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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Country #30: Fiji


Beer: Vonu Pure Lager

Brewery: Vonu Beer Company, Nadi, Fiji

ABV: 4.8%

This beer is not made with this water, which is probably for the best.
As hard as it will be to find beer from Africa, it’ll be even harder to find beer from any of the countries comprising Oceania, the motley smattering of volcanic and coral islands dotting the Pacific Ocean. Some of these countries are just too small to produce a beer. Tuvalu, for instance, consists of nine coral islands and atolls, has a smaller land area than Bayonne, New Jersey, and is home to only 10,000 people. Instead of attracting honeymooners, Tuvalu makes money by selling web site domain names, since their country’s top-level internet domain is (by a stroke of luck!) .tv. Nearby Nauru, a single island barely bigger than Tuvalu, made its cash by selling bird shit for fertilizer, until they ran out of the stuff and had to start laundering money for the Russian mob before giving up the practice. Both places are about a thousand miles from anything, so even if they had the population and infrastructure to support a brewery, the cost of exporting the stuff (and importing the ingredients) would be astronomical.

Volcanic islands like Fiji (and also Tonga and Vanuatu) make beer. Coral islands, like Tuvalu (left) and Nauru (right: all of it!!) don't have the space or the resources. They're more concerned with staying above water.
Fiji, however, is unique among Pacific island nations. It’s bigger and more populous than the rest of ‘em. It has mountains, and therefore much more rain, so water—a fairly important ingredient in beer—is not at a premium (though drinkable water is unfortunately scarce). And it’s a bit closer to Australia than some of the smaller islands, so it attracts loads of tourists. So, making beer is not only possible, but it’s pretty much required. Aussies like to drink, and you might as well make money selling them beer.

It aggravates me to no end that the map I use to keep track of my progress doesn't show small island countries like Cape Verde and St. Lucia, which could easily be drawn on the map. Fiji is big enough to show up here, but most of the other countries in the Pacific literally are too small to draw at the scale of this map. Still, maddening.
So a few breweries are operating in Fiji. Fiji Bitter is the most popular beer in the country, but it isn’t exported to the United States. Vonu Pure Lager is though, at least as far as Hawaii, where my wife picked some up for me. Fittingly, Vonu is made in Nadi, Fiji’s most popular tourist center, which reduces the shipping costs to get the product to the sunburned bogans who want it. It’s a pretty standard pale lager, and considering it came from thousands of miles away in a country better known for coconuts than beer, I’d say it’s quite good, and certainly more flavorful than most cheap American beers. 

Vonu is the word for sea turtle in several Polynesian languages. And now you know.
Since it’s really just an ordinary beer, the only reason I found myself drinking Vonu was because of this blog. I can find a dozen and a half beers that taste just like it that aren’t shipped thousands of miles across the ocean. I make this same argument when encouraging people not to buy Fiji Water. You can get artesian water (which is what Fiji Water is) from a variety of sources in the United States, minus the consumption of fossil fuels. This is a slight moral dilemma for me: in bringing the world to my stomach (and liver), I’m supporting unnecessary carbon emissions, all in the name of a silly hobby. In this case at least, I can be pleased that the folks at Vonu are donating a good deal of money to sea turtle conservation efforts in Fiji (vonu is a word for sea turtle). Good for them, but maybe they can do something about getting potable water to poor Fijians, too.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

State #24: Ohio


Beer: Christmas Ale

Brewery: Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio

ABV: 7.5%

Merry Christmas to me!
When you’re thirty, you’re finally old enough to ask for beer for Christmas without worrying that your family will think you have a problem. I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing it in my early twenties, especially since I was mostly drinking Keystone Light at the time. Thirty ‘Stones would have made for a rather unceremonious gift, and the sheer volume of beer involved would have been a bit too crass for Christmas.

Thanks to the dozens of places I saw this on the internet in the past month (and credit to these folks).
This year, however, I asked for beer, and beer I got. My wife got me a growler of the month club membership from ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, the brilliant new venture of my good friends Grant and Marta. I get a t-shirt, two growlers every month for a year, and a growler koozie, in addition to the prestige of being the very first member (Hey you! You should be the second!).

