This blog documents my attempt to drink a beer from every country in the world and every state in the United States.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Country #40: Barbados

Beer: Banks Caribbean Lager

Brewery: Banks Barbados Breweries Ltd., St. Michael, Barbados

ABV: 4.7%

Happy New Year 2013! No, not a typo, I actually drank this beer just about a year ago. Time to get writing again!
Here’s a trivia question that you probably already know the answer to if you’re reading this: what is the first country in North American to see the sun’s rays in the New Year? Hint: it’s not Nicaragua. 

It’s Barbados, by far the easternmost of the Caribbean countries. On the morning of January 1st the sun rises punctually at 6:21 a.m. in Bridgetown. Even though St. John’s, Newfoundland, is quite a bit farther east, it’s also much farther north, and in the depths of winter the sun will rise much later (7:49 on 1/1) and set much earlier there than in Barbados. The opposite is true in summer, of course: Barbados is the first place in North America to get dark every evening. But SAD is probably not a big issue in Barbados in the winter, whereas it might be in St. John’s, or in Fairbanks, Alaska (New Year’s sunrise time: 10:54 a.m.).

Nothing makes a New Year's hangover worse than the tilt of the Earth's axis. That, and rum. (The highlighted island is Barbados, genius).
The problem for Bajans (fancy word for people from Barbados) is that if they’re hung over on New Years Day, and lack adequate window shades, it’ll be tough for them to sleep it off for long. And if you’re hung over in Barbados, you’re most likely hung over on… not beer. Instead, you’ve probably drunk an ungodly amount of rum. Piña coladas! Daiquiris! Rum and cokes! Rum and coke and rums! Rum and rums! And so on. 

I'm not sure if this is the view from Mount Gay, but those are definitely sugarcane plants. The random yellow shape on the rum bottle is a map of the island, if you haven't figured that out yet, Drunky.
However, if you were chasing your rum with beer, as any good drunk should, you were probably swilling Banks. It is by far the most popular beer in Barbados, though its market share has been shrinking due to imports from other islands like Trinidad and Saint Lucia. (The Banks brand is also produced in Guyana, which, despite its location on the continent of South America, might as well be a Caribbean island, and it also dominates the market there—hence the “Caribbean Lager” designation. If anyone in NYC sees Guyanese Banks for sale at a bodega somewhere, let me know, and I’ll drink the stuff all over again.)

Three sheets to the wind: representations of sails on three different places on the bottle.
Guess what: it tastes like beer. It’s a Crap National Lager for sure, and despite the heavy influence of British culture on Barbados, it doesn’t taste like much, even compared to, say, Saint Lucia’s Piton. But you know the drill by now. It’s hot, the sun is shining, and so you don’t want a porter or even a pilsner. You want a Banks. And so it goes.

Other Barbados things, clockwise from top left: (1) Girls at Carnival, (2) Girls at Carnival drinking Banks, (3) Rihanna at Carnival, (4) Rihanna Drinking Banks, and (5) 3004 Olympic limbo champ Barbados Slim.
What’s also remarkable is that tiny Barbados (equal in population to Toledo, Ohio) is exporting this stuff at all. I found mine while visiting my in-laws in Florida, but it’s also available up and down the east coast. I can’t claim to know much about the finances of the Banks Brewery, but the country of Barbados is an economic powerhouse for its size and location. In addition to obvious tourism and sugarcane farming industries, it’s become a bit of an offshore finance center, so companies, be they breweries or widget factories, can pretty easily attract the type of local investment necessary to produce enough product to export their wares, unlike other tiny island nations. Take that, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines!

Pretty sure this would be the biggest building on both Antigua AND Barbuda.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Country #39: Costa Rica

Beer: Imperial

Brewery: Cerveceria Costa Rica, San Jose, Costa Rica

ABV: 4.6%

The glass provides a handy translation regarding its contents to the gringo turistas.
Yesterday, us Yanks celebrated our Independence Day. Costa Rica sort-of-kind-of has three independence days: first they said no más to Spain (September 15, 1821), then to Mexico (July 1, 1823), and then they finally split off from the United Provinces of Central America, which apparently was a thing, on March 21, 1847. Many Americans commemorated July 4th by drinking a lot of bad domestic beer. Costa Ricans really only celebrate the first independence day, September 15th, and I have no idea whether they drink a bunch of bad beer to celebrate, but if they do, they’re probably drinking Imperial.

