly served from the cask. Taras could be seen as a Belgian version of that.” That’s certainly a cask-like strength, far lower than most Belgian offerings. Okay, what else? “We are also big fans of traditional German pilsners,” he continues. “We see [them] as a sort of achievement for a brewer to make. Hence the noble hop character of Taras.”

If in your mind’s eye you are imagining a pint of creamy, low-carbonation bitter with an herbal continental aroma you are … nowhere near the mark. In reality, Taras Boulba is delightfully Belgian. The cap fairly leaps off the bottle when the slightest pressure from an opener is applied, and a head begins to form inside the neck. It crackles like club soda and builds up a thick head of meringue, roiling with a tempest of bubbles. It has a wholly unique flavor: a bright lemon stiffened by minerally hard water up front, then a slow evolution into a dry herbal finish. Somehow the brewers at Senne manage to transform the bitterness that hops usually give into something closer to cocktail bitters. It is incredibly alive.

De Baets admits that “Belgium has a noticeable presence, too.” It certainly does! The beer may be hop-heavy (in addition to bittering additions, Senne dry-hops Taras Boulba), but as with so many Belgian beers, yeast ultimately defines it. “It’s a yeast we’ve chosen carefully for the subtle, mellow esters it gives. We enhance them using very flat fermenters we designed ourselves.” He points out that the bitterness comes from the hops, not phenolics, but I’d emphasize all the heavy lifting the yeast does in other ways. Esters up front accent the lemony hopping and create the spritz that buoys this beer. In Taras Boulba, the way those esters work with the bitterness, the way their aromas harmonize with the citrusy hops, are what tie the beer together.

In the end, perhaps the achievement is gastronomic unity. Bitterness often overwhelms Belgian beers that have been thinned by added sugar and dried by attenuative yeasts and so is a rarely used element. Brasserie de la Senne has managed to bring expressive yeasts and hops together in a perfect union, a harmony rarely achieved. This Taras Boulba ends far more happily than Gogol’s.

Jeff Alworth