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Pink Elephants: Now I'm seeing two of them

In my hotel room, I checked my E-mail, and answered it before breakfast. I always try to lay down adequate ballast. We had eight brewery visits lined up for the day. Anywhere in the world, that would be a tough schedule. In Belgium, it looked impossible. Belgians don't believe that either food or drink should be treated like fuel. They like to take their time, and taste. That is my job, anyway -- but I also have to take notes and write about it.

The idea was to allow an hour per visit, with 30 minutes' travelling time between each. We knew that was nowhere near enough time for the visits, but allowance for travelling was slightly more than we needed. So long as we did not get lost, that gave us some flexibility, but the total time was still not enough. We hoped to visit three of the breweries in the morning; one over lunch; three in the afternoon; and one over dinner.

At 8.0 in the morning, we arrived at the first brewery. It had only three beers, but the strongest was nine per cent by volume. It was a small, compact, brewery, and the owner was reasonably informative, but brisk.

If you are called a "monument" in Belgium, that is definitely intended as a compliment. No suggestion of immobility. With scarcely any background in brewing, Pierre Celis revived a beer style and took it from Belgium to Texas (note the bolo tie), inspiring "Belgian-style Witbiers" from New Zealand to Alaska. The heftier figure in the pale gray suit is Modeste Van den Bogaert, of De Koninck. In World War II, he got out of Belgium on a bicycle, found his way on to a ship to the United Kingdom, joined the Allied forces, was badly wounded, and returned to take over the family brewery at a tender age. These two monuments to Belgian brewing, both in their mid 70s, joined me on stage at Beer Passion Weekend, in Antwerp. In a surprise gesture, they presented (to me and the public) the first copies of the fourth edition of my book "The Great Beers of Belgium". It was a gratifying experience - and a humbling one. Pictured on the left is Ben Vinken and on the right Rob Imeson.

The second brewery had five beers, a more rambling site, and a more communicative owner, with some interesting points to make. When this happens, I don't know whether to weep over the disintegrating schedule or beam over the useful material I am obtaining. That morning, each brewery was worse, or better (depending upon one's viewpoint) than the last.

The third had seven beers and there was at one point in the brewery tour a procedure new to me, that demanded a little time for explanation. At the fourth brewery, local television was waiting; lunch was never going to be leisurely but this was especially stage-managed. By brewery number seven, we were seriously late.

The owner was an old sparring partner, Luc Van Honsebrouck. The numbers of beers to be tasted had levelled off and held at seven. Under Luc's eagle-like gaze I focused my muzzy eyes, fuzzy nose and dizzy brain, and took equally thorough notes on each. The last beer was Kasteel, at a mighty 11.0 per cent by volume. I knew this beer well, but sampled nonetheless.

As I put the glass down, Luc presented a second bottle, "they're two different vintages," he said, as though that obliged me to continue. I did, anyway, not wishing to seem churlish. He asked for my comments, then turned to his head brewer and said: "See!" I don't know what argument I had helped Luc win, but the head brewer gave me a baleful look.

As I attempted to get and say my farewells, a third vintage was placed before me. After tasting that, I insisted I had to leave. Luc's response was challenging and oddly poetic: "When I die, will you come to my funeral?" I assured him that I would but, meanwhile, I was more than an hour late for the last brewery of the day.

I had been travelling from south to north, and the last brewery was Huyghe, in Melle, a suburb of Ghent. As we finally headed in that direction, I sensed that my colleague and driver was feeling tense. "We're nearly there," I offered, by way of reassurance. His response was mumbled and slightly irritable. I think the words: "Arranged something," were in there somewhere,

When we got there, I knew there would be a dozen or more beers: Huyghe has lots of products, of which the strongest, at 9.0 per cent by volume, is Delirium Tremens. I expected to be led to the tasting room, but was taken to the brewhouse. As we entered, I blinked at my greeting. There were five or six stern-looking men in pale blue caps-and-gowns, with pink sashes and sleeves.

I began to think I was in a frightening dream. Or had I died? Then I noticed that a beer was being poured for me. It was not Lucifer, Satan, or Duvel. It was Delirium Tremens. I was not dead, though possibly suffering from a lifetime of alcoholic over-indulgence. I was beckoned to the sternest of the robed men, asked to drink the beer down in one and to pledge my support to it above all others. Delirium Tremens is a sippin' beer, and I am a taster, not a chugger, so I made a poor job of that. Nor could I pledge to promote one beer above all others (my turn to mumble). I was nonetheless "knighted", with a mashing fork, and a ribbon bearing a medallion decorated with a pink elephant was placed round my neck.

It have been a Member of the Order of the Pink Elephant for some years now, and apparently not disgraced myself. This year, the Order decided to confer membership on my colleague Rob Imeson, who runs the Michael Jackson beer-of-the-month clubs. These, of course, include The Great Beers of Belgium. They also honored Ben Vinken, publisher of the Great Beers of Belgium book. A third new member was the chief of staff to the Mayor of Antwerp.

And me? I am now a Commander of the Pink Elephant.

Published: SEPT 1, 2001

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