Taras Boulba – icon and iconoclast

I have many favourite beers, but if I recorded how often Taras Boulba was my bae on a pie chart, it would represent the biggest slice.

The head is a blanket of white nougat. The colour’s the faded yellow of late gorse. The mouthfeel is fleshy like a cloven peach. On the nose, it mings of custard, wet leather and cut grass from a lawnmower hopper. 

On the palate, soft tangerine peel and mango. There’s a mousse – like carbonation. The aftertaste is dry and echolaic: you desire one more – and possibly another after that. 

Unlike many beers from Belgium, it’s a session drink. Taras Boulba is the tonic of beers – for the connoisseur and the disinterested simultaneously. Uncomplex and free from introspection, it serves those that love beer, but is still drinkable to those simply seeking refreshment.

It’s billed as “extra hoppy ale”. In comparison to the sweetness of say, Pauwel Kwak or Palm it certainly is, though the term “hoppy” has strayed into the realm of extreme sports since this beer was first brewed. As such, that moniker doesn’t really sit right anymore.

Though Taras Boulba does have its own branded glass, it’s the standard stemmed chalice commissioned by hundreds of breweries. The Belgian norm for bespoke glasses doesn’t apply here. Some of the romaniticism is lost, but so too are the tired motions breweries might feel compelled to go through.

The name Taras Boulba is based on a legend which became a popular “bandes desinées” comic strip. Taras Bulba was a Ukranian cossack of the Orthodox Christian faith. His son Andriy had a tryst with a woman from Polish Catholic extraction – a country and denomination they were at war with. 

The added “o” in the beery “Boulba” is probably just an example of how the original eastern cyrillic text can be interpreted by a western alphabet.

This tale of cultural taboo and ethnic mixing has everything to do with Brussels, and even more to do with Belgium as a country.

One of my aunts raised her two sons in Brussels. They were of my generation, one slightly older than me, the other a tad younger. Years later, I spoke to the younger of the two when he came to visit my wife and I in Reading, Berkshire in around 2005. He recounted what he remembered from his school days in Belgium’s capital.

He and his fellow Walloon kids were segregated from the Flemish pupils. Down the communal corridors between classrooms, a wall divided the herd into two populations – this architectural spine acted both as ethnic border and solenoid. In the yard at playtime, staff employees prevented linguistic mixing among the children. 

smiting capitalism……

I know, right? And this from the country we associate with the E.U, N.A.T.O, Tintin and ever-closer federalism!

I tried to use Google Translate to decypher the label’s Flemish inscription, but Flemish causes Google Translate to weep – the dialect is just too strong. 

Luckily for me, my dad speaks Dutch and lived in Brussels for years, so has an insight into the rich local vernacular. Here is his summary of that text in the corner box:

“Awel Merci! Taras Boulba es roezeg van kolaire! Zanne zaune es mi een wolline getraut!”

This caption (in a very dense Flemish dialect) reads:

“Well, thanks! [this is meant sarcastically]. Taras Boulba is wild with anger [hopping mad, maybe?]. His son has married a Wollin [i.e. a girl from Wollin in Poland]”. 

Wollin here sounds a helluva lot like Walloon – my insert – back to my dad:

 The word “smeirlap” (usually spelt “smeerlap”) is not a hybrid, but completely Flemish.  Literally it means “greasy rag” and is used as a term of abuse. The best translation is probably “bastard”.

So a wholesome snapshot of family life, then.

Initially, the picture looks similar to the charming “carnie” artwork of Alec Doherty who paints for Partizan Brewery in Bermondsey. There’s the fairground canopy, a strongman in a vest and a two-tone colour scheme. But in Taras Boulba’s case, it’s so much more controversial and layered than south London could ever dream of – or fear!

The Taras Boulba artwork stirs up a few things for me. The first is Charlton Heston in the 1956 film poster The Ten Commandments (do a Google image search – you’ll see what I mean). He’s holding aloft the tablets to smite upon the heathen. In this case, that’s his son. All very Old Testament.

artwork by Alec Doherty

Think also of the propaganda of the Soviet-era where the church/capitalist state/monarchy is crushed by the righteous (and very beefy) worker Bolshevik. It’s a style of vanishing points, sculpted physiques and over-dramatic poses redolent of the silent movie age.

Consider too the short-lived abstract movement of the vorticists at the start of the twentieth century. Everything is angular here. Any suppleness or curavture of the human form has been out-struck by straight geometry. Taras – holding aloft the barrel – has legs basically made of two colliding rectangles, meanwhile the torso of his son is a cluster of eliding triangles.

The 1985 film National Lampoon’s European Vacation serves also as an ingredient. A muscular father figure (Chevy Chase) stands over his family. The background is a wasteland wrecked by a cataclismic holocaust – several European landmarks are perceptible in the dust. 

The Griswalds on tour…..

That poster was painted by renowned fantasy artist Boris Vallejo of the swords, boobs, faraway stares and rippling biceps school of art. Nobody can compose werewolves’ genitals in shadow quite like Boris. 

Here, he is parodying the tropes of his own back catalogue. 

But imagine that same family torn asunder with Brussels laid waste behind them. Look closely and you’ll see the gothic Hôtel de Ville/Stadhuis toppling over to the right in the Taras image.

Finally, think of the 1999 U.K film East Is East whereby a Pakistani father tries to uphold the tradition of his fatherland in the British midlands by imposing it on his family. This movie is about generational rebellion and the casting off of heritage in the pursuit of modernity (and more heretically – integration).

Each side of the Flemish/Walloon divide has its own TV channels, celebrities, radio stations and political parties. This schism has been evident ever since the country’s inception around 180 years ago. 

It may yet tear it apart.

Despite being slap bang in cosmopolitan central Europe, Belgium is a land where the amount of inter-ethnic marriage (between the Dutch and the French-speaking) is often estimated to be as low as one percent!

“we smite the lazy workers!” 1931

Belgium is also divided by beer styles. The Flems boast their Flanders red and bruin, whilst the Walloons glow with their Saisons. Even the German-speaking minority in the east has its proud Pilsners. 

Inspired by all of Belgium’s many styles, Taras Boulba transcends the country’s faultlines and aspires towards something Belgium lacks: a common national aim.

The artwork is a send-up of the two composite nations – Flanders and Wallonia – and their antagonism of eachother. It employs satire, humour and caricature to make an important point: please dump the baggage of the past and let’s move on. 

Unlike the easy-goingness of the beer, the label artwork is utterly loaded.

4 Comments

  1. “Inspired by all of Belgium’s many styles”

    But most of all by British bitter, hence the very non-Belgian ABV. In interviews he goes on and on about his love of British beer.

  2. Nice writeup. Their artwork’s often interesting – have you seen the original Zwarte Piet label? It’s one of those cases where something’s a brilliantly layered bit of satire but just not really usable on a beer bottle outside of the context where everyone will immediately pick up on what it’s doing.

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