You may think you know what good beer tastes like, but Dan Shelton ’81 begs to differ. Shelton says that the best beer is ripe, raunchy and reminiscent of an open latrine. He says he has become the Larry Flynt of the beer business, importing strange and wonderful brews from the remote corners of Europe and introducing them to unsuspecting American audiences. In the process, he has become one of the most respected collectors in the country.
By Paul Statt '78
“You can’t die from beer,” Dan Shelton says.
Shelton isn’t unaware of the dangers of dipsomania. A tall, slim and very busy man wearing faded Levis with a worn black turtleneck and a cashmere scarf, Shelton is merely explaining that spontaneous fermentation—more on that later—poses no risk to a beer drinker’s health. He is a beer drinker.
Shelton tosses back his longish brown hair and answers the phone again—London calling, or Kulmbach or Brussels—in the cluttered offices of Shelton Brothers, Importers of the World’s Best Beers, a jumble of beer bottles and invoices itemized in German and Flemish, in downtown Amherst. It’s been more than 20 years since he graduated in 1981, and Shelton has been to law school, traveled the world and tried to save it, joined a law firm and left it.
Beer collecting is, of course, hardly unique. In a window in Peter Pond Dormitory at Amherst College, less than a mile away, enterprising undergraduates have paid unknowing homage to an ancient tradition by erecting a pyramid of Miller Light cans. But in the intelligent acquisition of ale and beer, Shelton Brothers “has easily the best collection of any importer in America,” according to Ed Behr, the fanatically opinionated editor of an elegant quarterly, The Art of Eating. What makes Shelton Brothers the best? What sets Dan Shelton’s beer apart from your beer or mine?
Behr met Shelton in 1999 at Stoney’s, a seedy pub at the falls in South Hadley, close to Holyoke in location and ambience. Behr wrote that Shelton was “impulsive and enthusiastic about beer.” Shelton recalls, “We got smashed.”
Shelton is a connoisseur of fine beer, but something of a gourmand as well. He has realized a dream of many of us: making his avocation his vocation. “I hate this business, actually.” Dan says he took a break on Thanksgiving Day, to “take a bath and drink a couple of beers brewed by monks.”
Shelton tried to be a lawyer. After Amherst, he went to a prestigious law school (although he tried to transfer to graduate study in history at Yale), then clerked for a judge (on a tropical Pacific isle, of all places) and finally secured a position at a venerable firm in Washington, D.C. (but convinced Shea & Gardner that he needed to spend a year bumming around Africa before starting.) “I come from a family of nonconformists, and I kind of took that into hyperspace,” he says.
“My Amherst education has not been wasted at all. I use it more in this business than I ever did in lawyering. I never was completely comfortable with the idea of being a lawyer, anyway.” Shelton expounds on beer as a liberal art. “The more you know about the beer you drink, the more fun you’ll have drinking it,” he opines.
“My father brewed beer in a garbage can,” Shelton recalls, when asked about his early experience of beer. The Shelton family moved to Amherst when he was in the fourth grade. Dan is the eldest of three brothers: his younger brother Joel was the first to “really make a study of beer.” All three are now in the beer business. The parents, incongruously, were both ministers. They raised the young Sheltons to go their way, eat their bread with joy and, most of all, drink their beer with merry hearts. “Now I’m a kind of evangelist of beer,” he says. “Although my folks would probably not be thrilled with the ‘evangelism’ thing.” They accept his work.
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.
“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.)
“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.
Dan Shelton creates many of the labels that go on his beer, including the two on this page, and the Sans Culotte label on the previous page.
“Working with great delicacy, I gave Lady Liberty the black brassiere she would have worn if she had lived in a more prudish time and place,” Shelton says. “Like Ohio.” He had had earlier experience with the prudish beer-label censors of America, who had rejected depictions of the famous Manneken Pis—a Belgian landmark, a statue, “a tiny, naked bronze boy, who with the aid of a concealed pump is eternally taking a whiz,” Shelton explains, “to the delight of countless tourists.” But to the dismay of clean-living Americans. The long story of Shelton’s attempt to paste a label on a bottle of beer that portrayed Gambrinus, the Belgian beer king, with a voluptuous naked girl sitting happily on his lap—that story was told in Playboy magazine, defender of free speech and nude photography. Shelton Brothers was able to overcome the censors there.