Costa Rican Independence Day celebrations: less beer, more cows.
I have a theory as to why they only celebrate one of their three independence days: for the sake of their health. Imperial is a hyper-drinkable pale lager that, at a measly 4.6% ABV, can be consumed muy rápido. I don’t want to know how spotty my liver would be if we celebrated The Fourth of July three times a year.

It’s curious that the Crap National Lager of Costa Rica should be named Imperial, when the three aforementioned dates represent the nation’s escape from the imperial rule of three separate entities. Funny, too, that the parent company that owns the Imperial brewery and brand, something called Florida Ice & Farm Company, has also started an empire of its own. While it already has a virtual monopoly on beer in Costa Rica (it owns the other big brands in the country too, Bavaria, Pilsen, and Rock Ice), it has made forays into the American market by recently purchasing the Magic Hat Brewing Company in Vermont and the Pyramid Brewing Company in Washington state. Reverse colonialism!

Eagles have long been a symbol of imperial herarldry, as seen here in the flag of Albania, a bottle cap for mediocre beer, and the coat of arms of Austria.
Imperial’s business is also surely helped by the influx of tourists that visit Costa Rica with colons to burn. Approximately 2.2 million foreign visitors knew the way to San Jose in 2011, making Costa Rica one of the most visited countries on earth, pound-for-pound. Most crappy Latin American beers are available in the States largely to serve the immigrant market, but there really isn’t a large Costa Rican community anywhere in the U.S. because, shockingly, Costa Ricans aren’t leaving Costa Rica; in fact, Costa Rica has the happiest population on Earth, according to the people that study these things. So if Imperial is selling in the States, it must be nostalgic tourists who are buying, as well as curious schmucks like me.

Why are so many people going to Costa Rica? Because you can be in both of these places in the same day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

State #28: North Carolina

Beer: Highland Oatmeal Porter

Brewery: Highland Brewing Company, Asheville, NC

ABV: 5.9%

A Highland beer in a class from a brewery in the lowland part of North Carolina (Wilmington). These are the things that amuse me.
Ah, the quirky liberal enclave. Lots of red states have them. Texas has Austin, home to South by Southwest and one of the best live music scenes on the planet. Georgia has Athens, home to REM and the B-52s. And North Carolina has Asheville, home to hippies and various other left-leaning, artistically-inclined folks otherwise uncharacteristic of the southern Appalachians.

Much like the fellow on the Highland beer bottle, this guy, spotted in downtown Asheville (source), is also a fan of skirts.
It’s not surprising that we find breweries in all of these places either. Austin is home to at least six breweries, Athens is home to Terrapin Beer Company, one of Georgia’s biggest and best craft brewers, and Asheville is rapidly becoming the beer capital of the Southeast. While sprawling Austin crams six breweries into 300 square miles, tiny Asheville, home to only 83,000 people in only 41 square miles, is also home to six breweries, and most of them are very highly regarded by the brewgeoisie (yes, I just made that one up, and yes I’m patting myself on the back for it). A recent article named Asheville as one of the eight best beer towns in the USA, and this strong beer culture has attracted craft brewing giant Sierra Nevada to open an East Coast brewing operation in Asheville later this year.

While Asheville is the beer capital of North Carolina, the state as a whole is performing quite well on the craft beer scene. It has the highest number of breweries (gross and per capita) in the Southeast, and is home to five of the 50 fastest growing breweries in the country, including Highland (shown on the map above, from this excellent series of maps on the state of craft brewing done by The New Yorker, found here).
Among the cluster of microbreweries operating in Asheville is the Highland Brewing Company. The name is fitting: Asheville is indeed in the highland part of North Carolina, which made it an attractive landing spot for immigrants from the Scottish highlands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Highland Brewing Company has used this Scottish heritage as their branding motif, featuring as their logo a grizzly, bagpipe playing chap wearing a tam o’shanter and holding a massive mug of beer. The bottle also features a tartan pattern, though I’m not about to spend ten hours looking at swatches of plaid to figure out which clan it belongs to. Anyone who can figure this one out gets a free pint.

