Sunday, April 27, 2008

A long delayed beer blog...

Stone Brewery Logo
Brews to keep the demon rum at bay!
(Image from Wikipedia)

For two months now, I've owed beer expert John Wells a blog on beer.

Over one year ago, my old Ozark buddy and wine expert Bruce Cochran notified those on his wine email that a friend of his would be sending out weekly email reports on fine beers. That friend was John Wells, master of fine beers.

Master of "fine beers" might sound like an oxymoron to some of the fine-wine crowd, but Bruce (obviously) isn't one of those who see any contradiction in referring to "fine beer." Nor do I, having spent six beer-years in Germany -- Tuebingen, in fact -- where I enjoyed fine pilsner beers, fine Hefeweizen (i.e., wheat) beers, fine heavy dark beers, and various other fine varieties that tax the data banks of my beery brain.

At the moment, for instance, I'm experiencing the subtle effects of a Cass Red's 6.9% alcohol -- a bit more than I prefer, actually, but the extra alcohol dulls the taste enough to make the wretched stuff palatable.

It ain't the strongest beer that I've had lately, to tell the truth. One week ago, I spent an entire day correcting my wife's translation of Korean into English and was rewarded with an Oettinger Super Forte with 8.9% alcohol. Last time that I drank anything in that range of alcoholic power, I was in Singapore for a Society of Biblical Literature conference and staying in a Chinese-run hotel in the Muslim quarter of the city, where I ignorantly purchased a tall can of something that turned out to be about 12% alcohol. Tiger-something-or-other. I couldn't drink it, for it tasted like harsh, bitter whiskey on my neophyte tongue. Most of that wretched stuff disappeared gurgling down the sink . . . and undoubtedly worked as well as draino.

Anyway, the Oettinger Super Forte was a bit super-strong for my tastes, but the Oettinger Hefeweissbier (i.e., wheat beer) went down better. As mentioned above, I drank a lot of wheat beers in Germany, enough to get rather weary of that sour aftertaste. Pilsner was my favorite, despite my having to wait about five minutes for the beer-on-tap to pour and the thick, creamy foam to form perfectly to the brim. Those Germans were experts at that.

But that's all in the distant past. In the nearer past, I have had a few brews with John Wells.

I had previously corresponded with Mr. Wells online to lament the poverty of my beer selection here in Seoul, South Korea. Now, an American shouldn't talk about poor beer selection . . . or so one might think, but one would be thoughtless to think so, for actually, the available selection range in the US was already beginning to expand before I left Berkeley in 1989, for the Triple Rock Brewery and Pub was already open to do good business in the mid-eighties, and I used to meet my good friend and housemate Scott Corey and my good female-just-friend Natalie Macris for drinks there and imbibe the Pale, Red, and Black Rock brews . . . quite good, too.

And that was just the beginning, as I've since learned from Mr. Wells, whose weekly newsletter has led me to understand that the US now offers the best beer selection in the world. I wish that I could spend a year in the States testing that claim.

But I had only one evening in February, during the trip home to Arkansas that I took with my family.

My wife and I had spent an evening with my wine friend Bruce on the evening before, February 15, in Little Rock for an afternoon and evening of food and drink -- about which I must also one day report -- during which we first met John and his wife offline, and a very fine time we had.

The next day, early, Sun-Ae and I headed back north for the Ozarks and my hometown of Salem, followed some hours later by Bruce and John, with beer in tow . . . though not literally. Merely liter-ally. The beer, I think, was in the trunk. Anyway, they dropped by my family's place in Salem, briefly, to meet my kids and visit with my brothers and their wives, before heading on to Bruce's farm. I was to join them later for an evening of mild dissipation and intensive learning.

The afternoon and evening turned stormy -- as I briefly reported at the time -- with rain, wind, fog, and some lightning to keep me entertained on my dark, six-mile drive from Salem's low valley up to the higher land where Bruce's farm lay. Actually, I recall it as his grandfather's farm, but time has moved on, things have changed, and land has passed down into the hands of children and grandchildren.

