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

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Country #11: Ghana

Beer: Star

Brewery: Guinness Ghana Breweries, Kumasi, Ghana

ABV: 5%

Just another beer from the third world named after a celestial body. Fun fact: this photograph was taken at the exact peak of the solar eclipse this past weekend. Not that you can tell.
While my imbibational wanderings have taken me to islands off the African coast, I have yet to set foot (tongue?) on the African continent with this blogging venture. It just so happens that I have lots of friends who travel frequently to Ghana for research (and one who never came back), so it was only a matter of time before someone stuffed their luggage with genuine Ghanaian brewskis for my personal consumption.

The label and bottle were a little roughed up, not only because it had traveled thousands of miles amongst Marta's luggage, but because glass bottles in Africa are typically sterilized and reused (with a new label slapped on haphazardly) rather than smashed and recycled, as we (probably needlessly) do here in the States.

And so, it is with great pleasure that I bestow another Chad Award to my friend Marta, who brought me back a bottle of Star Beer after her recent research jaunt in Accra (where she’s doing this). Yes, I know that Star is available in various parts of the United States (such as New York and DC); but my bottle of Star was not imported so much as it was smuggled. I think that counts for something, and Marta is to be praised heavily for her heroic efforts and consideration. After all, she brought the thing at least 7,500 miles just so I could enjoy it with my steak sandwich.

I'm relieved to know that Star is "cold filtered."

So how is the stuff? Surprisingly not bad. It’s brewed with maize and barley, as are most African beers, because barley doesn’t grow well in Africa and is expensive to import (as are hops, for that matter). But that doesn’t mean it’s awful. It has a pilsner-like flavor to it, unlike some other beers from warm countries, and didn’t seem any worse for the wear after its arduous westward journey.

I think Star could have the potential to find a market niche here in the US consisting of people who want to try beers from weird places (there are more of you out there than just me!). It tastes okay, it’s made by a huge international conglomerate, facilitating production and importation, and, perhaps most importantly, it comes from the most politically and economically stable country between South Africa and Europe (and, it should be noted, it is likely to retain some level of stability, given its commitment to democracy and a greater freedom of the press than can be found in the United States). They just need to work on their marketing: Star doesn’t scream Ghana, or anywhere in particular. 

Why not name the beer Black Star?
I’m surprised the marketing gurus in charge of selling Star didn’t just call it Black Star, after the country’s flag (for which the national soccer team, The Black Stars, is also nicknamed). Perhaps it’s a national symbol, unco-optable by branding; or maybe they feared some kind of bizarre international lawsuit from these folks. At the very least they should change their slogan from “Ghana’s Favourite Beer” to “Star: You’re Ghana love it!” Amiright?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

State #9: Michigan

Beer: The Poet Oatmeal Stout

Brewery: New Holland Brewing, Holland, Michigan

ABV: 5.2%

Is Edgar Allen Poe the poet to which this beer's name alludes? Is that his famous raven on the bottle? Didn't Poe live in Maryland? Will drinking five of these things help me answer any of these questions?
The state of Michigan has fallen on hard times lately. A bastion of manufacturing in an economy based increasingly on pushing papers and manning fryers, jobs have been fleeing the state while our cars are increasingly being built across the Detroit River in Canada. These kinds of tough times mean Michiganders deserve a beer or two.

Industrious? Got eighty bucks lying around? Buy land in Detroit and start growing hops! Do hops even grow well in Michigan? I have no idea, but you have your pick of available lots to give it a try.
The good news is that craft brewing is alive and well in Michigan. Perhaps the can-do, industrial spirit of the state is perfect for making good beer. In particular, Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo has gained a reputation among beer snobs as being top-notch, and there are at least two dozen other breweries operating in the state.

Unfortunately, Bell’s isn’t available anyplace I ever really go. Fortunately, though, New Holland Brewing Company, confusingly based in Holland, Michigan (no ‘new’ in the name), distributes a bit further afield, and I was able to pick up some of their wares this past winter when I was in New Jersey.

