Shelton’s Rebellion Or, The Beer Insurrection
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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
The idiosyncratic Shelton has crafted a full-time job out of the quirky brews
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
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.
“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
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.)
“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.