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

Saturday, June 30, 2012

State #13: New Mexico

Beer: Santa Fe Pale Ale

Brewery: Santa Fe Brewing Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico

ABV: 5.4%

#2 in a series of 2: Southwestern beers in flimsy plastic Motel 6 cups. (#1 is here)
New Mexico is close to Mexico, but it is definitely NOT Mexico. The license plates make sure you know that it is indeed in ‘Murica: “New Mexico USA” they say, because people from Mississippi and Alabama (or even Arizona) might call the Border Patrol to report illegals if they saw a car they thought was from Mexico driving around their neighborhood. 

New Mexico is not in Mexico. Santa Fe Pale Ale was okay, but I was not "enchanted."
Mexican beer is usually bad, but you might expect New Mexican beer to be pretty good. After all, the state attracts more than its share of artsy, craftsy, do-it-yourselfers, especially to places like Taos and Santa Fe, home to the Santa Fe Brewing Company, from which I sampled their Santa Fe Pale Ale on my recent roadtrip through the Southwest.

Shiprock, in northwestern New Mexico, is a gigantic plug of a long-dormant volcano. Far more enchanting than mediocre pale ale.
It turns out that New Mexican beer is indeed better than Mexican beer, but from my limited experience it’s not a whole lot better. Unfortunately, my experience was very limited: the Safeway in Farmington where I found the Santa Fe Pale Ale had exactly five New Mexican beers to choose from (compared to the 70 or so California beers available at my tiny local corner store). I went for the pale ale because my wife and I were mainlining pale ales throughout our trip. They generally have a nice mix of interesting flavor, minus the palate-annihilating hoppy bitterness of IPAs that can get a bit obnoxious when its 98 degrees outside.

New Mexico's flag (right) might not as be as badass as Old Mexico's flag (left, with the eagle eating the snake), but among U.S. state flags it is certainly one of the more aesthetically pleasing (especially compared to, say, this, or this).
This one, unfortunately, was a bit less interesting than I would have hoped. It was a bit watery, a bit flavorless, and what flavor it did have was a bit off in a way that I really can’t describe. Perhaps this is because, as per the brewery’s website, Santa Fe Pale Ale is modeled after English pale ales, rather than the “typical American pale ale.” Is it just me, or have American pale ales become REALLY, REALLY GOOD, while, for instance, Bass now seems kind of boring?

This might be the classiest bottle cap I have ever seen.
I’ll admit that I chose this beer for its packaging more so than anything else. I’m a sucker for geographic and place-based marketing, and the Santa Fe Brewing Company (which is located on a street named, seriously, Fire Place) has basically grafted the simple, gorgeous state flag directly onto the bottle cap. There are maybe ten state flags that are sufficiently distinctive and non-tacky as to potentially double as national flags, and New Mexico’s is one of them. So, kudos to the Santa Fe Brewing Company for at least recognizing that.

Friday, June 15, 2012

State #12: Utah

Beer: Polygamy Porter

Brewery: Wasatch Beers (Utah Brewers Cooperative), Salt Lake City, Utah

ABV: 4.0%

A delicious sundowner at our campsite at Zion National Park. Tastes great in a re-used jam jar, too.
After leaving Nevada, it was on to Utah, where they have a slightly different attitude about beer than they do in Vegas. Just like Islam, Mormonism bans the consumption of alcohol by its adherents. Just as Lebanon has a Muslim majority, the state of Utah has a Mormon majority. Also like Lebanon, Utah has sizeable minority whose religion does not demand teetotalism, and—surprise!—these folks enjoy beer. So, contrary to popular belief, it is not impossible to get schnackered in the Beehive State.

Wasatch Beers was founded in the ski resort of Park City, but now brews together with Squatters Beers as the Utah Brewers Cooperative in SLC.
The Mormon influence on governance in Utah still has some annoying effects on how and where alcohol can be sold and consumed in the state, however.  Want to buy beer? No problem, just go to any supermarket or gas station, and there it is. However, you’ll find that all the beer sold there tops out at 4% ABV. The major American macrobreweries, such as Budweiser and Miller, have to brew special versions of their disgusting standbys just for sale in Utah (Bud and MGD usually clock in at 5% ABV). The packaging says “not to exceed 3.2% alcohol by weight” (which translates to 4% by volume), and in order to get anything stronger, you need to go to a restaurant or to a state-run liquor store (which is also where you’ll need to go to buy wine or booze). 