Eventually, after first missing the dirt-road turnoff in the stormy darkness, I found my muddy way to the farm, where Bruce and John sat waiting, beers in hand. My initiation into the sacred mysteries of finer beers was about to begin.

Bruce cut and laid out on some butcher paper several slices of venison-and-pork sausage as an appetizer to go with the pure, fine beers waiting patiently in a sacred ice chest nearby. John opened a bottle called Bosco's Flaming Stone Beer. As John explained, and the website confirms:
"Red-hot pieces of pink Colorado granite are heated to 700 degrees in Boscos wood fired oven and lowered into the wort (unfermented beer) during the brewing process. The resulting steam and sizzle caramelizes sugars in the wort. The result is a sweeter, softer tasting beer with a caramel undertone."
That about gets it. I tasted a somewhat sweet yet still somewhat bitter beer. I used to imagine that all beers were bitter, but John's newsletter has taught me otherwise. Anyway, I told John that I liked the Flaming Stone Beer (which I wrote down as "ale" but which the website calls "beer"), but asked if he had something more bitter.

He had, but first came another slightly sweet brew.

From the holy ice chest, John drew forth a drink brewed by a brewer with a name that will forever live in blessed memory: He'Brew. Not that it's dead. It's quite alive, in fact. What John specifically drew forth and poured for me was He'Brew's Genesis Ale, which is described as by the He'Brew website as:
"Crisp, smooth and perfectly balanced between a west coast style pale and amber ale, with a supple malt sweetness and a pronounced hop flourish."
I recall the sweet flavor along with the bitter hops, but the best thing about Genesis Ale is the label, the humor, and the Talmudic scholarship. I understand that a couple of rabbis have three or four opinions about this drink, but we won't know the truth until HaMoshiach comes. Not bad in my book, but still a bit too sweet for me. L'chaim, anyway.

John noted my craving for bitterness and next drew forth a brew from the fallen earth, this cursed realm in which we live, Unibroue's Maudite. This red ale from Quebec, Canada was more to my taste, heading into the bitter realm due to the strong hop flavor. The website notes that the word "maudite" means "damned," and I believe that it can also mean "cursed," but Unibroue supplies some more details about the choice of this name:
The word 'Maudite' has many meanings in Québécois culture. Here, it refers to the Legend of "Chasse-Galerie," a tribute to the early lumberjacks of Nouvelle-France. The legend tells of eight daring woodsmen who, during winter, yearned to be home for the Holidays. They conjured up the devil and all of them pledged their soul in return for flying them in their canoe to their village. As they sailed across the moonlit sky, one of them managed to free himself from the pledge by invoking the name of God, which caused the canoe to come crashing down to earth. They were never seen again.
Never seen again? Perhaps not, but they must have been heard from again, or we wouldn't have this story! Unless somebody made this tale up . . . . Anyway, note that the Hebrew theme from He'Brew has carried over into this Legend of "Chasse-Galerie," for the "name of God" would be YHWH (יהוה), God's 'unpronounceable' name -- or possibly pronounceable if one knows Hebrew, hence leaving open the possibility that one of the "eight daring woodsmen" was a rabbi.

But let's tread carefully around this name-of-God stuff, for the holy ground might become profaned by our impure feet, thereby provoking divine wrath and the end of the world.

Speaking of the eschaton, La Fin du Monde, also by Unibroue, was drawn from the chest. At 9% alcohol, it was slightly more powerful than the Oettinger Super Forte mentioned above, but it proved to me that I can like an ale with a mighty punch. I liked its spicy, hoppy flavor, but I was still craving that extra bitterness.