From Ramona, California, but by way of Ohio (and Poland). Try it!
Also, my sister and brother-in-law picked me up a six pack—a much less obscene volume!—of Christmas Ale from Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Company. For some reason I can’t find beer from Ohio in San Diego or in Connecticut, but they acquired some in New Jersey, and I’m grateful for their efforts. (Grant is also from Ohio, incidentally, but he makes his beer in California, so ChuckAlek’s stuff would not have counted).

When I think of the Great Lakes, I think of Michigan. And then Wisconsin. And then probably Ontario. And then New York. And I guess Ohio, too. (To be fair, the brewery IS only about a mile from Lake Erie).
Christmas Day in my family's house has turned into a lazy man’s dream (translation: my dream). We sit around petting the dogs, looking at the fireplace, watching my niece play with her toys, drinking dark beer, playing Scrabble, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and eating Chinese food (I am a quarter Jewish after all, not too shabby). The Christmas Ale made a nice contribution to the afternoon. It was a bit spicy, with the usual winter ale spices, but also sweet, due to the inclusion of honey in the brew tank. I normally don’t enjoy sweet beers, but honey sweetness somehow is much more enjoyable to me than the malty sweetness of certain beers, like brown ales. Regardless, the high flavor content made for a nice early afternoon sipping beer, and made my Christmas (and my cheeks) merry and bright.

Now somebody just needs to buy me this for Hanukkah next year! (From here).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Country #29: Peru


Beer: Cusqueña

Brewery: Union de Cervecerias Peruanas Backus y Johnston, Lima (not Cusco), Peru

ABV: 5.0%

Still Life with Bottle, Glass, and Aji Peppers (J. Rossiter, 2012)
Cusqueña, one of the leading Crap National Lagers of Peru, originally hails from the Andean city of Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire. The Incas, despite all their prowess in empire building, architecture, and potato cultivation, did not have a writing system. Instead, they communicated ideas with quipu, which were series of knotted cords used for counting. 

The Incas built this, but couldn't figure out writing.
Since they didn’t have a writing system, the conquistadores had to listen carefully to what the Incas were saying and write it down using whatever letters sounded about right (it’s called transliteration). At first, Cusco was spelled Qosqo, or sometimes Qusqu, and then later Cuzco and Cusco. Since the beer is simply named for the city, it could have been called Qosqoeña, or Qusqueña, or, if not for smallpox and horses, whatever the Incas themselves called someone or something from their resplendent capital. Who knows? Whatever the case, it would have sounded pretty exotic.

Pretty exotic nonetheless: an embossed bottle cap.
The Incas didn’t have a written language but, as I said, they were pretty nifty architects. They built Machu Picchu and all kinds of other ingenious structures, including a wall in Cusco featuring a single stone with twelve sides: la piedra de los doce ángulos. As far as individual masonry stones are concerned, it’s rather famous, and the folks at Backus and Johnston (least Peruvian names EVERRRR!) have engraved its image onto the Cusqueña bottle.

If you squint, you can see the "stone of 12 angles" in the bottle on the left. Don't bother counting: it has twelve sides (thanks, website!)
The Incas did not, however, have barley or hops. They did have a beer made from maize called chicha, which is still available in Peru today, but I’ll stick with the modern stuff. Cusqueña is exactly what you’d think it would be: a typical pale lager that goes splendidly, if cheaply, with the spicy food typical of Peruvian cuisine (like those bad-ass orange peppers in the picture up top). At least it doesn’t bait you with pretense, like Backus and Johnston’s other popular Crap National Lager, Cristal, which tastes nothing like the champagne (not that I’d know). 

