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March 20, 2007

Don’t judge Belgium by its Stella

Just as a cheap pound of fatty ground hamburger somewhat vaguely hints at the many possibilities inherent in the concept of beef, so Stella Artois at least makes us aware of a country, Belgium, that has far more to offer in terms of beer choice than Stella itself.Stella Artois is a yellowish, bland, inexpensively brewed mass-market lager, and it is seen everywhere in Belgium, primarily because it is brewed and marketed by a monolithic corporation that has done every bit as much to bastardize that country’s brewing heritage as you-know-who in America.As is the case throughout the world, such lagers are little more than quick and easy alcohol delivery devices — ones made familiar through saturation advertising techniques that originally were pioneered by odious totalitarian regimes, and which benefit from industrial economies of production as opposed to artisanal techniques.Is Stella Artois remotely indicative of the diverse Belgian brewing heritage?Emphatically not, and yet that’s how it is marketed within Belgium and around the world, with the sad result that many tourists come away with an extremely misshapen impression of what Belgian beer is all about.Belgium has somehow managed to retain a healthy semblance of its diverse brewing heritage in spite of the country’s consumption of mass-market lagers like Stella, Jupiler and Maes. While we can argue over whether today’s survivors of pre-industrial brewing traditions — farmhouse saisons, lambics, sour reds and Trappist ales — are as “good” now as they used to be, Belgium remains a country with undisputed proximity to beers that differ from the insipid norm.In short, Belgian brewing expertise extends in all directions, and the further from Stella Artois one travels, the more absorbing and delightful it gets in terms of flavor profiles, textures, methods … and sheer enjoyment.Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. He writes about beer for Food & Dining magazine. Visit www.potablecurmudgeon.com for more beer.