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

Sunday, January 29, 2012

State #3: New York

Beer: Brooklyn Lager

Brewery: Brooklyn Brewery, Brooklyn, New York

ABV: 5.2%

The Tour de Northeast continues!

This ain't your average fizzy yellow lager.
From the hippest neighborhood in the hippest borough in the hippest city in America comes Brooklyn Brewery's Brooklyn Lager, which, despite its geographic advantage in hipness at nearly every scale, retains an utterly unpretentious air about it. It’s a lager, the simplest and most popular of all styles of beer. Its name isn’t cryptic or clever or allusive (though it is very geographic!). And unlike the oddly-dressed and coifed girl at the dimly lit bar in Williamsburg---exuding an air of creativity and urbanity, but who is actually a cashier at a Hot Topic in New Jersey---it’s exactly what it claims to be.

Dear Williamsburg hipsters: You look stupid. Brooklyn Lager does not.
Fortunately, it’s also much more than that. We’ve been conditioned to think of lagers as flavorless, fizzy yellow beers, and many of them are.  Brooklyn Lager is darker, hoppier, and fuller-bodied than your average lager. Unlike other symbols of hipsterdom, it doesn’t relish in being undiscovered either: Brooklyn Brewery is the 16th largest craft brewery in the United States. Like a hipster, it does care about its appearance: all of the brewery’s packaging and design elements were done by Milton Glaser, who is not a household name, but who my graphic designer father describes as “his hero.” (You may have seen his work elsewhere). And those are indeed some sharp duds: understated yet classic, with the script ‘B’ evoking the old Brooklyn Dodgers uniforms.

Brooklyn Brewery's B: sorta, kinda evocative of the old Brooklyn Dodgers' B. Maybe.
In addition to their flagship Lager, Brooklyn Brewery also makes a bunch of other tasty styles, a few of which I’ve tried. I chose the lager simply because I’ll probably be having very few good lagers as part of this endeavor, and the style deserves a little more respect than it gets. I hope it’s available on the West Coast at some point (I got a six pack while back home in Connecticut), because it’s nice to take a break from the usual IPAs now and then.

And finally, a bit of awesome trivia:

When I wrote my introduction to this blog, I wondered if an American oil company worker might be homebrewing in Saudi Arabia, which would be the only beer brewed in that country due to hard-line Islam’s disdain for booze. It turns out that one of Brooklyn Brewery’s founders, Steve Hindy, learned how to make beer in the 1980s under just those circumstances! In a bit of poetic justice, the current brewery is located in a former matzo factory. Take that, militant Islamists!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Country #2: Italy

 Beer: Peroni Nastro Azzurro

Brewery: Birra Peroni, Rome, Italy

ABV: 5.1%

When your old college roommate doesn't do the dishes for a while, you wind up drinking beer out of wine glasses. And when you take a picture of said beer after night of drinking it, you take it on the bathroom sink.
In my introduction to this blog I claimed that, when given the choice, I would always choose a microbrewed product over mass-produced, fizzy yellow swill. I will mostly stick to that standard, but don’t call me a hypocrite for representing Italy with the nearly ubiquitous Peroni Nastro Azzurro.

Peroni's label: green, white, and red. I wonder why?
You see, this is a rather expensive hobby. So, if a good friend puts an imported beer in your hand, maybe you just enjoy it and check it off your list (note: I will NOT drink a Heineken to represent the Netherlands). And so it was: on a recent trip to visit my old college roommate Steve in Boston, he claimed to be on a “major Peroni kick” after moving to the North End of the city, its oldest neighborhood and most definitely its most Italian. I had just spent almost $30 on two six packs of beer from really obscure countries (these entries coming soon!), so when he offered me a Peroni out of his fridge it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

When drinking beer from a wine-loving country, out of a wine glass, you must extend your pinkie finger outwards, not matter how stupid it makes you look.
Craft brewing isn’t unknown in Italy, despite the country’s strong preference for wine. Toronado, a great beer bar just up the street from me (on 30th Street, natch), has several selections from an Italian brewery called Baladin, and they are very expensive, so they must be good. But it seems that pale lagers like Peroni dominate the Italian beer scene.

Peroni: The PBR of Italy.

“Nastro Azzurro,” the official name of this beer (Peroni makes several other styles, but this is the only one I’ve seen in the U.S.), means “blue ribbon” in Italian, meaning this brew has something in common with every hipster’s favorite awesomely bad beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon. Can anyone tell me if hipsters in Italy drink Peroni? On my honeymoon in Venice a couple years ago, I seldom saw Peroni available. Most restaurants only served something called Castello, and you wouldn’t even have to ask for it by name. The menu would just say “birra,” and so due birre, per favore was just about the only Italian I picked up there, along with ciao! and grazie

Want to learn to speak Italian? Read the bottle, and you'll already be doing better than I did in Italy.
As far as fizzy yellow pale lagers go, this is an okay beer. It’s a bit more flavorful than Heineken, which is a bit more flavorful than Budweiser, which is a bit less flavorful than club soda. If you’re drinking more than one, I am pleased to report that each one somehow tastes better than the one before it. And when in Rome, er, Boston, the game plan is pretty much always to drink more than one. Salute!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

