I’ve been playing and listening to jazz since I was in grade school. Mom made me play saxophone starting in sixth grade, and ever since then I’ve been enamored with the genre. There’s something shrewd about jazz. It’s not widely accepted or understood, even today, which makes it a kind of insider’s club for those who know the vocabulary.
I’ll never forget introducing my wife to jazz via Chick Corea, whom I thought she’d love as a pianist herself. She hated it. Coming from the classical world, the form and function, the seemingly haphazard way the notes, melody, and harmony crashed together was incomprehensible. It was about as enjoyable as a root canal for her.
In other words, to speak the language you first have to understand the vocabulary.
When uncorking Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde “The End of the World,” a Belgian-style Tripel, I drank it without context and had no idea what I had gotten into. To approach a beer of this sort without any understanding of the style itself is a fool’s errand. I saw a light, effervescent beer with a thick, frothy head. Its golden color and slightly cloudy clarity had me dreaming of an unfiltered wheat beer.
One whiff told me otherwise. Extremely complex aromatics were highlighted by floral notes, orange rind, and spices. This fruity bouquet was smothered with an alcohol-tinged kick in the face. Rechecking the bottle, a 9% ABV confirmed my suspicion. This was not for the faint of heart.
The flavor was strikingly similar to the nose. Wheat, orange, spices, with a hint of hoppiness led to a smooth, dry finish. Based on that description alone, I would enjoy this beer.
Unfortunately, all I could taste was the alcohol. It inundated the senses and obliterated whatever interesting notes I got from the aroma.
I heard the notes but not the melody.”
I’ve subsequently read that this beer is about perfect balance, but to me the du Monde was overpowering. It felt one dimensional on the palate and sat heavy on the tongue. As the “most awarded Canadian beer,” this Quebec native had me tongue-tied. Consistently rated as one of the best-in-class Tripels, I couldn’t help but think, “this tastes like a household cleanser.”
My fellow taster, on the other hand, took one drink and responded, “this is a damn good beer.” Noting hints of wheat, fruit, and coriander on the nose, he loved the balance of flavors and considered the alcohol “subtle.”
Whereas I could only hear cacophony, he heard harmony. Upon first sip he envisioned Einstein; I only saw Mr. Clean. Noted on the Unibroue site, the du Monde is a sipping beer, and here I was choking down mouthfuls like an idiot, trying to walk before I crawled. Akin to introducing someone to jazz via the free jazz movement, my introduction to the Tripel via the du Monde just didn’t make any sense to me.
Not to say that the beer is a departure from the orthodox Tripel style. On the contrary, it is widely thought of as a flagship of the class. Awarded at numerous international competitions, the du Monde is the end of the line (or “End of the World”) for Tripel connoisseurs. That is why I was so disappointed, perhaps in myself.
It is rare for me to go against the grain of critical acclaim, and I trust myself less than most. It may well be that the du Monde was whispering sweet nothings in my ear in the most romantic romance language, but all I was getting was guttural spittle on my face. Alcohol, alcohol, and more alcohol. I heard the notes but not the melody.
I’d hoped that when if my wife kept listening to Corea tickle those piano keys, she’d begin to understand what he was trying to say. She never did. Jazz is an acquired taste.
So, evidently, is La Fin du Monde.