A slight resemblance, nay?
While Highland makes a variety of brews, oatmeal porter is a fitting style, given the association of oatmeal with Scotland. Porters are usually sweet and malty, and this one is no exception, but the sweetness is fortunately understated. Oatmeal is added to beers to give it a smooth texture rather than a distinct flavor, as the oils and proteins and such in the oats give it a nice creaminess. Normally one finds oatmeal stouts rather than oatmeal porters, but as far as the difference between a stout and a porter is concerned, it’s very much up for debate. Either way, a brown creamy ale like this one goes very nicely with a foggy afternoon in the crags, be it in the Appalachians or in Scotland.

Asheville is located in the high part of North Carolina, and also in the high part of North Carolina.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Country #38: Albania

Beer: Korça Pils

Brewery: Birra Korça Shpk, Korçe, Albania

ABV: 5.0%

This glass reminded me of Albania, probably because I know very little about Albania.
Whenever I’m back in Connecticut, I have to make a trip to Amity Wine and Spirit, as they never fail to stock beers from some of the world’s most obscure countries. On my most recent trip I found a six pack of something called Korça Pils, from someplace called Albania. As far as Europe goes, it doesn’t get a whole lot more obscure than Albania.

Molvania is a bit more obscure than Albania, mostly because it doesn't actually exist (link).
As far as the beer is concerned, it was fairly predictable. While Albanian is a weird language (more on that later), we see the word ‘pils’ in the beer’s name, and we know it’s a pilsner. It was so-so: a bit sweeter than some of the better, hoppier pilsners, but not bad for a country best known for having half its population killed by a vengeful Liam Neeson. 

"I don't know who you are, or where your country is. I can tell you that I don't have any money. What I do have is a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a year and a half of doing this blog. If your country doesn't make beer, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if it does, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will drink you."
According to the bottle cap, the brewery, Birra Korça Shpk, was founded in 1928, which is about when the Industrial Revolution finally made it to Albania. While the Albanian coastal plain is where most of the tiny country’s people live, most of those people are Muslims, a rarity in Europe, but not in Albania. However, the town of Korçe, home to its namesake brew, is off in the hills near Greece, which makes sense, because most of the people there are Albanian Orthodox Christian. 

If this is really "The First Albanian Beer," I'd hate to know what Albania was like before 1928.
Regardless of their religion, and their religion’s attitudes about alcohol, most Albanians speak the Albanian language, which I don’t hesitate to describe as weird. I think it deserves this description not because it is so strikingly different from English, but because it is so strikingly different from just about every language in the world. Because it is an Indo-European language, it shares some cognates with other European languages, and as such the links on the brewery’s Albanian-only web page can easily be translated (Foto, Kontakt, Histori, etc.). However, try clicking one of those links and reading about the brewery’s histori. Good luck. This is because Albanian branched off from the other Indo-European languages ages ago, and now has no close linguistic relatives. As a result, Albanian looks like it would be a bitch to learn. Even the country’s name for itself in its own language, Shqipëria, is a mouthful. 

Raise your hand if you thought I made a terrible typo at the intro to this blog post, listing the brewery as "Birra Korça Shpk." What in the hell kind of word is SHPK!?!? Apparently it just means "limited," though it looks awfully similar to "shqiptare," which means "Albanian."
This linguistic isolation runs parallel to a longstanding cultural isolation in Albania. This isolationism was best embodied by paranoid madman Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who, in order to thwart invasions, had over 500,000 concrete defensive bunkers built around the country. Because, you know, everyone wanted to invade Albania. Freedom appears to have had the last laugh, however, as Albania is slowly crawling out of its own bunker and into the international community. It has applied for EU membership, its Mediterranean coast is attracting tourists, and one can sit and have an ice cold Korça Pils in one of Hoxha’s bunker, turned into a bar, in the seaside town of Durrës. Shëndeti tuaj!

