For the longest time, I harboured an aversion to cherry-flavoured brews. It all started about twenty years ago, when I was 16 or 17, and was triggered by a single sip of a kriek lambic, or some failed attempt to reproduce this unique Belgian style. I vaguely recall being blindsided by a surge of artificial sweetness, which I invariably associated with femininity. At that stage of my life, this was reason enough to denounce kriek (or whatever it was…) for good. It was a girly drink and thus wholly incompatible with my image-obsessed, testosterone-possessed disposition. Back in those days, when I was young and knew everything, I had appearances to keep up.
Since then, I have been proven wrong too many times to cling on to such nonsensical, Procrustean convictions. For instance, I no longer consider Grolsch to be the embodiment of brewing perfection and have learned to appreciate bock beer, tripels, and quadrupels, as well as countless other notions and sensations my all-knowing adolescent self would have eschewed. While time may be the subtle thief of youth, it is also the wisest counsellor of all. That is why I recently picked up a four pack of Cherry Chouffe on one of my weekly supermarket runs.
I should start off by clarifying that Cherry Chouffe is not a kriek lambic ˗ commonly referred to simply as ‘kriek’ ˗ in the conventional sense of the term. Traditionally speaking, kriek is brewed in and around Brussels by adding a rare variety of sour cherries (pits and all…) called Schaarbeekse krieken to lambic, a sour and dry beer that is fermented spontaneously with airborne yeast said to be native to the Belgian capital. The cherries are left to soak for a period of several months, allowing for the refermentation of the additional sugars they contain. A further maturation process takes place after the cherries are removed and, if done right, the sugar-free end product will have a fruity flavour without any hints of sweetness. In other words, it should taste nothing like I remember.
However, due to the growing scarcity of the preferred Schaarbeek cherries, certain brewers have taken to using other (sometimes imported) varieties, or even cherry juice, as a replacement. The application of juice rather than whole cherries not only shortens the required maturation process considerably, it often brings about a sweeter, less intense kriek capable of appealing to a wider audience. Some breweries have also started making kriek with a base of Flanders brown beer instead of lambic. The Cherry Chouffe leans somewhat towards the latter category.
The Achouffe Brewery celebrates the 40th anniversary of the production of its inaugural, forty-nine litre batch this year. Founded by two brothers-in-law in a garage somewhere in the heart of the Ardennes, in an area known as the Vallée des Fées (Valley of the Fairies) near the village of Achouffe, the venture remained an innocent hobby until 1986 but quickly picked up speed from then on. Part of the reason this little endeavour gained so much traction in a country already blessed with such a rich brewing tradition is purely down to good branding.
For starters, the founders of the Achouffe Brewery decided to name their beer Chouffe, which doesn’t mean anything, but is easy to pronounce and hard to forget. Apparently, a former colleague of one of the brewers suggested the name “Oumpf!” and the idea of using a catchy, almost comical expression was born.
On top of that, both brewers understood the importance of having a story and communicating it with verve. Back then, Belgian brewers were more prone to associate themselves with images of stately abbeys and portly monks even when there were no religious origins to speak of. When it came to the presentation of their own product, the brothers-in-law chose a completely different approach.
Less than a month after that inaugural batch was brewed in 1982, a freak tornado caused extensive material damage to the village of Léglise, located some 40 kilometres south of the Valley of the Fairies. Whilst watching a televised charity event in which paintings by local artists were being auctioned to raise restoration funds, one of the brothers-in-law had an epiphany when he spotted a watercolour depicting a gnome spying on a farmhouse through long blades of grass. That moment of inspiration would lead to the introduction of Marcel the following year. This intrepid dwarf, often depicted riding a unicycle (with which he expertly manoeuvres around the Achouffe brewing equipment…), is the talisman of the brewery’s maiden achievement ˗ La Chouffe.
A strong blonde with an ABV of 8%, La Chouffe’s mild hoppy nature and fruity undertone, laced with notes of fresh coriander, became an overnight local success that swiftly conquered the hearts of beer lovers nationwide. Marcel took it from there, setting off on the back of a goose to spread the gospel and share the goodness in foreign lands. The story of the beer and legends of the magical creatures that inhabited the sequestered valley where it was brewed became one and the same. I have tried La Chouffe on several occasions and must admit that I am not a huge fan but the sight of Marcel on his unicycle always puts a smile on my face. This is probably why I never hesitate to try other brews from the Chouffe selection when I get the chance.
From what I can gather, at some point during the late 80s or early 90s, the brewery was visited by a Scotsman who probably had some brewing experience and almost certainly got along with the brothers-in-law like a house on fire. It would appear that this Scotsman stayed a while, long enough to contribute to the concoction of a brown ale worthy of his native soil ˗ the Mc Chouffe.
Regardless of whether there is any truth to the story, the legend of Malcolm came into life. A temperamental, kilt-donning dwarf who left the Highlands to join the Achouffe team, Malcolm dedicates his days to championing the Mc Chouffe. When he is not attempting to toss the caber or dunking his beard into this sweet dark brew with hints of anise, liquorice and caramel, that is!
