Thursday, 29 October 2015

Cheers... or, Op uw gezondheid! (as they say in Belgium)

An email arrives with the ultimate in offers-I-can't-refuse. Would you like to review our beer?

Well, I suppose, if you insist...

Stella Artois (for it is they) is a full-flavoured premium lager with a hoppy aroma and a hint of fruitiness. It has been brewed in Leuven, Belgium since the mid-1920s but the history of Stella Artois begins with a brewery called Den Horen that dates back to 1366. In 1717, master brewer Sebastian Artois purchased the brewery and changed its name to Artois. Stella Artois was first introduced as a Christmas beer ('stella' is Latin for star) in 1926.

Now at this point my interest quickened. Because, my new book 'Known unto God' is set in Belgium during the aftermath of World War One and focusses on the lives of a small group of Tommies given the grisly duty of clearing the battlefields and burying bodies. Thirsty work, of course. And the characters all quench their thirsts (with Belgian beer) at every opportunity. (They certainly had the money - British soldiers who volunteered for such unpopular duties were paid an extra 2/6 a day.)

Here's a short extract:

Françoise pouts and flaps the tea towel she is holding at the counter. The bar is quiet. Jack turns and squints through his tobacco smoke at the yellowing, varnished posters - cracked and blistered with age - that cover gaps in the walls where panels of the corrugated iron have been joined together. Music hall acts, he assumes. For long-expired performances.

‘You don’t hate them, do you?’ Françoise asks at last. ‘You don’t hate the Germans, not like we do.’

‘Why should I hate them?’

‘You should hate them for what they did,’ she says. ‘For who they are. For what they will become.’
Jack pushes back his cap and scratches his head. ‘I can’t… I don’t hate anybody.’

‘But they would have killed you, Jacques! They killed your friends. These men you dig up every day and bury…’

‘It were war, lass.’ Even though it is all that Jack can think to say, he knows it’s not much of an answer. 

Françoise stops, hands by her side, and looks at him. But she isn’t smiling. ‘Was it was war when our women and children were raped and killed in 1914? Was it war when the Germans shot unarmed men simply because they were Belgians in their own country, living their lives peacefully as they had always wanted to?’

‘Aye, well...’

But she is angry now and in no mood for ‘aye, well’ anymore. Jack turns away. Again the tattered music hall bills catch his eye. He wonders why he’s never noticed them before. And alongside the gay variety notices there are others - a picture of a plump, apron-wearing artisan holding a brimming mug of Vermeulen beer in front of the ruined campanile - demandez les Bieres de la Brasseries… Vraagt de Bieren der Brouwerij, the slogan reads. Jack brings the mug he’s holding to his lips. 

‘Maybe it was ‘war’ to you,’ Françoise is saying, watching him, watching his eyes over the rim of his tankard.

Remember Belgium - Enlist Today! Another slogan. And below the call to action is a smart Tommy standing to attention. Remember Scarborough! That is the recruiting poster Jack sees when he shuts his eyes. He remembers the bombardment, too - remembers the ripple of fear that had spread through the village at the thought that the Germans were poised for an invasion. Here, that fear was a reality. No wonder they - no wonder she - feels such hostility. He can see it clearly in the figure of a blond-haired girl being dragged away by a thick set, square-jawed, Pickelhauber-ed Hun and in the angry fires of the burning Belgian city whose red flames turn the figures into silhouettes.

‘You had a gun,’ she says following his gaze. ‘But what about the poor civilians of Andanne and Seilles, Tamines and Dinant?’

‘Aye, well…’ He sighs.

‘Aye well, you say. Aye well, aye well. It is easy for you to say. That is all you ever say - aye, well. Well I will tell you something. On August 25th 1914 at Louvain, the German army set fire to the town, destroying the medieval library and all its ancient books, killing hundreds of innocent people and forcing thousands - almost the whole population of the town - to leave their homes. And for what? There were no franc-tireurs there. It was a seat of learning, a place of art and culture and the Germans looted and destroyed it all.’

‘Franc - what, love?’

‘Franc-tireurs. Those suspected of resisting the enemy.’

‘And did they?’

‘Did they what?’ she asks, tears now welling in her dark eyes.

‘Did they resist the enemy?’

She looks at him. A cold, hard look. A mixture of hostility and guilt. ‘What do you think?’ she replies.

Ypres, at the time, was little more than a cross between a building site and a refugee camp. Comforts were few and far between but the beer was flowing and some of the first buildings to be constructed on the ruins of the city were estaminets - cafes, bars, brasseries - where both locals and Allied troops could relax and eat and drink. Not that they'd have been drinking Stella. Not for a few more years, at any rate.

So they'd have missed out on that deliciously hoppy aroma with a hint of fruitiness and clean bitterness  balanced with the malt flavour  - the high quality 'assured through a superior brewing process and by using the finest ingredients available.'

But I'm not. I'm raising a glass (and a rather nice Stella Chalice it is, too) to the men who served their King and Country first with a rifle, then with a shovel.

They deserve it.

Cheers! Or as Jack might have said, Op uw gezondheid!

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