(I missed the last few Sessions due to travel and exhaustion and illness, but I’m back! This month’s topic is “My First Belgian” hosted by Breandán and Elisa over at Belgian Smaak.)
Occasionally, the many moving parts of my writing life line up in a perfect row, like some rare celestial event where arcane energies mingle and a portal to other worlds opens very briefly. As the Session falls on a day I had other writing plans, I can feel the gears of my mind click and sync, suddenly whirring together as one as the clutch reengages. I typically write “Forgotten Friday” posts about places and items that have been lost in plain sight, but today, I’m using the literal definition of my favorite nostalgic infinitive: “to forget.”
This month’s topic asks me to recall the first Belgian beer I ever managed to sneak down my gullet. The problem is, no matter how far I stretch my brain, how many stories I pull from the depths of my hippocampus, how many bottles and labels I recall on the selves of the dozens of fridges of my life, I cannot remember my first Belgian beer. I can remember the first beer; it was a Boddingtons Pub Ale, at the dinner table with my parents, around 7th grade. Although, photo evidence says I probably drank a bit earlier than that (thanks, Dad), that’s my first fermented memory, the first time I remember drinking beer.
I also remember thinking it tasted like bitter instant oatmeal that someone had added way too much water to, followed by a quick internal question, “why would anyone want to drink this stuff?”
If I had to guess, my first was probably one of the big boy Belgian beers: Duvel, Hoegaarden, maybe even a stray bottle of Delirium Tremens left to age in the back of our family fridge after a party. It’s possible, in all its wasted decadence, that my first Belgian was Trappist; my mom would often keep a bottle of Chimay Red on hand during the holiday season, for reasons I don’t quite understand, because neither she nor my dad drank it. But I cant’ say for sure. It’s a black void in my mental vault, one of those things I never built a place for in my memory palace, that will probably be forever lost in the deep dark ocean of my memories.
I’ll confess; I probably don’t remember because I’ve never taken to Belgian beer. I’ve homebrewed it, tried countless styles and brands, forced my tongue into a steel-cage death match with funky fermentation, hoping to one day emerge bloody but victorious, the Champion of Brussels. While I’ve gotten in a few good punches, I’m still likely to brace myself before taking a sip of saison, clench my jaw when quaffing a quad. I appreciate the artistry and heritage of many Belgian breweries, but something in the bready unmistakable yeast character of Belgian beer is antithetical to what my taste buds want.
While that may seem tragic (and trust me, for years I was convinced there was a fundamental flaw in my mouth), it has allowed me to finally accept a reality a lot of modern beer enthusiasts forget, try to dance around to avoid appearing unlearned or inexperienced: it’s OK to not like a certain style of beer. It’s OK to not like super hoppy, high ABV imperial IPAs. It’s OK if you find the salty sour of a gose a bit too much for your particular preferences. It’s OK to say, “I have tried this, and it is not for me.”
The only thing you’re obligated to do is appreciate that someone else, somewhere, probably does like that style. Maybe likes it so much they’re known to throw “favorite” in front of it whenever it comes up in conversation. You don’t have to like a beer, but always keep in mind: your not liking it doesn’t make it bad. Subjective bad and objective bad are wildly different beasts. If you’re into beer enough to have opinions (and don’t just enjoy it as a drink), it’s on you to be able to acknowledge when a beer is well made but not to your tastes, verses poorly made, and not up to the quality standards of excellent beer.
Memory is tied to taste, and I was hoping that sipping on some Belgian beer would cause a chemical cascade of mnemonic flashes. But it didn’t. It just reminded me of all the ways I’ve tried to force myself to like a style because of faux cultural pressure and personally manufactured expectation, and how, when looking at it in hindsight, that seems like a very silly thing.