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Other Letters From America
Darren interviews Tim Webb
I was ready to visit Belgium recently, and obtained a
copy of Tim Webb's Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland (4th Ed.).
Having relied on his 3 previous Guides so much, I had always wondered what type
of person he was, what drove him to do it and a few other things. So after
plucking up courage, I sent him an e-mail and asked. And he answered !!
Some of the answers may surprise you, they surprised
me (Q13). But a true Beer Drinker nonetheless.
Webb.: Questions re- GBG2B&H (4th Ed.)
When, Where and how did you get interested in Belgian
(and Dutch) Beers?
A: 1977 in Amsterdam, walking
down Spuistraat and catching the café sign for the Gollem Bar out of the corner
of my eye. A tall (skinny in them
days) barman with a moustache, called Henk Eggens (the barman that is, not the
moustache) spent the next two hours guiding me through an array of styles of
beers to elevated intoxication. He
went on to own and run In de Wildeman in Amsterdam, one of Europe’s finest
So what made you want to write a Guide about them? Was
it Hard Work?
A: I was a founder of
CAMRA’s first publishing company, Alma Books, and we commissioned a book on
the subject from one of our writers. We
liked the end product so much that I took it on personally and just four years
later rthe first edition appeared (in 1992).
And yes it is hard work, though the internet and e-mailing makes it less
What previous journalistic experience did you have, and was it of any help?
none, though I have written several pub guides and a few other things.
When in a Bar in Belgium, our status as “foreign punters” is often immediately elevated to “serious beer drinkers”, sometimes coupled with a little preferential treatment when Staff/Owners spy a copy of the latest Tim Webb Guide in our hands. How does this make you feel, Proud?
A: No, terrified.
is a serious point here. Britain
and the US have quite a tradition of vocal consumers who know their stuff.
Continental Europe has not really had that – though that is not to say
that there aren’t some top rate beer loving writers and consumer champions out
there. To be taken seriously by café
and brewery owners comes with responsibilities – not least, in my view, the
responsibility never to sell out to commercial pressures.
I understand that you have little overall financial
gain from your Guides. What drives you to continually produce updated versions
at great personal expense when you could easily call it a day with no more
I have to have something to do at weekends.
I have no objection to making money from writing but I am more concerned
to do something that stops the dumbing down of the beverage I happen to like –
beer – and the sort of places I like to drink it – unique and characterful
bars. With me it is almost a
political thing, that I can’t stand watching drab and dreary products passed
off as top rate and sold for as much as gullible punters will part with. I find it morally wrong, though I accept it is the way we do
business today and that I (and others like me) will probably lose the battle in
What are your Favourite 5 Belgian/Dutch Beer Styles and your 3 favourite examples of each of these?
A: I don’t think of it that way, but …….
is a delightful drink and the various products of Drie Fonteinen and Cantillon
are world classic drinks in any category. Ditto
Girardin’s black label gueuze and Lindemans Cuvee Renee.
The recently (last week) deceased Oud Beersel brews were pretty good, as
are Hanssens and the new blender De Cam. The
exquisitely and stupidly rare oud gueuze from De Keersmaeker, makers of the more
mainstream Mort Subite brands, is also excellent.
I like the cherried and raspberried versions of these traditional lambic-based drinks too. Sadly, they are all too often sweetened and commercialised, thus losing their style in my view.
Of the rest, I
think there are excellent brands in most styles. I have catholic tastes.
You must have met many Belgium/Dutch Brewers/Blenders
over the years, name the 5 that made the greatest impression on you.
No I haven’t. I work on
the principle that this is a book written for consumers, which should give
consumers information about what they are going to get.
Sometimes it helps to know what the brewer thinks but often it gets in
the way. All brewers are salesmen
actors to lesser or greater extents. Some
I like a lot but don’t like their beers, others are surly bastards but brew
brilliantly. It’s too confusing.
Let the beer speak for itself. But
I do like Armand de Belder of Drie Fonteinen, a gentleman, a passionate thinker
and a great brewer too.