Utah is full of slightly odd but immensely friendly people and incredibly scenery. We hiked to damn near the top of this thing, which for scale is about as tall as these things. I knew the beer would taste good afterwards.
In order to stay on supermarket shelves and compete statewide with the big boys, the Utah’s microbreweries make most (but not all) of their beer at 4% ABV. The first one I tried, Polygamy Porter, is a good example. Porters just about never have ABVs below 5%, so Wasatch Beers, the makers of Polygamy, have to employ some creative chemistry in order to make it taste and feel anything like a porter (though I admittedly have no idea what these methods might entail). And honestly, Polygamy Porter isn’t really a porter at all. It’s more like a dark, chocolaty ale, but much thinner in texture than a porter. It’s good for what it is, and after a day of hiking it hit the spot.

Fun fact: there are no showers in Zion National Park, so after our big hike I went to bed smelling like beer, campfire, chili, and sweat.
Of course, because Polygamy Porter is a bit lighter, it makes it easier to drink more of them, which the marketing gurus have cleverly noticed. Everything about the beer is a less-than-subtle F-U to the Mormon establishment in Utah, which officially denounced polygamy in 1890 but still finds itself the butt of polygamy jokes. An alcoholic beverage, banned by your religion, named after an act that your religion is embarrassed about? That stings. (Of course, Mormons are somehow NOT embarrassed about this. Or this. Or this. Or this.)

Clever slogan! Just like the biblical-looking fellow on the bottle, famous Mormon Brigham Young was a poonhound.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

State #11: Nevada

Beer: Red Ryder Ale

Brewery: Tenaya Creek Brewery, Las Vegas, Nevada

ABV: 6.2%

First in a series of 2: Pictures of beer in flimsy plastic Motel 6 cups. Motel 6 has crummy lighting; the beer is still pretty dark, but it's hard to see the redness here.
The wife and I recently returned from a monster road trip through the American Southwest. Our primary goal was to see a bunch of national parks, but along the way I was excited to pick up beers from states that don’t “export” to California. Shockingly, two of the three states that border California—Nevada and Arizona—don’t ship beer there (as far as I know, anyway).

First stop here is Nevada, where I picked up a big bottle of Red Ryder Ale from Tenaya Creek Brewery in Las Vegas. We had originally planned on spending our first night in Vegas, in which case I would have drunkenly roamed the strip, taking swigs off the Red Ryder—Vegas has no open container law—all the while snickering at pear-shaped 50-somethings from Omaha with their brand-new, glistening white Avia sneakers. However, Zion National Park, in far-more-sober Utah beckoned the next day, and we decided it would be better experienced sans hangover. So, instead of a series of hilarious pictures of me making an ass out of myself in front of billion-dollar casinos, we stopped in Vegas long enough to pick up the beer, and continued on to St. George, Utah for the night.

Swing and a miss, Whole Foods.
For a state whose primary source of income depends on debauchery, it’s surprising that Nevada has so few breweries. The Beer Mapping Project lists only four packaging breweries in the state, three of which are in Metro Las Vegas. The business model should be easy, though: brew your beer, design eye-catching packaging, and have hip, 20-somethings (so, not me) walk up and down the Strip drinking the stuff. (Almost) Free advertising!

What the hell, Nevada? From from my favorite web site on the planet,  The Beer Mapping Project.
The marketing for Red Ryder is a little different. On Tenaya Creek’s bottle and web site, she comes across as a bit of a floozy. But that’s okay, and it’s befitting of Vegas. Like these girls, she’s only allowed to ply her trade in Nevada, and this geographic limitation makes her somewhat of an attraction. 

I guess she did give me what I want: a gosh-damn beer from Nevada.
But seriously, how’s the beer? In this case, really good. This is not your standard red ale. Instead, it’s darker, thicker, maltier, hoppier, and altogether more substantial than what I’m used to. Though I don’t recall any silk sheets or smoke clearing, I did enjoy the experience.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Country #12: Iceland

Beer: Icelandic White Ale

Brewery: Einstöck Beer Company, Akureyri, Iceland


ABV: 5.2%


Einstöck means 'unique' in Icelandic. No amount of googling would reveal what olgerð means. Does it just mean "brewery"? Anyone?


Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest metropolitan area, housing a whopping 18,000 residents (about the same population as Elko, Nevada). It lies a mere 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle, which means that, in the depths of the winter, the sun DOES rise every day, but on the winter solstice it gets less than one degree above the horizon. Given Akureyri’s location at the butt-end of a steep-walled fjord, there are likely a few days when its residents only get an illuminated reflection off the clouds above. These bleak conditions surely demand heavy drinking in the winter. And, in midsummer, when the sun sets for about ten minutes every night, a drink or seven might be necessary for Icelanders to help fall asleep.


Good: they've included their latitude and longitude on the label! Bad: That exact set of coordinates is right in the middle of Iceland, not in Akureyri. Okay: So saying N 65° 40' 55.7'', W 18° 6' 24.6'' would probably get awkward and confusing for most.

