Brasserie De La Senne’s Zwarte Piet
By: Benjamin Welton
Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete,” is a Christmas tradition in the Low Countries. Since at least 1850, Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas have been busy distributing candies and other assorted goodies to good little Dutch and Belgian boys and girls on December 5th and 6th respectively. Typically, even though the name implies only one “Black Pete,” seasonal celebrations usually contain hundreds of Zwarte Pieten dressed up like the folkloric character. All one needs are a black curly wig, some red lipstick, an outlandish Renaissance-era costume, and a heaping helping of blackface make-up.
That last little bit has been a cause for controversy for some time now. The Dutch, besides being laissez faire when it comes to personal choices (cannabis, prostitution, etc.) and social democratic in their economics, aren’t too keen on giving in to those that call for the abandonment of St. Nicholas’s Moorish helper. Even the United Nations, which sent a letter to the Dutch government that claimed that Zwarte Piet upholds “a stereotyped image of African people and people of African descent as second-class citizens, fostering an underlying sense of inferiority within Dutch society and stirring racial differences as well as racism,” cannot break the Dutch and Belgian love for Santa’s special helper, and the Brussels-based brewery Brasserie De La Senne add further “huzzahs” with their Zwarte Piet. Called a “Strong Dark Ale,” this Belgian masterpiece is no longer made by the brewery, so be on the lookout for this beer where and when you can.
First Impression: Housed in a bottle that only contains 11.2 fl. oz, the Zwarte Piet is just a little guy, but the quality of this beer more than makes up for its impish size. Aesthetically, the label for this beer is well-made. Presenting “Black Pete” as a colonial-era hunter somewhere in the old Belgian Congo, this beer’s presentation conjures up images not only of early twentieth century advertisements, but also the Art Deco style which was born during that last gasp of European colonial expansion (the 1920s and 1930s).
Pour: Creamy, turbid brown, and with a thick milky head, this beer is certainly not made for steamy African jungles or even Brussels in July. Probably intended for the Yuletide season, the Zwarte Piet is a robust beer that borders on being a porter without all the added bitterness of that style. Best served in a tulip-shaped glass, this beer leaves heavy tendrils of foam everywhere, and upon swishing this drink around, a bevy of black bubbles percolate like coffee in the glass’s bottom.
Taste: This beer is deceptively smooth, even despite the heavy carbonation. The aftertaste denotes a smoky bitterness that glides on the tongue rather than smashes it. Chocolate and a trace of coffee can be discerned during the mouthfeel phase. Also at this point the beer’s glaring deficiency pokes through. More watery and weak than it should be, this beer does not leave a lasting taste, nor does it humble your taste-buds into submission. Still, the Zwarte Piet is better than your average discontinued brew.