Half a million of these things to hunker down in, so as to protect a poor country barely bigger than Massachusetts. At least this one is currently being put to good use (source).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Country #37: Egypt

Beer: Sakara Gold

Brewery: Al Ahram Beverages, El-Obour City, Egypt

ABV: 4.0%

I just had the one, and it was a bottle. Had a drank 30 cans of these things, I TOTALLY would have made a beer-amid.
Egypt is a Muslim country, so it’s generally not a big fan of booze. Egyptian leisure activities involving unhealthy consumption run the gamut from hookah smoking to Coca-Cola binging to fig gorging, but hitting the sauce generally isn’t very popular. Egypt does make beer, though, which you should have figured out by now, because you’re reading this. So who’s drinking it?

This guy, catching rays in Sharm el-Sheikh.
There is a sizeable Coptic Christian minority (9%), and despite Hosni Mubarak’s general repression of the population, Islamic fundamentalism was never on the government’s agenda, so the beer stuck around. Egypt is also popular with tourists, what with its pyramids and excellent Red Sea scuba diving, and it’s a known fact that tourists like beer. So there are your boozers.

Egypt's Coptic Christians can be identified by their raucous partying, and pretty much always have a cross or a beer in their hand. But in all seriousness, they have been persecuted a lot lately.
It turns out that there are multiple Egyptian beers. But as far as I can tell they’re all made by the same brewery, Al Ahram Beverages (located just outside Cairo), which is, of course, owned by Heineken. The most popular domestic beer is Stella—no relation to Stella Artois—but I found a bottle of something called Sakara Gold at an upscale supermarket in Hong Kong.  The name refers to Saqqara, an ancient burial area along the Nile home to the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser. It tastes like beer, and in a hot country with few choices for alcohol, I’m sure it hits the spot.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara, as pictured on the Sakara Gold logo.
But it’s unclear for how long it will hit continue to hit that spot. While Mubarak was undoubtedly a jerkface, he was a secular jerkface who, while Muslim himself, still enforced a separation of mosque and state. While democracy has been trying to bloom in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring, many of the people winning elections are a little less sympathetic to non-Islamic culture, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have gained increased influence. It makes one wonder what might happen to the brewing industry (and, more frightening for Egypt’s economy, the tourist industry) if more conservative Muslim elements are able to pass laws in Egypt.

Horus getting shitty. Beer was used as on offering to the gods in Ancient Egypt, who were surely grateful (image credit here).
Even if theocracy takes over and alcohol is illegalized in Egypt, the country’s history will forever be tied to beer. Soon after the Ancient Egyptians figured out that the Nile’s biannual flooding made it possible for them to grow lots and lots of grain, they started making bread with the grain. And soon after they figured out how to make bread, they figured out how to make beer.  This low-alcohol beer was very different from the stuff we drink today. It was an important food source for the population of the Nile Valley, was used as wages for the workers building the pyramids, and was probably very thick and syrupy, with flecks of grain floating in it. It was so pervasive in the culture of Ancient Egypt that children drank it for breakfast. Now that’s my kind of country! (For a more detailed account of beer in Ancient Egypt, I recommend A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage, available here). Of course, since beer nerds are so often plain old nerd nerds, plenty of people have tried to replicate it. And while nobody can truly say what the stuff would have tasted like, it clearly wouldn’t have tasted anything like Sakara Gold.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

State #27: Mississippi

Beer: Southern Pecan

Brewery: Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, Kiln, Mississippi

ABV: 4.4%

Similar in color to a pecan pie, but not as sweet, thankfully.
Ah, Mississippi. The state you proudly learned how to spell in third grade, then forgot all about for a while. And while you weren’t paying attention, Mississippi was busy doing Mississippi Things. Like striving for the highest rate of obesity, the lowest rate of education, and the highest rate of 1860s-style thinking in the U.S. of A. Like fetishizing the Confederate flag. Like trying to frame your Elvis impersonator rival for poisoning the President. You know… Mississippi Things.

Eli Manning doing far less objectionable Mississippi things.
Under a list of these Mississippi Things, one would not typically think to include the making of good beer. After all, the Bible Belt is still full of dry counties, antiquated homebrewing laws, and a generally positive attitude about temperance, because boozing takes away from time spent with Jesus. So I was surprised when I tried Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company’s Southern Pecan and found it to be darn tootin’ excellent. 