As the brewery expanded its range of beers, the family of gnomes grew. Matthew was next to turn up, together with the triple hop Houblon Chouffe, which I have yet to sample but sounds like it’s right up my street. And then came along Micheline, the matron of the family and designated spokesperson for the Cherry Chouffe. With the help of Marcel and a flock of titmice, she has taken care of the annual cherry harvest for as long as the fabled inhabitants of the valley can remember.
One fine summer day, under the weight of said harvest, the floor of the loft above the brewery in which the cherries had been stored gave way, causing the lot of them to fall right into a batch of Mc Chouffe that was being prepared. The whole incident was deftly covered up and, perplexed yet pleasantly surprised by its radiant, ruby red glow and fruity taste, the Master brewers decided to bottle the batch all the same.
The Cherry Chouffe is a soft, round-bodied little number whose ABV of 8% is exceptionally well-disguised. The strawberry and sweet Port tones that swivel through the abundance of cherry juice flavour provide an exotic touch, and its slightly bitter finish is most satisfactory. Not bad for a girly drink! When I was down to the last bottle of my four pack, I noticed another interesting feature of the Cherry Chouffe that may seem unremarkable but is actually a bit of an anomaly ˗ Micheline.
The Achouffe Brewery had created (or commissioned, depending on how seriously you take the legends of the valley…) a female to personify one of their beers and, after giving it some thought, I struggled to name so much as a handful of others brewers who have done the same. As I would soon find out, that long-held notion connecting the art of brewing with masculine ingenuity was just another fallacy of mine waiting to be subtly snatched away by the grace of time.
Not too long after I had eagerly drained that last bottle of Cherry Chouffe, my sister mentioned that she was reading a book with an opening chapter dedicated to describing beer brewing techniques in ancient times. Knowing all too well that this would interest me, she offered to scan the relevant pages and send them my way, for which she deserves a special shout out: Thanks, Helen! The book is titled “Girly Drinks: A World History of Women and Alcohol” and was written by Mallory O’Meara. If the first twenty pages are anything to go by, it is definitely worthwhile reading from front to back.
Ms. O’Meara starts off by discussing the Drunken Monkey Hypothesis, a theory originally posited by Dr. Robert Dudley of the University of California, Berkeley, which proposes that human attraction to alcohol could very well have originated with our “more hirsute forebears” and their dependence on overripe fruit as a food source. Due to the high levels of sugar contained by these decaying fruits, fermentation occurs naturally when the yeasts that feast on their natural sugars leave behind traces of ethanol, the chemical backbone for the type of alcohol we drink. Ethanol has a high calorie content, making the fruits extremely efficient sustenance.
Furthermore, overripe fruits are readily available at surface level, underneath trees and bushes, and thus easy pickings for the less skilled climbers among primates. What this essentially boils down to is more calories with less work. It simultaneously implies that there was a significant evolutionary advantage to being attracted to ethanol before any of our ancestors were aware of its possible psychoactive effects if ingested in much larger quantities.
The earliest evidence of the deliberate preparation of alcoholic beverages can be traced back to circa 8000 BC. Once humans had abandoned their nomadic ways and taken up agriculture, they finally had access to the necessary materials ˗ such as containers in which honey, fruit, or grains could be mixed with water ˗ that allowed them to intentionally make alcohol. Of equal importance is that they now had the time to let these mixtures ferment. Chemical analysis of residues found in pottery uncovered from a grave in Northern China has revealed that humans were already converting some of their food to alcohol during this era.
Humans first started growing crops with the intention of turning them into alcohol in Mesopotamia, in the area situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, known today as the Fertile Crescent. In many aspects of Mesopotamian life, women enjoyed fairly equal status to men. In the words of Ms. O’Meara, the industry where women ruled, though, was brewing. They were in control of the production and distribution of both beer and wine, two very important goods.
Mesopotamian civilisation and culture developed most rapidly in Sumer, the region located at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in modern-day Iraq. Writing, art, and brewing all blossomed there between roughly 4500 BC and 1900 BC. There is even evidence to suggest that the written word was contrived to quantify and record the beer brewing process.
Similar to the dietary habits mentioned in a previous chronicle that briefly touches on everyday life in the sphere of the Hanseatic League over a thousand years later, the beer brewed in Sumer (known as kash) had a lower alcohol content than its current equivalents and was considered a staple foodstuff for men, women, and children alike. Kash was a rather nourishing drink, high in calories and carbohydrates with small amounts of vitamins and minerals to boot, and was therefore in high demand.
It was also praised for its painkilling, relaxing, and euphoric effects to the extent that the “elderly” ˗ anybody aged 40 and above in those days ˗ were encouraged to drink it. In order to make sure that nobody was left wanting, the women of Sumer were capable of making at least eight different brews from barley, eight from wheat, and three more from a blend of grains. All that hard labour resulted in the brewing industry becoming one of the pillars of many a local economy and a much sought after product along interregional trade routes.
