Joe Sixpack: Tsjeeses, this is one tasty ale

Urbain Coutteau, of Struise brewery: " 'Tsjeeses' is the pronunciation of stupefaction."
Urbain Coutteau, of Struise brewery: " 'Tsjeeses' is the pronunciation of stupefaction."
Posted: December 12, 2008

TSJEESES H. Christ, could there really be a Christmas beer named after the Son of God?

It's called Tsjeeses, a made-up word that, when pronounced with proper Dutch diction, rhymes with "cheeses."

As in, Tsjeeses, what a good beer!

Which is what a somewhat pickled Urbain Coutteau of Belgium's Struise brewery declared a couple of years ago after quaffing several potent cups of his holiday brew. Unable to think of another name for the ale, he and his partners decided to simply call it Tsjeeses.

In America, where Struise has become a cult favorite, a good number of fans believe Tsjeeses is Dutch for Jesus. It's an assumption encouraged by a beer label illustrated with a long-haired cartoon fellow who might be confused with the holy prophet.

Naturally, Jesus Beer would raise a few eyebrows over here; this is, after all, a country where government agencies have occasionally banned Christmas beer labels for no other reason than that they carry the image of Santa Claus. (Tsjeeses is imported by Shelton Brothers of Massachusetts, the same company that ran into trouble with authorities in Maine over its Santa's Butt porter.)

Coutteau, however, assures that Tsjeeses has "nothing to do with Jesus. It's a coincidence . . . 'Tsjeeses' is the pronunciation of stupefaction."

Of course, he acknowledges, "The fact that a lot of people mix it up with Jesus is maybe in our advantage."

So far, nobody's complained. "You'd be the first," Coutteau told me when I telephoned him the other day.

Me? I'm as profane as the next guy. And besides, naming beer after a religious icon is not entirely unknown. Who among us has not partaken of the sacred St. Pauli Girl?

Anyway, it wasn't the name but the label itself that prompted my call. Originally, the long-haired character - modeled on Coutteau himself - was drawn with steam blasting out of his mouth and nose, as if he'd been overheated by the powerful ale. Coutteau said American authorities rejected the label, believing the steam was actually marijuana smoke. (The label still appears on bottles sold in Europe.)

Struise erased the steam, but then the feds objected to the character's googly eyes. A terse rejection letter from a label inspector at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau (TTB) stated, "The image of the character appears as if he is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. This touts the effect of the product on the consumer and the alcohol content of the product. Change the image."

The guys at Struise, who evidently consume a good bit of their own product, devised a new version in which the face was covered by a black burka. "But regarding the politics over the last three or four years," Coutteau said, "we felt this would not be so diplomatic."

Ultimately, they covered the eyes with sunglasses.

Any controversy about the name and label shouldn't obscure the actual beer itself.

It's an amber, almost orange-colored ale that jingles your bell with 10 percent alcohol. Complex, yet nicely balanced, the beer's strong malt body is complemented with subtle fruit notes, the product of a secondary, 16-week fermentation atop a bed of grapes, apricots and other fruit.

Tsjeeses is a unique expression of creativity from a young brewery that has quickly built a reputation for unusual, distinctive styles. Last year, beer freaks went gaga over its Pannepot, a strong Belgian quadruple spiced with nutmeg, and - in polling at RateBeer.com - named Struise the world's best brewery.

The fascination is remarkable because Struise - Dutch for "sturdy" - doesn't actually own a brewery. Coutteau is the 7-year-old company's only fulltime worker. His three partners still have full-time jobs, as a wine consultant, a car salesman and a member of the Belgian army.

They make their beer at the ancient Deca facility in northwestern Belgium. which lacks even basic automation. Every sack of grain - about a ton's worth in the holiday ale - must be painstakingly transported, hoisted and emptied by hand.

Tsjeeses, that's a lot of work.

You can find sixpacks of Tsjeeses in its original label for about $100 on eBay. A single 11.2-ounce bottle with the American label cost me $10 in Jersey.

If you're curious, I'll be pouring Tsjeeses - and 50 other holiday brews - at the Philadelphia Christmas Beer Festival on Dec. 27 at the Penn Museum. Info and tix at www.phillybeerfests.com. *

Joe Sixpack by Don Russell appears weekly in Big Fat Friday. For more on the beer scene in Philly and beyond, visit www.joesixpack.net. Send email to joesixpack@phillynews.com.

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