Preternaturally From the Mind Of De Clerck: The Great Beer Theory

(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This post introduces the concept, Preternaturally From the Mind Of De Clerck: The Great Beer Theory.)

Among the bodies of the monks at Scourmont: a scientist. His name was Jean De Clerck, and his discipline was zymurgy. How did he achieve such sacred placement after death?

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The central question of War and Peace is: Did Napoleon cause history, or did history cause Napoleon? The central question of Belgian brewing is: Did Jean De Clerck create the landscape of modern Belgian beer or was he simply a particularly active and efficacious function of pre-existing social patterns, namely folk brewing practices and modern science in the wake of Pasteur? Did he combine these with all of the free will of an algorithm? Or did he place disparate elements together with a heroic insight and skill no other could muster? 

This all comes down to questions of the free will of the individual consciousness against the determinism of cultural forces. It seems difficult to claim that, for instance, Oliver Cromwell did not affect the course of the English Civil war to an outsized degree, to the extent that it would not have happened without him. Would Rome have ever transformed from a Republic to an Empire if Augustus had died as a teenager? The conventional thinking is that these particular men changed history with the force of their will, and that, lacking them, history would not have changed, at least not in that way. However, Cromwell could never have come to power without a groundswell of views similar to his. He did not create Puritanism, or Protestantism, or Parliamentarianism, he did not create the publishing technologies or educational standards that made these ideologies flourish. He did not create the economic disparity that drove the populous to embrace what were at the time radical principles. There was a force of history, and he merely affixed himself to its tip. And he seemed less crazy than the Levelers. He was more surfing than leading probably, which is what Tolstoy claims we all must do. Tolstoy denies the Great Man Theory on grounds something like this.

In creative realms, however, it seems harder to deny personal efficacy. Didn’t the publication of Lyrical Ballads start British Romanticism? Didn’t Wordsworth and Coleridge crawl out from under stultifying cultural influences with great effort? Didn’t they change minds?  Didn’t Picasso, or Bob Dylan, or Beyonce, or Steve Jobs, or Kant, or Dryden, or Callimachus, or Socrates change the minds of their generations? Wouldn’t American craft brewing not exist without Charlie Papazian? Can Jean Broillet be credited with the pervasiveness of hazy IPAs? Did Ken Grossman put pine and citrus flavors in our pale ales?  Or is it more complicated than that? Are these people functions of infinitesimally complex cultural forces that they conduct like electricity?  

Here are some of the facts about Jean De Clerck. He can be said, for our purposes, to be the primary mind behind the taste of Chimay Blue, Duvel, and Orval, three of the most legendary beers of all time. Chimay Blue is for most the definition of a Belgian beer: a dark brown, rich, sweet presenting though highly attenuated, high alcohol beer defined by the spice and fruit of the preternaturally expressive yeast. Duvel is a devilish photo-negative of a Scotch ale, stripped to a pale yellow clarity, and definitive of a type in the way that Rodenbach is. Orval is the most individual tasting beer in the world, the one that tastes the least like any other beer I have ever had, though it probably has grounds to claim that it is closer to the old farmhouse ales of Belgium than Saison Dupont. Orval was the first beer in which locally harvested brettanomyces was added with intentional knowledge, by Jean De Clerck himself probably. What do we make of the fact that one mind established what are certainly the touchstones and possibly the bounds of modern Belgian Brewing: the darkly phenolic monk’s brew, the brightly golden ale, and the delve into more wild yeasts and farmhouse traditions. We will be looking at these classic beers and trying to discover whether they sprang naturally from the cultural landscape of Belgium or preternaturally from the mind of De Clerck. 

By placing De Clerck’s body in the graveyard at Scourmont, the monks of Chimay have made their claim: our beers came from his mind.

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