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Amherst College > News & Events > Amherst Magazine > Archives > Winter 2003 > Shelton's Rebellion

Shelton’s Rebellion Or, The Beer InsurrectionBeer label: Sans Culottes

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Shelton is a beer importer, but the beer he brings to America is not for everyone. For instance, he hates smooth. “Smooth just means the beer doesn’t have any flavor.” Praising the creations of his beloved Belgian brewing monks, he says “They’ll take a flavor a big German brewer would try to take out”—the example he gives is a Belgian brew with fecal undertones—“and try to enhance it.” Shelton Brothers imports from the United Kingdom, Germany, France, but Shelton especially favors Belgium. He likes “little breweries, the real heart and soul of Belgian beer making. Part-time brewers making beer they like.” The beer may not always please every palette.

The idiosyncratic Shelton has crafted a full-time job out of the quirky brews he likes.

An American studies major at Amherst, he wrote his senior thesis on Shay’s Rebellion (1786-87), an early Pioneer Valley uprising against the nascent United States—not, as you might have expected, the later Whiskey Insurrection (1794). “Rebellion” echoes in Shelton’s story, however: his adviser, Bob Grose, wanted him to go to graduate school in history, so he went to Yale Law School.

“Amherst kept alive my taste for beer,” he recalls. Moralists take note: in that enlightened age, college students old enough to vote could drink beer legally. Shelton never joined a fraternity—in fact, he lived with a mixed group of men and women and was active in the movement to abolish fraternities. “I lived in Tyler, but loved to pop over to DKE [Plimpton House] for the free beer. I was an anomaly among my friends.

Beer label: Bink bloesem“Amherst was the first place where I started to appreciate the culture of beer: beer pong, the bonding, the talking, meeting people. Beer is a social lubricant. When you go somewhere else, it helps to know a little bit about their beer and how they drink it. At Amherst I started caring about all aspects of things: the history, the sociology, the literature, the art. I have a very liberal-arts approach to beer.”

Shelton was surprised when his single semester of art history at Amherst paid off in the beer import business. He creates many of the labels that appear on his imports. “Look at guy in this Breughel painting,” he says, showing off the label of a Cantillon Bruosella 1900 Grand Cru. “For years people thought that was white wine that guy is pouring from a jug. But it’s actually a lambic.”

The mention of a lambic (lam-beek) draws the conversation into the history of brewing. A lambic is the ancient style of Belgian beer—Behr praises “the curious, tart and, in its basic form, flat local specialty” of Brussels. Lambic is to Miller Natural Light what Stilton is to Velveeta.

The difference between ales and lagers is that the former ferment at the top of the barrel, the latter at the bottom. But ales, lagers and just about all the modern styles of beer share the same yeast. “Thousands of years ago, long before humankind had any idea that such a thing as yeast existed, the original brewers relied on spontaneous fermentation,” Shelton says, “fermentation sparked by wild yeasts floating on the open air.”

Only in Belgium did brewers after the 19th century keep up this old—and slightly risky—spontaneous style. (Shelton digresses: Some anthropological archeologists have theorized that humankind’s shift from hunter-gathering to farming might in fact have followed the ancient discovery that a mash of fermented grain could yield a palatable, nutritious drink—and jolly Saturday nights. Man did not settle down for bread alone.)

Beer label: Sprengen“Pasteurization kills the flavor of beer,” Shelton says, pausing to reassure that unpasteurized beer won’t cause polio. Shelton imports what he calls “wild ale” from Belgium, but the best Belgian brews share this shady character. One of the risks of the business of importing Belgian lambics and other interesting beers is that not every drinker is going to like every beer.

That’s only part of the taste question raised by importing beer from Europe. Shelton never thought he would risk becoming “the Larry Flynt of the beer business,” either, but he did. Beer labels, created for imported beer in this country by the importer, must be approved by many individual state licensing agencies. (That’s why, Shelton notes, you have to see “the warnings about ‘drunk pregnant women operating heavy machinery’ that all beer drinkers know so well.”) Shelton designed a label for a French import called Les Sans Culotttes that featured a detail from Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. You know the painting: Liberty is a bold lass rousing a French rabble against the tyrant, holding a musket in one hand and the tricoleurin her outstretched arm. “The only problem,” Shelton says, “is that in the heat of battle, Lady Liberty’s dress seems to have come unstrapped, revealing her ample bosom.” In Ohio, that would not do.

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