Cristal champagne, from France: $200 a bottle. Cristal cerveza, from Peru: $1.16 a bottle.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

State #23: Texas


Beer: Elissa IPA

Brewery: St. Arnold Brewing Company, Houston, TX

ABV: 6.6%

Not so big now, are ya Texas?
In my entry about Washington, DC, I made the case that our nation’s capital should be made a state. Admitting DC would give us 51 states, which would require a redesign of the stars in our flag’s canton. UNLESS! UNLESS we decide to get rid of some states. Texas wants out? I say let ‘em go! It already fancies itself as a country anyway—and it used to be one, for what it’s worth—so why not? (Other than the fact, in actuality, it can't secede). So, for now this entry will be titled “State #23” instead of “Country #29.” 

Eh, I guess we'll keep Texas. The map would look kinda funny without it.
Anyway, on to the beer: I recently tried a bottle of St. Arnold’s Elissa IPA, from Houston. The first thing I thought of when I cracked it open was “There was a Saint Arnold?” Seriously, when I think of Arnolds, I don’t think of the performing of miracles leading to beatification. I think of these guys:

Saints they ain't.
But it turns out that there was a Saint Arnold, and, appropriately, he is the patron saint of hop-picking and beer brewing. He lived in 11th century Belgium, made beer in his abbey, and encouraged his followers to drink beer because drinking the water in 11th century Belgium frequently resulted in one’s intestines becoming liquefied. Good job, Arnie!

There's Arnie, not to be confused with some chick named Elissa.
It was only a matter of time before some brewery honored Arnold’s exploits, and so the St. Arnold Brewing Company opened in Houston in 1994, in a building that formerly housed the Houston school district’s food services offices. Fortunately for the fine citizens of Houston, the brewery only took over the building, and didn’t take over the feeding of schoolchildren, though a nice stout would probably compliment sloppy joes and tater tots better than chocolate milk.

Any bottle cap that includes a map on it is okay in my book, and the shape of Texas is pretty iconic after all. It's not like a brewery from Wyoming would get much mileage out of putting an outline of Wyoming on a bottle cap.
The Elissa IPA (named for an old tall ship anchored in Galveston) wouldn't really do those sloppy joes justice, however. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t particularly good either: it was bitter, but lacked the citrusy or piney flavors that make most American IPAs so tasty. It was also maybe a bit too malty for an IPA. It tasted more like a bitter amber ale, and if you had told me it was an amber, my expectations might have been more in line with what was actually in the bottle. My beer loving Houstonite friends have good things to say about St. Arnold however, so if you see one of their other offerings available, don’t be afraid to give it a try. I'm sure it at least beats scummy, dark-ages water.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Country #28: Sweden


Beer: Oppigårds Well-Hopped Lager

Brewery: Oppigårds Bryggeri, Hedemora, Sweden

ABV: 5.3%

The beer here looks like a blonde ale (which would have been appropriate, given its Swedish origin), but I assure you it's a lager. The dilapidated farmhouse on the bottle might also be confusing, as "farmhouse" style beers (e.g. saisons) are also very much not lagers.
As Americans, our experience with Swedish-made products is typically limited to shitty Ikea furniture. It’s a good thing Ikea doesn’t make a home beer kit. If they did, it would probably be sold as a collapsible brew tank and packets of über-generic malted barley and hops, all flat-packed into an unwieldy plank flat enough to fit under your couch, but three inches too long to fit into the trunk of your car. The brew tank would require three separate allen wrenches to assemble, it would take three hours to put it together, and it would fall apart in six months. It would be called the Brëwskittå, and you’d probably still buy it.

Page 19 of the Ikea Brëwskittå assembly instructions.
Fortunately, Ikea seems to have stayed out of the beer business altogether, leaving that to other, far more qualified Swedes. The folks at the Oppigårds Bryggeri, in bustling Hedemora (population 7,000), are certainly qualified, based on the 16 ounce sample of their wares I recently enjoyed. Their Well-Hopped Lager is exactly what you think it would be: far hoppier than a pilsner, but not as bitter as a pale ale or an IPA. It was basically a lager on steroids: darker, thicker, and much more flavorful. It was difficult to find much more information about the beer, since the Bryggeri isn’t currently making it, and doesn’t list it as an out-of-season brew on their website. However, I was able to find that they used Czech hops in the beer, giving it a decidedly different flavor than the similarly-hopped American pale ales that typically use citrusy, piney American hops.