So, it would make sense that Akureyri might have a brewery, despite its small size and remote location. But it hasn’t always been this way: insular Iceland banned alcohol altogether until 1935, and beer for even longer, until, astonishingly, 1989. Today, alcohol is incredibly expensive, both at retail and bar prices, and can only be purchased for at-home consumption from state-run liquor stores. For example, a single 330 mL bottle of Einstöck White Ale sells for almost $3 in Iceland, four years AFTER the country’s economy collapsed; the stuff I got cost half that in California, despite being shipped about 5,000 miles. 


Winter in Akureyri, probably at about 11 a.m. According to these guys, from whom I got the picture, "The sun gets higher in the sky with every day." That's great! You, and everywhere else in the northern hemisphere!

And does this stop anyone in Iceland from tippling? Not in the slightest, as Reykjavikers in particular are notorious for drinking at home until midnight, going to the bar, and then slamming ‘em back until closing time. Imagine what the place would be like without those regulations?

The cap is not suggesting that you open the beer with an axe. Although if you have one and want to give it a shot, that'd be okay by me.

Like a lot of other Nordic breweries, Einstöck eschews traditional Nordic beer, which most of us wouldn’t recognize as beer at all, since it’s brewed without hops, which doesn’t grow well at high latitudes. Instead, they simply make beer in the styles popular with craft beer drinkers, regardless of the style's provenance. The White Ale I had  spoke more of Belgium than of Iceland, and was very good but not great. I’d compare it to something like a Hoegaarden rather than any of the amazing Trappist beers. But, lest we forget where it was made, we have the Viking on the bottle to remind us.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

State #10: Pennsylvania

Beer: Headwaters Pale Ale

Brewery: Victory Brewing Company, Downingtown, Pennsylvania

ABV: 5.1%

This beer would have been more victorious had it filled the glass. But it was still tasty.
As a New York sports fan, I am loath to think positively about the word “victory” if it has anything to do with anything near Philadelphia. The Eagles and the Phillies in particular can both go to hell, and their fans can go with them.  But Victory Brewing Company is okay in my book. Located in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, about thirty miles away from Philly as the crow flies, they have my blessing to keep winning.

This man has been victorious over many cheeseburgers, but not in very many playoff games.
As far as what, exactly, has emerged victorious, they claim it is “your taste,” and I wouldn’t argue with them. Victory's beers are loaded with hops and are universally thick and flavorful. The brew I had most recently here, Headwaters Pale Ale, tastes like a California-style pale ale (that is to say, like an IPA from anyplace else), while their IPAs that I’ve tasted are over-the-top hoppy; the names HopDevil and Hop Wallop are not being pretentious. 

As long as it's not victory for Andy Reid, who, as a Mormon, somehow got that fat without drinking a single beer.
Incidentally, if you look at the map of states that I’ve completed for this blog, it is starting to resemble a map evocative of a victory of a different kind: 

Don't worry, keep reading. I only get a TINY bit political here. Seriously.
Allow me to be political for just a moment, without going off-topic. Yes, the trend you see on my map has a lot to do with my own personal geography. I live in California, and I stocked up on beers from the Northeast while I was back visiting family in Connecticut before I started this blog (Victory’s beers are available at the store three blocks from my house in San Diego, though). However, there is still a correlation between my map and the Obama victory map from 2008.  Follow my logic:

1) Since 1978, when homebrewing was FINALLY legalized at the federal level in the United States, it has been up to the individual states to enact laws legalizing homebrewing.

2) Many of the more conservative states were slow to legalize it. Utah only legalized homebrewing in 2009, and Oklahoma in 2010. Alabama and Mississippi, clearly the two most backwards states in the country, still forbid it.

3) Almost every craft brewery is founded by someone who got their start in homebrewing, and the innovation inherent to homebrewing is the reason why we don’t have to drink shitty beer. (I’ve referenced the article linked here before, but if you haven’t read it, it’s a good read).

4) States that have a long history of legal homebrewing tend to foster more (and better) craft breweries. It is difficult to get beer from states that don’t have this history. So, Alabama and Mississippi, what gives? You are quashing an industry that fosters innovation and competition, while would provide much-needed tax revenue for your empty coffers!

Obligatory bottle cap picture.
Finally, Victory is also to be commended for their efforts at environmental stewardship. The name of this beer, Headwaters, refers to the upper reaches of the Brandywine River watershed, from which the brewery gets its water. In order to maintain the integrity of this watershed, they have set up a non-profit dedicated to its protection, and are donating a percentage of the profits from each bottle of Headwaters Pale Ale to the cause. Cheers to that.