State #2: Connecticut

Beer: Mystic Bridge IPA

Brewery: Cottrell Brewing Company, Pawcatuck, Connecticut
ABV: 6.0%
A Connecticut beer on a real, actual kitchen table in Connecticut. Notice how the beer is completely opaque: as former Westport resident Martha Stewart would say, "It's a good thing."
While I live in California now, I grew up in Connecticut. A recent trip home the holidays was a great opportunity to pick up some beers from states and countries that would be difficult to find back in California. First up in my “Tour de Northeast” is Mystic Bridge IPA by The Cottrell Brewing Company in Pawcatuck, Connecticut, which is in the far, far eastern part of the state, just across the Pawcatuck River from Rhode Island.

I would have loved to represent Connecticut with a beer from closer to where I grew up (Fairfield County, closer in location and culture to New York City than to the rest of New England), but my options were limited: in fact, according to The Beer Mapping Project (best website ever?), there are only four breweries in the entire state that sell their beers in stores (that is, that are not strictly brew-pubs, where their beer is only sold on-site). To that end, let’s compare Connecticut to San Diego County for a minute, which is something I like to do all too often, but usually not in terms of beer:

Connecticut: Population: 3.5 million. Area: 5,500 square miles. Breweries: 4.

San Diego County: Population: 3.1 million. Area: 4,500 square miles. Breweries: 19.

Connecticut vs. San Diego County breweries, from The Beer Mapping Project. Step it up, Nutmeg State! (Cottrell is the one way over to the east).
My choice was also made easier by the fact that my wife, who is really pretty great, brought home a sixer of Mystic Bridge before I even got out of bed my first morning back in Connecticut. I am pleased to say that it is really good stuff, even compared to the West Coast-style IPAs I’m used to. Having relatively recently had New England-made IPAs from Shipyard (Maine) and Harpoon (Massachusetts), and found them to be pretty uninteresting, this was a pleasant surprise. Mystic Bridge is nice and hoppy, but not over the top with the hops, meaning the average drinker could easily enjoy three or four of them in a row. It’s also a little more citrus-y that pine-y (if you’ve never had a West Coast IPA, they can sometimes taste like you’re sucking on a pine cone, if you can imagine such an experience as somehow being enjoyable). I love my West Coast IPAs, but count me as a fan of Mystic Bridge, too.

Never heard of this brewery? I hadn’t either. But what about that name? As microbrewing has become more widespread and competitive, many breweries are trying to market themselves with names (either for the brewery itself or for their different styles of beer) that emphasize their locality. This beer is no exception, but its nomenclature may confuse some people. The Cottrell Brewing Company, according to its web site, is named for its owner and founder, one Charles Cottrell Buffum, Jr., the descendent of a local industrialist, who in addition to owning a brewery is also in possession of an awesomely blue-blooded Yankee name. The beer itself is named for the Mystic River Bascule Bridge, which is pictured on the label, and which spans the Mystic River in Mystic, Connecticut, home to the locally famous Mystic Seaport, the Mystic Aquarium, and which is the setting for this gem. There is even a Cottrell Street in Mystic, named for Ol’ Buffum’s ancestor. 

Art imitates life: The Mystic River Bascule Bridge (photo on right by Panoramio user gustl).
Here’s where it gets confusing: the brewery itself is instead in nearby Pawcatuck, which sounds like it might be in Rhode Island (and almost is). Non-New Englanders also might first think of this Mystic River, which is in Boston, instead of the one in Connecticut. While it reeks of New England goodness no matter what associations one might make, someone at the brewery was savvy enough to include a little “Made in CT” right on the six pack box.

Of course, most people are not nearly as concerned with these kinds of geographic idiosyncracies as I am; they only care about what the stuff tastes like. And it tastes good.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Country #1: St. Lucia

Beer: Piton Lager

Brewery: Windward and Leeward Brewing Company, Vieux Fort, St. Lucia

ABV: 5.0%

I begin the international portion of this blog not with a large country known for its beer, nor a country with special significance to me, nor a country most people have probably even heard of. I will start it off with the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia of all places, and its only domestically produced beer, Piton Lager.

Here it is! St. Lucia's best beer, without debate!

St. Lucia is tiny. It’s only about the size of New York City (if you subtracted Staten Island, which most New Yorkers and some Staten Islanders would be just fine with), and its population is on par with Overland Park, Kansas. But they make a beer there! The beer is named after the Pitons, two dormant volcanic peaks on the island that are something of a national symbol in a country without much space for symbolism (the triangle-shaped emblem on St. Lucia’s flag is supposed to represent the Pitons).

The big pointy thing is a Piton. Seriously.
And it’s not a bad beer, if you have realistic expectations. Throughout this venture I will be sampling many fizzy yellow beers that are the only offering from their respective nations: Crap National Lagers, if you will. Piton shall be the first of many. You can just look at the picture and know exactly what it tastes like: not great, but still better than Budweiser. Considering the balmy weather that is the norm in St. Lucia, I bet it hits the spot when you’re there.