Enough with the stars, breweries! FYI, Dalarna is the region of Sweden where the brewery is located.
I’m almost done with Scandinavian beers at this point. I’ve already done Iceland, Norway, and Finland, with only Denmark remaining. For a region not historically known for its beers—especially since hops don’t typically survive the frigid temperatures and 20-hour nights typical of Scandinavian winters—the beers have been very good. They’ve also been anything but ordinary. Most of the international beers I’ve had have been pale lagers and pilsners, while I’ve sampled sahti, barleywine, white ale, and now an excellent, distinctive lager from Scandinavia. It seems that craft brewing has taken off in the Nordic countries, displaying a passion for gustatory excellence far surpassing the stereotype put forth by this guy:


Sunday, November 18, 2012

(Should be a) State #22: Washington, DC


Beer: The Citizen

Brewery: DC Brau Brewing Company, Washington, DC

ABV: 7.0%

Curious: Among all the proudly American civic-mindedness coming from this brewery (the beer names, the Capitol Dome imagery on the cans, the statehood stuff on their web page), we have a Belgian beer from a brewery with a German-ish name.
A couple weeks ago, in a vote overlooked amongst the Bronco Bamma-Mitt Romney mayhem, residents of Puerto Rico voted in favor of becoming a full U.S. state. Puerto Ricans had voted several times before to remain a territory of the United States, but for the first time ever a plurality of voters favored statehood over independence and the status quo. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Puerto Rico will become the 51st state anytime soon: the issue is quite complicated. But it definitely raises another question: What about Washington, DC?

Of course, if we start adding states, we'll have to change our flag. If we add Puerto Rico or DC, we'll be up to 51 stars (left). If we add both, we'll have 52 (right). If we start talking about statehood for Guam, Guantanamo Bay, the Northern Mariana Islands, well... the possibilities are endless.
The District of Columbia has more people than Wyoming, and only slightly fewer than Alaska, North Dakota, and Vermont. It is part of the geographically contiguous United States, and a majority of its residents speak English as a first language, so Rick Santorum can back off. So why not make it a state? Washingtonians can vote for President, but they don’t have representation in Congress, even though they pay federal taxes. This doesn’t seem fair, and many DC residents aren’t happy about it, according to a super scientific poll of one (1) near-lifelong Washingtonian, my friend Aaron, who says “I am 100% for DC (statehood)… or a tax free life. Either one would suit me just fine, but as it stands, the current situation is bullshit.” 

My poll was not very scientific at all. But if your city decides to put this on the license plates, it's safe to say that many others agree with my friend.
I’ve written before about how breweries often try to appeal to local prides and prejudices in the marketing of their suds, and the DC Brau Brewing Company is no different. As Washington's first packaging brewery in decades, all their beers have civic-minded names. They make The Public Pale Ale, The Corruption IPA, Fermentation Without Representation (an imperial pumpkin porter), and The Citizen, a Belgian-style ale that my aforementioned friend kindly served (in great abundance!) to the guests at his wedding. (They had the Public Pale Ale there too, but I had approximately 75,000 drinks at the reception, so I don't remember much about it). 

Fun fact: I actually learned this by reading the beer can. I didn't realize that this didn't happen until 1963. Of course, while I was learning this I was also too tipsy to take a decent picture of the back of the can, so I had to borrow this shot from the interwebs.
The Citizen here is a naturalized citizen, of Belgian origin, due to the strain of yeast used in its creation. If beers were people, The Citizen couldn't be president, but it could run for any other public office, and I’d vote for it. It was the first Belgian-style beer I’d ever had out of a can, and I liked it a lot. It’s sometimes difficult to get a good, long-lasting head from beer poured out of a bottle, but the narrow opening of the can makes this a bit easier, and a good head goes a long way towards the enjoyment of a nice Belgian. A few of the Citizens we sampled were “corrupted” by an excess of lactid acid, which made them sour, but I liked the extra tartness, even if it was unintentional. As DC residents surely know, sometimes corruption gets shit done.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Country #27: Sri Lanka