John looked at me, then drew forth something called "90 Minute IPA" brewed by Dogfish Head Brewery. Not a 90-minute man myself, this is the sort of brew that I'd pass over (there's that Jewish theme again!) if I saw it in a liquor store. Well, I would have done so in the ignorance of my benighted past, but since being enlightened by Mr. Wells, I'd gladly select this brew to drink. The "IPA" stands for "India Pale Ale," and like La Fin du Monde, above, it had a strong punch -- 9% alcohol. It, too, was spicy and hoppy.

I'm afraid that I'm not especially articulate about the subtle gradations of taste, for my taste buds aren't yet sufficiently trained, but John didn't give up on me.

Reaching into that wonderful chest of miraculous brews, John next drew forth a Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale. Actually, this one seemed familiar to me, and I wondered if I had drunk it before, perhaps last century, in the 1980s, when I was living in Berkeley. Anyway, it was definitely hoppy -- and also strong, at 6.8% alcohol, but more to my liking at that lower percent (though my tastes could shift). John had me taste from two or three bottles of this Celebration Ale, for he wanted to see if I could distinguish any difference, depending on the year brewed. I don't think that I passed that test, but the years were 2006 and 2007.

Finally, from that icy chest with its neverending supply of ales came a brew with an auspicious (or perhaps ominous) name: Arrogant Bastard Ale. If not taken too literally, that could be a maudite cast in my direction -- I'm a condescending ol' bastard myself, is what ails me, it is. Brewed by Stone Brewing Company, this Arrogant Bastard Ale comes with a warning, then warns you again:
This is an aggressive beer. You probably won't like it. It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth. We would suggest that you stick to safer and more familiar territory -- maybe something with a multi-billion dollar ad campaign aimed at convincing you it's made in a little brewery, or one that implies that their tasteless fizzy yellow beer will give you more sex appeal. perhaps you think that multi-million dollar ad campaigns make a beer taste better. Perhaps you are mouthing your words as you read this.
Uh . . . well, I do admit that I was mouthing my words in reading this, but I learn better that way, and despite my unworthiness, I very much liked this very bitter brew. I don't even know what percent alcohol this one was, but its bitterness would have taken the bite out of moonshine (which Bruce also generously supplied that evening, just for a taste). But imbibing Arrogant Bastard Ale was reportedly child's play compared to drinking Stone Ruination IPA, the heavy metal of ales. John lamented that he hadn't brought that one along because he'd now become curious if I were really, truly worthy.

I'm not, of course, but you can read John's account of the evening here.

Many thanks to John Wells for the experience, and I hope for further instruction, even if merely vicariously.

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At 12:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And, many thanks to Sun-Ae for (as I hope) driving your butt home.


At 4:39 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sun-Ae didn't attend that rather masculine meeting . . . but I stayed at the farmhouse that night and thus needed no designated driver.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:49 AM, Blogger Bill said...

Just read about the "sampling" of some rather fine but exotic named beers. Was there any thought of personal safety on tipping something called Bosco's Flaming? Or 90 Minute IPA? I'd have spent half the night reading labels and making calls to ensure my will was in order.
On a second read with the lyrics from "Sunday Morning Coming Down" racing through my mind, I tipped a March '08 Michelob Ultra, labeled "smooth & refreshing light beer" in a toast to three wild and crazy guys.
Cuz Bill

At 10:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Bill, there was no danger. We were splitting these beers three ways, so if you add them up, you'll see that I wasn't really drinking so much.

The percent alcohol was high in some of them, but not nearly so high as in wine. I didn't even get tipsy, and I slept well, which hasn't been the case in those times in my life when I've overtippled.

I even got up and attended my brother's church the next morning . . . unshaven, I admit, but otherwise no worse for the wear.

The names and labels could be a bit unnerving . . . but you're talking to a guy who's faced down scary Gnostic texts and tangled with vicious Coptic grammar, not a fellow easily intimidated by mere labels, no matter how many levels of dungeons and dragons one has to descend just to enjoy the brew . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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