Granted, many of you have read portions of this essay, as published here and there over the years. Any good story worth telling the first time is fair game for retelling -- and so it goes with my remembrance of this greatly influential establishment.
As is my habit, I’ve touched up some of the passages, but have not altered anything of substance.
In my view, the “craft” modifier for better beer has outlived its usefulness, at least without an earnest industry-wide bout of introspection as to what the art of “craft” might actually mean when (and if) it is practiced.
Until then, I’ll begin with an anecdote. If my luck holds, I may end with it, too.
In October of 1995, when the Public House was only three years old, I departed the comfortable confines for a ten-day tour of European beer destinations, including Dusseldorf, Cologne and Belgium. There also was a brief two-day side trip by train to Copenhagen to visit my friends there. My friends David Pierce, John Dennis and Ron Downer accompanied me.
Much beer was consumed, though you probably already guessed as much.
Our first great thrill was accidentally stumbling into Dusseldorf on "Sticke" day, when the brewpub Zum Uerige rolls out a special, beefier version of its elegant everyday ale. Sticke happens only at random intervals, and we felt fortunate to experience such goodness by chance, in the primeval absence of social media to guide the proceedings.
These days, everyone would know. Serendipity has been outlawed, and that’s too bad.
The next morning, we set out for Belgium, allowing for a few hours of fast-paced Kölsch consumption in Cologne. A change of trains was necessary at Liege, and so we made for the station buffet to have an inaugural beer. There were 35 choices on the menu, which by Belgian standards was elemental, but they spanned the gamut of the brewer’s art.
At the time, I wrote:
“In America, you also have a choice: Bud or Bud Light. That is, if you can find a train station.”
Namur, located in the Meuse river valley in southeastern Belgium, was the ultimate target. It is a scenic city with an old citadel perched on a hill, and our first move after settling into our lodgings was to consult Tim Webb’s seminal Good Beer Guide to Belgium and Holland (nowadays, just Belgium) for the address of L’ Eblouissant (The Dazzling), a beer café featured in the Namur section, and highly praised by the author.
It was the sole reason we chose Namur in the first place.
Equipped with a sketchy city map and gestures from the desk clerk, we began walking. Upon arrival, it became evident that while a drinking establishment was doing business at this address, it was not The Dazzling.
Because the friendly bartender was kind enough to explain the situation and to give us directions to the café’s new location across town, we ordered a round of Duvel, tipping him handsomely prior to resuming the hike.
Even then, we almost missed The Dazzling. There was no sign apart from a back-lit Murphy’s Stout oval, adorning an accurate facsimile of an Irish pub front. We stepped inside, only to find the pub officially closed to make room for at least two dozen Namur locals gathered there to celebrate their recent return from a tour of Sri Lanka.
At this juncture, our first acquaintance was made with the Belgo-Irish force of nature known as Alain Mossiat, to be forever known as “Moss the Boss.” Moss welcomed us, albeit a bit warily at first. His resistance began to crumble when it became evident that our beer pilgrim credentials were exemplary, and so an impromptu compromise was reached.
He’d be very busy with the group, but we could occupy an improvised table in the rear storage area. He’d serve us when he could, and there was enough Spaghetti Bolognese on hand for us to have some dinner, too.
Moss proceeded to both cook and serve food and beers to the thirty of us, operating from a closet-sized kitchen with an ordinary home stove. His son, perhaps a 7th-grader by American standards, was positioned atop a beer crate behind the bar, pouring nitro Murphy’s all night long for the native revelers.
The stout was Moss’s nod to his Irish side, and besides, no other bar in Namur had such a beer on tap in 1995. However, cash flow aside, Moss’s pride and joy was a comprehensive list of bottled ales from the Wallonia region, which he viewed as poorly represented on famous beer lists elsewhere in Belgium.
After making our first selection ourselves, we asked Moss to choose for us during the remainder of the evening, and one after another, 750 ml bottles of Wallonian ale appeared before us. They were sublime. The pinnacle was an aged, homebrewed mead from his personal (and very literal) cellar, which quite simply was the best I’d ever had, and may yet be.
Perhaps I kept track of what we were drinking, but I doubt it. What I remember is a magical evening in an eclectic setting, seated amid random junk, cases of bottles and various beer placards and advertisements (oddly, not unlike my home base at the time), learning that for all of Belgium’s culinary splendor, the one dish you’re likely to find on the menu at a beer café with “snacks” is spaghetti.
It was an ambiance sans television or music, with our quartet lapsing eventually into an intense philosophical debate. In my 1995 description:
(As we sampled) and finished eating our spaghetti, a spirited argument ensued as to the true nature of craft-brewed beer in America, with Alain interrupting occasionally to explain the next selection. Expatriates abroad. Drinking, talking. Very cool.
My first thought about this scene as recalled 22 years later is this: Damn, we were referring to better beer as “craft” even then? Who'd have guessed?
What exactly was being said about “craft” as we drank ales and mead in Namur?
My recollection is hazy, but one general theme was whether Sam Adams genuinely could be regarded as “craft” when so many other emerging microbreweries produced a fraction of the volume, and without contract brewing accounting for so much of the barrels produced.
How could small and large alike occupy the same boat? As they say, the more things change …
There is much to say about craft, crafty and the sheer grandeur of variable semantics. These can wait for another column.
Thinking back on it, Moss’s strident advocacy of local and regional Wallonian specialties may have planted quite the seed somewhere in my noggin. It would not have been possible to return to the Public House in 1995 and adapt it in such a fashion, but it would be entirely possible now, and an all-Indiana and Kentucky beer format might be quite the marketing corker amid the general in-crowd saturation, appealing to an under-served segment of the better beer crowd for whom localism actually matters.
Moss left the pub business in 1998, relocating with his family to County Mayo in Ireland to operate an organic farm. He’s been back in Belgium for a while, and probably is a grandfather by now. Last year we briefly chatted about the prospects for Moss to go to Spain to open another bar.
To recap: In 1995, we had a discussion about “craft” at The Dazzling, and in 2017, “craft” strikes me as an outtake from The Shining.
I think there needs to be a full-scale reboot.
In January of 2007, I stumbled quite by accident on the website of a band called Ceilí Moss, a folk/rock act from Belgium, where I was stunned to see this explanation:
If you're curious where this name comes from: Ceilí (pronounced as Kylie) is a Gaelic word for a party with music, and Moss was the nickname of Alain Mossiat, boss of the pub "L'Eblouissant", where we did our very first gigs.
As of the summer of 2015, the band had ceased performing.
Also, by April of 2007, when we'd learned that Moss the Boss was back in Namur, David Pierce found a relic of our shared 1990s era of Belgian beer travel. It's Moss the Boss Art.
I was cleaning out some old file drawers this weekend and came upon my old Tim Webb Good Beer Guide to Belgium. Matt Gould and Rick Buckman had borrowed it for their leg of the tour, 1996. The pic was a present for my 40th birthday.
A blast from the past, for sure. Here's to Moss the Boss ... again. His establishment remains an archetype, one ripe for localized reinvention -- don't you think?