Beer: Lion Stout

Brewery: Lion Brewery, Biyagama, Sri Lanka

ABV: 8.8%

Lion Stout: The Anti-Crap National Lager
Excluding the United States, this is the 27th country from which I have sampled a beer for this blog. A lot of these countries have been obscure, tropical republics, because when I have an opportunity to buy a beer from a country not known for its beer, I jump on it. My entry for Germany can wait, but if for some reason I see that Ralph’s has a beer from Guyana, I’m snatching it up.

You know who else would've snatched it up? This guy, Michael Jackson, who is is not THAT Michael Jackson, but who was just as white and is, sadly, just as dead as the singer. I'll take The Beer Hunter over The King of Pop any day.
As a result, I’ve only tried a few different styles from other countries. A whopping 19 of the 26 international beers I’ve sampled have been pale lagers or pilsners, and most of those countries have territory between the latitudes of 23.5 degrees north and 23.5 degrees south (that means tropical, for you geographic noobs). 

When you can't stop sweating, there's nothing like 166-proof beer to help you forget about how miserable you are.
So, I was very pleasantly surprised when I saw a beer from an obscure tropical country—in this case Sri Lanka—that was very much not a lager. In fact, Lion Stout, from Biyagama’s Lion Brewery, had the consistency of motor oil, was bursting with bittersweet, dark chocolate flavor, and packed a punch, too, with an ABV of 88 percent (note: not really). The fact that I found it at Cost Plus World Market, which specializes in bad pottery instead of good beer, was all the more serendipitous.

What's in a name? Arab traders called Sri Lanka Serendib, which shares an etymology with serendipity. It used to be called Sinhala, and its people and language still go by this name. Sinha means "lion," and the Sri Lankan flag, which is officially badass, has a lion (with a sword!) on it. Sri Lanka just means "venerable island." Ho-hum.
What is a beer like this doing in a country like Sri Lanka, a tropical island just a few years past decades of religious- and ethnic-fueled civil war? The answer is that, for all its (many, many, MANY) faults, sometimes colonialism does at least some good. India benefits from its use of English as a lingua franca to help it stay plugged in to the global economy! And… ummm… well, Vietnam has banh mi, thanks to France, and Sri Lanka has this beer. Good job, Europe!

Not sure what all this hubbub about lions is in Sri Lanka, as they have never lived there (the country is circled on the map here).
And Lion Stout is as colonialist as it gets. It is a dark, heavy, English-style beer, with an English language name. It comes from a brewery founded in 1881 by one Sir Samuel Backer to cater to English managers of tea plantations, and is currently made primarily for export (much like the tea on those plantations), because heavy local taxes have made beer unaffordable for most of the Sri Lankan population. Hell, the bottle and cap even call the beer’s home country Ceylon, the colonial name that hasn’t been used since 1972. 

This beer is as much from Ceylon as Chiang Kai-shek was from Formosa.
Despite it’s über-Englishness, and the fact that it’s now owned by the Danes, the fact that beer is made in Sri Lanka is ultimately good for Sri Lanka. It provides jobs for Sri Lankans, and export income for the economy. So maybe the Brits left behind something a little bit more substantial, and beneficial, than just tasty beer.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

State #21: Virginia

Beer: The Love

Brewery: Starr Hill Brewery, Crozet, VA

ABV: 4.6%

You know what's nice? Flying 3,000 miles to Virginia, getting to your friend's place, opening up the cabinet to get something to pour your beer into, and finding this glass.
Here’s a multiple choice question for you. What on earth could possess me, a man who wrote these words while wearing a sweat-stained baseball cap and a scruffy, untrimmed-for-three-weeks beard, to buy a beer with a pink label?

a)    The proceeds went to breast cancer research.
b)   I am completely secure in my masculinity. And also nobody saw me drink it.
c)    It was on super-duper sale.
d)   I was in Virginia for a wedding (Congrats, Aaron and Stefanie!), the beer was from Virginia, and I was feeling kind of mushy. And also I was thirsty.