Goddesses of Beer
Ms. O’Meara goes on to explain that, beside the biological benefits associated with alcohol, its universal allure included religious and social imperatives as well. Surviving artefacts show that beer was not only ubiquitous in everyday life, it was also a key religious offering. In the ancient world, the consumption of alcohol became the principal manner to communicate with deities and spirits of all sorts. The Sumerians even had their own goddess of beer called Ninkasi, which translates to “The lady who fills the mouth”.
According to customary belief, beer was imbued with her spirit and the elated buzz it released was thought to be Ninkasi’s essence. Since beer was considered to be her gift to humanity, it was brewed in temples as part of religious ceremonies. The first large-scale brewers in Sumer were actually the priestesses of Ninkasi and the common women that assisted them were paid in beer, about two litres per day.
Ninkasi’s most important legacy is, arguably, a hymn sung in her honour by the women preparing a fresh batch of beer that is simultaneously a detailed guide for each stage of the brewing process. As most Mesopotamians were illiterate, a catchy song was the best method for remembering and sharing a tasty recipe.
In addition to brewing and drinking beer, women were also serving it. Sumerian taverns were female-owned and -operated, and this specific cultural feature helped enforce the trend, if not the idea, that hospitality is a (predominantly) feminine trade to this very day.
During roughly the same time period, Ninkasi had a sister-in-spirit named Hathor over in ancient Egypt. Lovingly referred to as “The Drunken Goddess”, Hathor concerned herself with a wide array of matters related to the sky, women, fertility, love, and drinking. She was paid tribute in an annual festival called “The Drunkenness of Hathor” which took place every time the Nile began to flood its banks.
The celebration revolved around a myth that Hathor had once gone on a rampage to destroy all of humanity in one of her alternative forms, the lioness-goddess Sekmet. As the story goes, the sun god Ra had distracted her by flooding the fields with red beer so that they came to resemble an enticing pool of blood. Hathor/Sekmet drank the lot of it, and in her contented, drunken state, completely forgot about her mission.
Brewing was a sacred activity in ancient Egypt too, a divine secret imparted by the goddess Isis. While the upper classes preferred wine, which was harder to acquire and thus more costly than beer, the masses were resigned to filling their tummies with a kash-like brew called hek. It was initially brewed by women in their homes but, much like in Mesopotamia, the nutritious concoction became a diet staple that required large-scale production.
The ruins of the oldest known brewery in the world, believed to be operational around 3400 BC, can be found in Egypt. Up to 1150 litres of 5% ABV hek was brewed there on a daily basis and the work was mainly done by women who received daily rations of five litres for their efforts. They were sporadically assisted by enslaved men, but only when necessary.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward (Down inna Babylon)
For centuries, entire communities participated in festivals dedicated to Ninkasi and Hathor. The celebrations went on for two or three weeks at a time; “there was music and feasting, dancing and plays, orgies and lots and lots of drinking.” This all changed when a Babylonian king called Hammurabi succeeded in conquering and uniting the whole of Mesopotamia.
Somewhere around 1754 BC Hammurabi came up with a code comprised of 282 regulations concerning commercial interactions and punishments for various crimes, just to name a few. The code was allegedly chiselled into a giant slab of rock shaped like a humongous penis and literally set in stone that, in the eyes of the law, women were the possessions of either their fathers or husbands. As their status declined and their liberties waned, women lost control over the brewing industry.
Ms. O’Meara concludes that, in Hammurabi Mesopotamia, a drinking woman was portrayed as bad and disreputable. Gendered disapproval of drunkenness had not existed up until that point; all of a sudden, there was a moral stigma attached to women drinking. Those who had previously been responsible for the production of beer were no longer allowed to make or taste it.
While the code did forbid arbitrary ill-treatment of women, it sanctioned punishments that were deemed deserved. The justice system, built on the concept of an eye for an eye, could be savagely brutal. One of the 282 laws actually dictated that if a priestess entered a tavern to drink, she could be burned to death. With the passing of generations, people stopped knowing any better than to judge women as inferior to men, or simply refused to.
It is clear that times have changed, and will continue to do so, when it comes to levels of equality in gender relations. In a growing number of communities worldwide, that is; the ones where nobody has time for little Hammurabi’s and their outdated code any more. Thankfully, my community falls into that category. When it comes to beer, women are at liberty to drink as much as they like if and when they want without being frowned upon (depending on the circumstances, obviously, but you get my point…), and the number of female brewers is on the rise again. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, we will come to hear of a brewery that has risked dedicating a whole range of extraordinary brews to the likes of Ninkasi and Hathor instead of monks and gnomes.
Not that I have anything against monks and gnomes, nor is it my intention to criticise the Achouffe Brewery for failing to get Micheline involved sooner. All I am saying is that I would welcome a greater influx of feminine icons among the bottles and cans in the beer section of my local supermarket. And when the time comes, I will not raise so much as an eyebrow knowing fully well that, from the very beginning of its long and illustrious history, beer was a girl thing anyway. Now that I am able to admit I still have a lot to learn, I will let my palate pass judgement.