What are your favourite 5 Bars in Belgium/Holland for beer range, and your 5 favourite Bars simply for alternate style, uniqueness, and/or atmosphere.
Impossible to say. We re
going to give prizes to the best this time round but there are too many. Deliberately ignoring the famous ones in well-visited places,
the best I have found off the beaten track are the Kroegske in Emelgem and De
Torre in De Haan (West Flanders), De Gans in Huise and the Gulzigen Bok in
Vurste (East Flanders), the … no,
you have to buy the book.. My
favourite house brewery is the Oudaen in Utrecht (Netherlands).
I, like many, see your Guide as complimentary to
others. Out of interest, have you ever met Simon Van Tromp, John Woods &
Keith Rigley, Stephen D’Arcy, and erm… some geezer called Michael Jackson.
When you do, who buys the beers?
I don’t know John Woods. The rest
I know. There is no sense of
rivalry. We assist each other by
ruthlessly plagiarising each other’s stuff the second it comes off the
presses. Michael has the advantage
over the rest of us because he can write.
What was the most strange, or surreal thing, that ever
happened to you during your many years of beer hunting and reviewing in
Belgium/Holland (and Luxembourg??).
A: Arriving at a
wake in the Ardennes at a pub 10km from anywhere in dense fog.
The deceased was present in spirit and his enlarged photograph was over
the proceedings. Everyone was in
great good humour, so they switched on the (full-size) 10-pin bowling alley that
was miraculous slotted in alongside the bar, the gap so thin that half way down
the alley was only about 10 inches wide. “If
the ball does not get through the thin bit it would have missed anyway.” they
Reading your Guide I know you are truly independent, but do you ever get offered free beers??
Yes, but I travel anonymously. I
only get recognised in cafes that know me already and are old friends.
Elsewhere, I only say who I am if I want to let them know how impressed I
am by their place or occasionally when I want to put an end to some particularly
obtuse piece of bullshit.
A very intimate one this, have you ever been so
carried away with the consumption of beers that your planned review of a Bar/s
and/or Brewery was forgotten, or you were unable to decipher your notes the next
day. Did you ever have to revisit? Any specific/humorous instances that you care
I plead the fifth. Save to say that I carry a dictating machine with me and
scrub the tapes once I have put their contents onto the computer.
Sober me can generally still get the drift of what I was trying to say.
A Personal question for me. I fell in love and dearly
admired traditional lambic beers (and their producers) ever since my first visit
to Belgium in 1994. I had the greatest honour to visit De Cam (and sincerest
pleasure to meet the blender Karel Goddeau) earlier this year as well as the
inspirational Armand DeBelder some years earlier. Amidst many International
takeovers and mergers, do you think that these fine upstanding Ambassadors for
this most unique of world beer styles are enough, or do you fear for the
survival of traditional lambics and Gueuze? Will they survive in their proper
form do you think? And what are you own thoughts about “lambic style” beers
made outside of Belgium (witness USA).
A: Controversial answer. Despite the excellent efforts of Armand De Belder, Jean
Pierre Van Roy and others, I do not trust the Belgian bierarchy to allow the
survival of traditional lambic. Belle
Vue and Mort Subite are too much part of the plan to allow something as
dangerously attractive as Drie Fonteinen to survive.
Also I do not trust the average Belgian beer drinker (as opposed to beer
lover) to learn to pay enough to cover the real manufacturing costs.
So I think an enterprising American brewer had better get good at it
soon. However, the investment costs
to do it properly would be massive.
Finally Tim, I would like to thank you for saving me,
and others, a lot of wasted time searching for bars, for introducing me to many
“out-of-the-way” establishments (the Gans at Huise) that I would have never
of found, and for a truly high quality reference publication, the likes of which
has not been bettered. Cheers!
Thank You for sparing your valuable time to
answer these questions.
In case anyone is interested in buying a copy of this GBG2B&H Book, it can
bought from CAMRA, Good Book Shops and on-line at the following address;
back to Wakefield CAMRA Homepage