While the fact that Mark A. Thompson has made a living making beer makes him more of a man than me, I think his third-grade-looking signature and pink-labeled beer might bring him down closer to my level of manliness.
If you chose D, congratulations! Choice B is also a decent choice, if not the best choice, because I have to be honest with you, I don’t think I’d roll up to a party with a six pack of this stuff. It’s not just that the label is pink; the beer is called The Love. From a marketing perspective, it’s approaching Smirnoff Ice levels of femininity, and I have to think that’s hurting sales among red blooded men like myself who would otherwise enjoy a nice microbrewed hefeweizen.

The 'Starr' in Starr Hill comes from the name of the neighborhood in Charlottesville where the brewery was originally located. Thus, the stars all over the bottle.
The Starr Hill Brewery, where The Love is made, claims the name comes from the yeast used in its making. A friend of the brewer brought back a particularly tasty strain of yeast from Germany, and after ten years he finally “shared the love” with the brewer by providing him with some of the yeast. Also, as we all know from reading bumper stickers, “Virginia is for Lovers.” So, I guess it’s got that going for it too, which is nice.

Check that: I think this bumper sticker sums up Virginia a little better.
The beer was just okay: standard wheat beer fare, but with very little head. I imagine the brewery must be doing well, however, since they moved from their original digs in Charlottesville to a larger facility outside of town a few years back. In general, I imagine Charlottesville must be a nice place to start up a brewery, what with all the drunk students, jerky popped-collar lacrosse players, hipster faculty, and Thomas Jefferson's ghost wandering about.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Country #26: Armenia

 
Beer: Zhigulyovskoye

Brewery: Beer of Yerevan, Yerevan, Armenia

ABV: 5.0%

Funny name, funny bottle.
Armenia is a place surrounded by places vastly different from it, and the Armenian people have long suffered for it. They are Apostolic Christians, living in mountains and valleys in the Caucasus. They are surrounded by Eastern Orthodox Georgians to the north, largely teetotaling Shia Muslim Azeris in the flat lands to the east (with whom they fought a nasty war during the late 80s and early 90s), militantly teetotaling Iranians to the south, and Sunni Muslim Turks to the west, who just happened to kill about a million and a half of them in the early 20th century and still haven’t apologized for it. 

Zagorka, from Bulgaria, didn't use any Cyrillic letters on its bottle, although Bulgaria uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Armenia has its own script, seen on the sign at right, but this beer uses Cyrillic and Latin alphabets on its bottle. Hmmmm.
Armenia is in a strategic location, at the crossroads of the Caucasus, between the oil of the Caspian Sea and the ocean lanes of the Black Sea, but has shorelines on neither. So, while these other countries, with their own acrimonious relationships with one another, started building pipelines in order to make a lira or a lari, the pipelines circumnavigated Armenia. Everyone else started cooperating and got richer for it, but Armenia wasn't invited to the party. 

Circumvented. Armenia is the little grey country in the middle without any pipelines running through it.
More woe: Armenia was part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries and part of the Soviet Union for 69 years. Its beloved national symbol, Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark supposedly ran aground as the flood receded, somehow wound up in Turkey when the borders were last established. Jesus. Sounds like the country could use a beer.

Similarly named beers hailing from (from left to right) Belarus, Lithuania, and the Russian cities of Kazan, Samara, and Irkutsk.
Since I can’t buy Armenia a beer, I bought an Armenian beer for myself. I found an oddly shaped bottle of something called Zhigulyovskoye, which is about as Armenian a name as Smith or Jones. Explanation: while Armenia was a part of the Soviet Union, it, along with all the other satellite republics that became independent upon its collapse, experienced Russification, in which Moscow sent its best and brightest to manage the Motherland’s factories and to make sure that everyone fell in line with the Kremlin’s grand plans. Branding was also not big in the USSR, so breweries around the country were all made to produce beers called Zhigulyovskoye (or some close variant thereof), even if the eponymous beers all tasted different. When the USSR collapsed, many breweries in the newly independent republics continued to make beer under that name. So there you have it.