At left, the actual Pitons (courtesy of Panoramio user man@helm). I guess whoever was drawing the mountains on the label and on the bottle cap were looking at the Pitons from the island itself.
How the hell did I even get this beer? Good question, considering it’s only exported to four other equally tiny Caribbean countries, according to the back of the bottle. It turns out I have really great friends: my newly married friend Chad stuffed a bottle of Piton amongst his filthy honeymoon laundry and brought it back from St. Lucia for me. I am blessed to have such people in my life. 

Piton is only available in St. Lucia, Barbados, St. Vincent, Grenada, and Antigua. And Chad's luggage.
So, in honor of this feat of generosity, I will hereby grant The Chad Award to anyone who brings me back a beer from a really obscure or faraway country. I’m not talking “Portugal” obscure; I’m talking “Togo” obscure, or “Timor Leste” obscure. Your only reward would be my gratitude. Or, maybe I’ll rename the award after you.
Piton is only available in 275 mL bottles (12 oz. bottles are about 330 mL, for you metric-deficient readers). Here's what it looks like in a full-sized pint glass. New motto: Piton: A small beer for a small country!

Sunday, January 8, 2012

State #1: California

Brewery: Green Flash Brewing Company, San Diego, California

Beer: 30th Street Pale Ale

ABV: 6.0%

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao-Tzu, who probably didn’t drink much beer, given Taoism’s focus on moderation, and if he did, he probably didn’t go to great lengths to attain it.

Stay safe, beer!
As if to validate Lao Tzu’s pithiness, to represent California I will start my venture as close to home as possible by sampling Green Flash Brewing Company's 30th Street Pale Ale. This selection was not as literally local as I could get—the Green Flash brewery is in the northern part of San Diego, and there are a few other breweries that are closer to my house—but it’s only about a 15 minute drive away, which isn’t too bad. But figuratively, a beer called 30th Street Pale Ale can’t get any closer to where I’m starting from: I live one block away from 30th Street, or about fifty steps based on my stride. Take that, Lao-Tzu! 

Again, most of the beer for the blog is going to come from the store, but this stuff was fresh from the brewery. Here is where the magic happens.
Green Flash named this brew in honor of the fine collection of bars and restaurants on or near 30th Street—nicknamed The Brewlevard—that have contributed to San Diego’s reputation as a craft beer mecca (sad fact: beer is banned in the actual Mecca). When it was first brewed in 2008 it was only released to a select few of these establishments, and, while produced on a slightly larger scale now, it’s still only available in and around San Diego, and only on draft. For a place of its size and population, San Diego really is remarkable in the volume and quality of beer it produces, much of which is now available far beyond the county line. To wit: Stone is available just about everywhere, and they are opening a brewing operation in Germany soon, while tiny Coronado Brewing Company now has its stuff in stores in my hometown in Connecticut. 

Can't find the Green Flash Brewery? I'm pleased to report that it's at this intersection here.
With fine offerings by Stone, Port, Lost Abbey, Alpine, Ballast Point, Coronado, and Alesmith, as well as a dozen or so other styles brewed by Green Flash, I had plenty of top-notch local options to choose from. So, I ultimately chose this beer over the hundreds of others brewed in California and the dozens made in San Diego because it pays homage to the amazing beer culture my adopted hometown fosters. While I’ve always liked beer, living here for the past four years has significantly increased my knowledge of and interest in good, locally produced beer. My social circle in San Diego is also sudsophilic: geographers like their grog. If I hadn’t been exposed to this place and these people I probably wouldn’t be interested enough in beer to write about it now.

So what about the beer itself? Even though it’s available all over my neighborhood, I traveled up the freeway to Green Flash’s new brewery and tasting room to get myself a growler of 30th Street so I could enjoy more than one glass at the bar. My choice was not simply symbolic: this is good stuff. 

That's a big beer!
It’s my go-to beer at The Station, paring remarkably well with their tater tots (full disclosure: everything pairs well with their tater tots). It’s thicker and hoppier than most pale ales, as is the norm for West Coast microbrews. My only hesitation in choosing 30th Street is that a true, hoppy-as-hell California IPA would have been far more representative of the local beer culture here. Just about all the brewers here specialize in brutally bitter (yet still delicious!) IPAs that are hoppier than anything you can get anywhere else. In fact, most California pale ales, such as 30th Street, or, more commonly, Sierra Nevada, are probably about as hoppy as most IPAs from East Coast breweries (with an extra dose of hops being what separates an IPA from a pale ale, for those who might be unfamiliar). Sometimes we don’t want our palate bombarded with bitterness though, and 30th Street does a nice job of being tasty without being obnoxious. 

A future offering from Green Flash: looks like the Black Freak has been aging for a while.
Finally, lest you were wondering just how awesome 30th Street is (the actual street, not just the beer): behold The Drinkabout. I'll be sure to report on this as soon as I get to try it.