On Stella Artois, the English Beat and a Unique Bottle of Lambic

(Fair dues: This post was inspired by this post. Cheers, Adrian.)

Many years ago, when I was a much younger man, I had the good fortune to see a band called the English Beat play a show in Toronto. It was in a venue slightly larger than a club, yet far, far smaller than an arena, and the band was in top form. The night previous I had seen a double bill of Jimmy Cliff and Peter Tosh, so I knew going in that it would take a lot to top my just-past experience. The Beat did, performing balls-to-the-wall, no-holds-barred ska for at least two solid, non-stop hours. Underneath my heavy coat — it was winter in Toronto — I was sweating buckets, but I didn’t care. I was wrapped up in the moment, the experience of seeing a top band performing in their prime with all cylinders firing.

Many years after that, I paid my first visit to Cantillon, the famed lambic brewery in the dodgy area of Brussels near the Gare de Midi. Jean-Pierre was still then very much the man in charge — he’s since handed the reins to his highly talented and capable son, Jean — and his enthusiasm for lambic in general and Cantillon in particular was infectious. I had enjoyed and appreciated Cantillon before I attended the brewery, but I understood it after that visit, which, by the way, started as a planned hour or two and turned into a full day talking and tasting. Towards the end, Jean-Pierre opened a bottle of a beer called St. Lamvinus, which he would only refer to as “the product” because he felt it was as much a wine as a lambic. “The product” was at that point seven years old, lambic refermented with a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot grapes, all grown in the Saint-Emillion district of Bordeaux. It was spectacular.

The English Beat are still playing and touring, and St. Lamvinus has been made again since that extraordinary first batch. But just as I’ve seen the band since and thought them fun and tremendously entertaining, though not quite the equal of that fateful show, the St. Lamvinus I shared with a friend this past weekend was spectacular in and of itself, but not quite the St. Lamvinus of the late 1990’s. The grapes have changed, for one — the bottle I had recently was pure Cabernet Sauvignon — and the experience was contextually very different.

My point being that there are certain experiences, a concert or a bottle of limited edition beer, that are meant to be fleeting, and are all the better for it. The joy is in sensing at the time that something special is occurring, and knowing it in your bones once it is done. Its lesson is that the key in life is not grasping for what is past, but searching for equivalents to be found in the present, whether a new, up-and-coming band or a remarkable brew.

As for the Stella reference in the title of this post, I mention it simply as contrast, since that beer is quite unlikely to ever provide such a memorable, compelling experience, and neither is any of its modern, mass-market peers. Sure, there may be memorable occasions in which Stella might play a role, but the odds of such a relatively benign, ubiquitous and frankly unmemorable beer actually creating the experience, as did the Beat and St. Lamvinus, are very small indeed.

2 Replies to “On Stella Artois, the English Beat and a Unique Bottle of Lambic”

  1. Love The Beat. Can’t wait for new material! I saw Dave Wakeling with a very good back-up band at the Marquee in Halifax around 10 yrs ago. Fantastic. Love to see the original line-up. My favourite summer music…

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