A slightly more Armenian name surreptitiously hiding on the side of the bottle.
As far as pale lagers go, this one was pretty decent. It was hazy, thick, and yeasty, with a bit of a citrus flavor. The funny bottle is used by the brewer, Beer of Yerevan, for most of their products, which is why the bottle is imprinted with the word “Kilikia,” the far more Armenian-sounding name of another of their brands. I wonder how Armenians feel about this stuff. Is it too Russian-sounding for many proudly independent Armenians? Is that why they ship it over here? Anyone know?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Country #25: Bulgaria


Beer: Zagorka

Brewery: Zagorka Brewery, Stara Zagora, Bulgaria

ABV: 5.0%

Interesting: Bulgaria uses the cyrillic alphabet (what you otherwise might recognize as the Russian alphabet), but we don't see that on Zagorka's bottle. Clearly this one is marketed as an export.
A few years ago, finding a beer from Bulgaria in the United States probably would have been difficult. There isn’t a big Bulgarian diaspora here—for instance, in 2000 about 55,000 Americans identified themselves as Bulgarian, while Serbia, with a similar population to Bulgaria, was the ancestral home to 140,000 Americans. Most Americans probably couldn’t even conjure up a mildly offensive stereotype about Bulgaria, let alone find it one the map.

It's right here, dummy! This stuff is made in Stara Zagora, and, like every other Eastern European beer, the name Zagorka is a derivative of the name of the city in which it is made.
While other former Iron Curtain shut-ins were seeing an influx of tourists and investment dollars—think the Czech Republic—Bulgaria's economy advanced more slowly. Its economy is still largely based on agriculture, and growing grain at that (Bulgaria and bulgur share an etymology), and a heavy dependence on agriculture usually goes hand-in-hand with a developing economy. Nevertheless, by 2007 Bulgaria had done enough to merit a seat at the grown-up table of the European Union. Five years later a lot of the prestige of being a member of the EU has eroded, but at the very least Bulgaria’s inclusion allowed it to more easily export stuff to the EU’s trade partners. Like us!

The crown and the lions aren't just for showing off: they evoke the actual Bulgarian coat of arms. The red, white, and green color scheme is also appropriate.
And thus, as the geopolitical and economic stars aligned, the universe enabled me to quaff a big bottle of something called Zagorka, “The Taste of Bulgaria.” It was pretty good: a nicely hopped standard pilsner. However, someone should tell the fine, hard-working folks at the Zagorka Brewery that the Taste of Bulgaria is awfully similar to the taste of Croatia, the taste of Ghana, and the taste of the Netherlands.

Skip the brewery tour. Here's how it's done.
That’s because Zagorka is now owned by Heineken, as are seemingly half the world’s beers. They all taste mostly fine, but I’m not convinced that they’re not all made using the exact same recipe. If anyone would like to help me organize an international blind taste test of pilsners in green bottles, perhaps we can get drunk to the bottom of this.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Country #24: Guatemala


Beer: Famosa

Brewery: Cerveceria Centro Americana, Guatemala City, Guatemala

ABV: 5.0%

Never heard of it. Also: Famous since 1896? So, did you start making it in 1896? Or did you start making it in 1880, but it took 16 years for it to become famous? C'mon people, let's be clear here!
Long is the list of establishments serving mediocre food advertised as “famous” or, even more braggadocious, “world famous.” You’re not world famous just because some guy from Russia came to Texas on business and enjoyed your barbecue enough to tell his friends back home about it. Brad Pitt is world famous. Your meat isn’t.

