Lately, when I find that the noise in my head has gotten a little too loud, I retreat to a corner of the website for a Belgian brewery called De Proefbrouwerij. I like looking at that clean, white machine, those blue, digital readouts: Something sanitary is being done here, something beyond the sweaty reach of human error. Buttons? We have several. Other brewer’s websites may tell you charming stories about who they are and where they came from, accompanied by pictures of the people behind the beer posed in T-shirts and dungarees. Not so with De Proef, whose website is mostly pictures of steel cisterns and the occasional flowchart thrown in for color—a calming display that permits me the delusion that beer has some curative, almost medicinal quality, which I think has been out of vogue in the doctoring community for about a hundred years.
If you dabble in the world of progressive European beer, you’ve probably already heard of this De Proef place, which is not only a brewery in the authorial sense of the word but a facility where other brewers can come and see their recipes to fruition, too—an endeavor that combines the American ideal of doing things yourself with the European one of communal access. (Danish brewery Mikkeller brews there, as does To Øl, along with a host of even more culty enterprises.) At the helm of this operation is a man named Dirk, and from all I have read, Dirk does not give tours.
One of my favorite beer experiences of the last several months has been a De Proef house project called Reinaert, which Beeradvocate classifies as a Belgian Strong Ale and Ratebeer refers to as a Sour/Wild. I don’t think much of the conflation of “sour” and “wild,” which seem about as related to me as scissors and butcher knives. One connotes tartness; the other almost always connotes that elusive, so-called “funky” quality leant by the wild yeast brettanomyces, which transports me to worlds of old leather and the armpits of loved ones. From a consumer standpoint, I’ll venture to say that if you buy Reinaert looking for a sour, you’ll be disappointed, and if you buy it looking for a straight Belgian pale, you’ll be creeped out.
The first time I bought it, I was rung up by a young man named Don, who often rings me up when I buy beer. The label has a simple, crest-like design cast in butterscotch and pale yellow. It reminds me of a steak lodge in Virginia horse country where tradition runs so deep they no longer have to advertise it.
“Oooh,” Don whispered as I handed him the bottle. “The fox.”
“I don’t need a bag,” I said.
This was November, a good time of year to be in Tucson, Ariz. That evening I opened the bottle and poured it into one of those tulip glasses. It has a deep, cloudy orange color with pretty persistent carbonation. I could spend full minutes smelling this beer, which hits that bewitching vector of fruity, musty, and faintly gross that I associate with brett beers I like. There’s a little sweetness in the taste of it, but it’s so instantly tempered by earthier flavors I almost hesitate to mention it, and the finish feels dry, almost sharp. It also doesn’t leave my lips sticky, which is a highly unscientific metric, but I leave the science to De Proef. And at 9-percent ABV, you’d never know it.
(A relevant aside, while I’m thinking about it: I don’t think it’s any more inherently noble for a beer to “hide its alcohol” than it is to say an alcoholic does. Occasionally I like the hot, vulgar approach of a 15-percent-ABV imperial stout, or more often, of a barleywine whose opening sips hold the premonition of some fuzzy near-future in which I am washing the dishes and listening to Willie Nelson and telling my wife obvious truths about our lives in the soft, awestruck tones of revelation. When I drink, it’s at least in part because I want to soften my focus a little, and am suspicious of beers whose alcohol seems too-hidden in the same way I am suspicious of people who can pickpocket a wallet without detection, or of magicians in general.)
Halfway through my first bottle of Reinaert, my cat came into my office and began meowing—usually a sign that he wants attention he somehow feels he hasn’t yet been given. I swiveled toward him. He was standing in the doorway. He meowed again. I swiveled away. Hush, I thought. I want to savor this armpit in peace. I have done this several times since, gauging the variegations of the wild yeast, sometimes while staring at the De Proef website and sometimes just staring at an empty sidewalk, and have always been glad.
Mike Powell (@sternlunch) lives in Tucson, Ariz. He has written for Pitchfork, Grantland, Rolling Stone, the LA Review of Books, and other places.
Art by Sam Woolley.