What's so lazy about a tree, anyway? It's all busy photosynthesizin' while Jethro takes a nap in its shade.
I liked it despite the fact that Southern Pecan is a brown ale, and I normally don’t enjoy brown ales. They are my least favorite style of beer because most of them are just way too sweet for my liking. Some, like Newcastle, are still enjoyable to me because they have a much drier finish, but they still aren’t particularly interesting. Fortunately, Southern Pecan is a bit more interesting. While it is sweet, it also has a unique toasty, nutty flavor, because it’s actually made with whole roasted pecans—according to the brewery, that makes it the first beer in the world to pull that trick.

So apparently the natural ranges of the pecan and magnolia trees don't overlap much. But Mississippi does have 'em both.
More terroir here: pecan trees are native to the lower Mississippi River coastal plain, and magnolias grow like dandelions in the deep south.  It would be silly and gimmicky for a brewery from Denver to put pecans in a beer, but it makes perfect sense for a brewery from Kiln, Mississippi—hometown of Wrangler jeans aficionado and noted schlong photographer Brett Favre—to do it. And people seem to be enjoying it, as the brewery’s distribution footprint extends throughout the South (the same can’t be said for breweries from Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas, which rarely make it across state lines); I got mine in Florida. And hey, if you like the taste of the stuff, and want to smell like it too, Lazy Magnolia has you covered!

Or, you could just pour the beer all over yourself in the shower.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Country #36: France

Beer: Belzebuth

Brewery: Brasserie Grain d’Orge, Ronchin, France

ABV: 13.0% (!!)

Given the price, the style, the ABV, and the Frenchness, I thought this beer deserved the fancy glass.
France’s gustatory honors are many. It is home to some of the world’s best wine, best cheese, and (arguably) its best cuisine, mostly because everything is sautéed in butter. You can say a lot of snarky things about French people and French culture, but one thing you can’t say is that they are cavalier about what they eat and drink. Sure, they eat snails, but have you tried them? Good lord, those are some tasty crawling boogers!

Methinks these taste better than the things that are constantly crawling around my front walkway.
One thing France is not known for is beer. The reasons behind this are mostly geographic. Barley and hops grow well in the wet, cool climate of northern France, and beer is indeed the preferred beverage in the departments along the Belgian border. But when you think of France and alcoholic beverages, you think of wine, and for good reason. The climate and soil of the southern 90% of the country is not only perfect for growing grapes, it’s also variegated enough to result in many different varieties of grapes. French places like Bordeaux and Burgundy are synonymous with the grapes grown there, and many French wine varieties are, by law, exclusively French: for instance, you can’t call your sparkling white wine “champagne” unless it was made from grapes grown in a particular region in France. French take their terroir very seriously, which makes sense, because they invented the word and the idea behind it.

The Booze Belts of Europe. Brasserie Grain d'Orge is in the beer part of France.
When the French do drink beer, it’s usually the fizzy yellow stuff, like Kronenbourg. But if I’m going to drink a French beer, I’m going to choose something interesting. And so I found myself in the beer aisle staring at something called Belzebuth (Beelzebub), with an artsy looking devil on the label and its wine-like ABV of 13 percent prominently advertised. The beer store had a bottle put aside for me. For me! FOR ME!

13 percent is pretty evil, alright. But way to make Satan himself look like a Teletubby, France.
I did a little research before imbibing, and found that the brewery that makes the stuff, Brasserie Grain d’Orge, translates to Barleycorn Brewery: off to a good start. I also found out that the brewery is in far northeastern France, a baguette’s throw from the Belgian border, which is a good place to be from if you’re a French beer. And so I drank, excitedly, and I was… underwhelmed. It had a nice enough flavor, like a well-executed Belgian strong ale, but the flavor of the alcohol was stronger than it needed to be, and it overpowered the finer flavors that would otherwise be present from the yeast. It seems to me that the high alcohol content is a bit of a gimmick. If you’re going to drink to get drunk, your $5 (that’s what a single bottle set me back) can be more efficiently spent, and if you’re going to drink to enjoy the flavor of delicious Belgian-style beer, you can find hundreds of fantastic examples that will still pack a punch without the boozy overtones. I'd still recommend it, because it was definitely different from anything else I'd ever had. It just wasn't monde-shattering.

Some grain d'orges, or barleycorns.