A map of corn production. Iowa is really getting it done here, but maize is native to Guatemala, still grows there, and has found a way into this beer. With negative results.
And yet, the Crap National Lager of Guatemala, Famosa—meaning famous—has fallen prey to this silly way of thinking. I can’t say I blame the marketers here: lots of Crap National Lagers from this part of the world aim to convey an air of superiority with lofty-sounding names. Hispaniola is home to Haiti’s Prestige and the Dominican Republic’s Presidente; Puerto Rico produces Medalla (medal); Costa Rica is home to Imperial; and neighboring Mexico bestows us with Corona (crown), which really is famous (it’s the top-selling imported beer in the USA and is exported to 170 countries), though not because it’s good.

What's wrong with Gallo?
Tell me: have you ever heard of Famosa Lager? No? I hadn’t either. My good friend Will, who lived in Guatemala for a while, also hadn’t heard of it, because the stuff is called Gallo (rooster) in Guatemala, but Famosa when it is exported. Why the switcheroo? Your guess is as good as mine. Did they think us gringos would mispronounce the name? Who knows. I think naming a beer after a rooster is dignified, but the folks down in Guatemala apparently disagree. 

I'm the cock of the walk, but I can't have a beer named after me?
As one might expect, this beer should probably stay obscure rather than gain the fame its name implies it deserves. Corn grows much better than barley in the warmer, wetter climate of Mesoamerica (the Mayans were fond of it, after all), so Famosa is loaded with corn and light on barley, which is much tastier in beer. The result is a dry, flat flavor and watery texture. Another country checked off the list, but little pleasure gained other than killing a few brain cells and cracking a few jokes at its expense. And in listening to this:


State #20: South Carolina


Beer: Patriot Pale Ale

Brewery: RJ Rockers Brewing Company, Spartanburg, South Carolina

ABV: 6.0%

Yes, I know how to pour a beer into a glass. Mr. Rocker takes the blame for this one.
I find it puzzling when people from the South claim a monopoly on patriotism and a love of America. They wrap themselves in the flag, telling us to “Never Forget” 9/11, yet they abhor the urbanity and elitism of New York and Washington without ever having come within five hundred miles of them. Some of these same “patriots” will also fight tooth and nail to preserve the use of the Confederate flag, either as part of a state flag or as a stand-alone symbol to be flown next to other less offensive banners. Guess what? Your beloved Stars and Bars is a symbol for a violent, treasonous movement that killed hundreds of thousands of people so that rich, lazy white people could sit on their porch and get richer while black people got whipped for picking cotton too slowly. Violent, racist, and lazy treason: how patriotic!

I couldn't find an explanation for the brewery's name anywhere. (The founder's name is Johnsen). When I think of southern rockers, I think of this and this, unfortunately.
So, when I saw that a beer from South Carolina’s RJ Rockers Brewing Company was called Patriot Pale Ale, I immediately though “what a bunch of asses!” I bought a six pack of the stuff and drove off, resolving to make fun of it.

I think I tasted four or five drops that were NOT handcrafted. Close enough, I guess.
The good news is that, upon doing a bit of research, I learned that the founder of the brewery is a Gulf War veteran from New Jersey who had relocated down south. So, while I still deride South Carolina’s political attitudes, I salute your service, both to our country and to the craft beer industry. Seriously. Thank you.

Far more enjoyable uses of foam.
The bad news is that all six of the beers were foamtastic. I admit that the six pack tipped over in the back seat of my car when I was driving home, but that’s happened to me dozens of times, and never has an entire six pack been rendered virtually undrinkable by such a tiny tumble, especially not after two weeks of settling in the fridge. I couldn’t pour more than an ounce of the stuff into a glass without a massive head building up over the top of the glass. While the flavor was good—it was nice and hoppy, like a West Coast pale ale—the experience was altogether negative. While haute cuisine chefs do some amazing things with foams, a pint needs no more than one inch of it, and certainly not six. If I hadn’t bought the stuff in Huntington Beach, I would have gone back to the store and asked for my money back.