But Lady Liberty lost in Ohio. Her bra worked, but it seems that Ohio law also insists “no advertising shall refer to or portray any military subject.” Her gun did her in.
Shelton says he’s glad he went to law school—he’s spent more time in court defending freedom of expression as a beer importer than he did as a lawyer. He’s glad he went to Amherst, too, got that foundation in the liberal arts and learned to love the Gemütlichkeit that only beer drinkers know.
Shelton’s law career was unconventional. After graduating from Yale Law in 1986, he was law clerk for a judge in Micronesia, where, he recalls, he and the judge spent tropical evenings drinking beer at the Sunset Bar.
“It was aptly named. The sun was setting over the Pacific. We sat in the tropical breeze. They would catch fish, and bring them to the bar—that’s how fresh the sashimi was—and we would season it with the peppers we picked from the plants growing right there. And talk long into the night about the philosophy of law and life.”
It sounds idyllic, but the romance never blinds Shelton to the reality. (A clear-headedness important to a beer drinker, and indispensable to anyone in the business of selling what he loves.) “Of course it rained every day. There were cockroaches all over everything. And mud.”
He convinced a prestigious D.C. law firm to take a chance on him, although he insisted that he would need to take a year off—his first year—to go to Rwanda to work for human rights. He returned, but apparently a tad too subversive for Washington. Call it the Beer Rebellion. “At Shea & Gardner, every time I had a creative idea, they looked at me and said, ‘You’ve been in Africa too long.’ They told me, ‘You have too many outside interests.’ They didn’t have happy hour on Fridays, they had candy hour. You sat around and ate candy. Most people filled up their pockets and went home.”
In those beer-free halls of justice, Shelton says, “The handwriting was kind of on the wall.”
He left in 1988. A confused three years followed. Shelton went back to Micronesia, where he had been offered a job. When he got there, the job had gone to a Micronesian. In Manhattan he was a consultant—an Amherst alumni translation of unemployed. His brother Joel, also living in the city, and the first Shelton brother to cultivate an enlightened interest in beer, traveled to Belgium at this time. Joel’s traveler’s tales inspired Dan: a magical ale brewed by Jean-Pierre Cantillion in Brussels.
At Thanksgiving in 1991, Dan Shelton was just looking for a Belgian beer called Cantillon in NYC. He and Joel thought it would go great with turkey. But they couldn’t find it in any stores. “You’d have to become an importer,” a clerk in one store told them. So they did.
It sounds like the oldest story in the world. Boy loves beer. Boy can’t buy beer. Boy founds successful multinational beer importing enterprise.
Actually, Shelton recalls, it was more complex and less romantic. It was several years before he met the Cantillon brewers. In 1996 “I had to buy a whole lot of this really weird beer.” It was a sour cherry lambic, from Cantillon, and it was plenty: three years of production. “I used to lie awake worrying a lot at night in those days. I had spent $14,000 on 19 pallets of beer.” (Each pallet contains 72 cases of beer.) “I was mostly thinking,” Shelton confesses, “I’ll have all this great beer in the cellar.” But could he sell it?
He sold most of it, and bought more. Shelton grew up in a family in which it was thought that the pursuit of money has always been the root of all evil. He’s taught himself the business, but insists he and his brothers do this because they like “driving around Belgium visiting breweries asking, ‘Is this good beer?’ That’s our philosophy.” Imported beer is a “hot” market now, but Shelton advises buyers to beware. “They’re importing just about anything that could be called beer” from Belgium, he warns.
A dark cloud looms, despite the noted healthful qualities of beer. “My doctor has told me I have to quit drinking.” It seems that Shelton suffers from apnea, a temporary cessation of breathing—usually harmless, unless it happens at night, and, well, you’ve had a couple of beers.
“But maybe I could drink only in afternoon,” Shelton muses.
Photo: Frank Ward