It's a windmill. Because the brewery is in Holland. Get it?
It being winter, I was still enjoying an inordinate number of porters and stouts, so I opted for The Poet, New Holland’s take on oatmeal stout. It was probably about the fifth beer I had on New Year’s Eve (and the eighth, and the tenth), so I don’t remember too many details about it, but I do recall it being good. The Poet was a bit bitter, not because it couldn’t get its stuff published in any quarterly reviews (nyuk nyuk), but rather because brewing with oats imparts a bitter flavor. It also had an impressive mouthfeel! That’s about all I remember.

I promised I wouldn't be pretentious and talk about mouth-feel, but New Holland did the talking for me with the back label of the bottle.
Holland, Michigan, and its namesake brewery are so named due to a profligate number of Dutch settlers on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in the 19th century. This Dutchiness has carried on into modern times, as the town hosts a big-deal tulip festival and votes for Republicans with names like Hoogendyk and Hoekstra (the charmer who thought it was appropriate to approve this message). While Dutch beer typically attracts those with little taste (their Belgian neighbors to the south have a much better grasp on brewing), the New Dutch at New Holland are okay in my book. Besides, New Belgium was taken anyway.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Country #10: Mexico

Beer: Cerveza Sol

Brewery: Cervecería Cuauhtémoc-Moctezuma, Monterrey, Mexico

ABV: 4.5%

A caguama of Sol, with the sol shining on it. I poured it into my seldom-used big pilsener glass to give it some dignity.
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!  I can still sing a Corona radio jingle from the 1990s: “The fifth of May, that means big holiday!” But guess what: nobody in Mexico really cares about Cinco de Mayo. It’s about as big a holiday there as is, say, Flag Day here.

So why all the fuss here in the States? Why are these monstrous, ten-seater bike things lurching up and down my street all day, pedaled by margarita-fueled gringos wearing sombreros, while 14 miles south the fine citizens of Tijuana are enjoying just another Saturday?

Escuche, gabacho! If this is going to be you tonight, maybe you should keep reading so you at least know what you're punishing your liver for!
It turns out there’s a good reason for us to celebrate: Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican military victory against the French in 1862. The French were inclined to support the South during the American Civil War (also going on at the time), but their defeat at the hands of the Mexicans made it difficult to exert any influence in our war, and possibly helped the Union army prevail (this article sums it up pretty well). So, in a nightmare scenario for any Southern, racist xenophobe: we celebrate because Mexicans prevented the French from helping the South keep their slaves. Ouch!

In much of the developing world, you often pay a large deposit (ten pesos, or about a dollar) for big bottles of beer. Not Sol: no deposit necessary, but it also no retornable, meaning you can't take it to the store and get money for it.
It sounds like a pretty good reason to raise a glass to our neighbors to the south, and so I did. I recently went to Baja for the weekend to celebrate my 30th birthday, and I brought back a caguama of Cerveza Sol (Spanish for sun, and not to be confused with this stuff). The word caguama, slang for sea turtle, implies that the beer is big—940 millilters, in this case. Other Moctezuma beer brands, such as Tecate and El Indio, also call their big beers caguamas, while Pacifico calls theirs ballenas (whale). 

Here's me suckling from a ballena of Pacifico in Baja in 2008, being perhaps the Least Interesting Man in the World. It appears that the caguama painted on the wall behind me does not approve of my antics.
These big boys are all about quantity over quality. Pacifico is decent, El Indio wasn’t bad (I had it in Baja, but you can’t get it here in the states), and Tecate beats most beers at its price point, but none of them are anything to write home about. Sol is unfortunately the worst of this bunch, as it hasn’t gotten the skunky beer memo and insists on putting their product in big clear bottles. It's still far better than Corona, but that’s not saying much. The only reason I brought the Sol back from Mexico is because it was one of the few beers that somehow survived the weekend without anyone opening it. And yes, there is a nascent craft brewing movement in Mexico, and particularly so in Baja, perhaps due to its proximity to San Diego. But at least I can say I bought this beer in the country where it was made. 

Friendly advice from our kind neighbors to the south that will be ignored by millions of drunken gringos tonight.
So, even if it is an Americanized holiday, and really just a commercialized excuse to sell bad beer (my friend Sam, a native of Mexicali, was derisively calling it “Drinko de Mayo” all day yesterday), I still say ¡salud!