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

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

State #16: Montana

Beer: Moose Drool Brown Ale

Brewery: Big Sky Brewing Company, Missoula, Montana

ABV: 5.1%

Want to trick your friends, neighbors, the cops, or your dogs into thinking you're drinking an ice cold coca-cola? Have a brown ale. It's almost as sweet, too!
I’ve never been to Montana. It’s part of that big, upper-middle part of the country that I’ve yet to visit—the only part I’ve yet to visit in the main 48 states. But from all accounts it’s beautiful. Its nickname is the Big Sky State, owing to the expansive terrain and empty spaces one encounters throughout the state: it’s bigger than Japan, but has 300,000 fewer people than the city of San Diego. It’s got plains in the east, mountains in the west, geysers in the south, and glaciers in the north (well… sort of). You can fish, camp, hike, bike, canoe, look at bears, look at bison, and look at many much moosen. And what does one want to do after completing all these activities? Why, have a beer, of course.

Little known fact: the clean, clear waters of Montana's Yellowstone River are NOT fed by glaciers in the Rockies.
Missoula’s Big Sky Brewing Company has taken all of this outdoorsy identity and heavily branded their beer with it. The name of the brewery alone instantly screams Montana, as do the names of all the individual beers. I tried the delightfully assonant Moose Drool Brown Ale; other offerings include Trout Slayer Wheat and Slow Elk Oatmeal Stout. It was fine. Its biggest problem is that it’s a brown ale, which I almost universally find to be too sweet. However, if your experience with brown ales is limited to Newcastle, then you should probably try Moose Drool, which is thicker, a skosh more bitter, and a lot more flavorful. Still, though, too sweet; I can’t imagine actual moose saliva tastes anything like this.

Big Sky Brewing's other cheekily-named options.
It’s slightly ironic that Big Sky's hometown of Missoula is perhaps the least Montana-like place in the state. It is a pocket of liberal urbanity, with an economy driven by the University of Montana, in a conservative, rural state economically driven by agriculture and mining. Given craft beer’s connection with more liberal and urban cohorts, it’s not surprising that the state’s biggest craft brewery is in Missoula. That being said, at least the folks at Big Sky have the good humor to acknowledge this:

The bottom side of Big Sky's bottle caps evoke Missoula's odd town-gown-ish relationship with the rest of the state. Curious what the 3-7-77 on the bison skull refers to? Lookie here.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Country #17: Montenegro

Beer: Nikšićko

Brewery: Pivara Trebjesa, Nikšić, Montenegro

ABV: 5.0%

My goodness, that's a mouthful! (The pronunciation guide can be found a couple paragraphs down).
Happy birthday, Montenegro! You just turned six years old on June 3rd, but instead of being into Spongebob, you’re into being a booming budget tourist destination, scarfing delicious seafood, and swilling unpronounceable pilseners by the liter. 

Look at all of the crazy Slavic words here. "Doesn't Montenegro kind of sound Italian?" you say? You're right: while the rest of the world calls it Montenegro, Montenegrins call their country Crna Gora. Both translate to "Black Mountain" in English.
Although it is the world’s second youngest country (after South Sudan), Montenegrin culture and history go back far beyond 2006. It’s had its own language and customs for centuries, but has been swept up into a variety of empires: Roman, Serbian, Ottoman, and Yugoslav, to name some, before finally achieving independence again after 15 years of Balkanization slowly but violently exploded Yugoslavia into seven separate countries (see if you can name them without looking at the map below!). Montenegro is so new that it doesn’t even appear on the map I use for this blog. Oh well.

At least Google Maps is up to date.
Nikšićko is Montenegro's most popular beer, and it's been around 110 years longer than has independent Montenegro (that’s since 1896, math wiz). This name is as Balkan as they come, with diacritical marks on the S and the C. So, the name is pronounced “Neek-SHEECH-ko,” not “Nick-Sicko,” and it just means “from Nikšić,” which is Montenegro’s second largest city. (Watch the old commercial below not only for laughs, but to hear this mouthful pronounced). If you’ve ever had a beer from any of the Balkan countries, Nikšićko is just like them: an average pilsener named after the city where it’s brewed. Other examples include Sarajevesko from Sarajevo, Karlovačko from Karlovac, and Skopsko from Skopje.

The popularity of the beer, and probably the only reason I was able to get it at BevMo here in San Diego, is because when Montenegro was part of the union of Serbia and Montenegro, Nikšićko was one of the two or three biggest beers in the country. Good luck finding the Macedonian Skopsko here, for instance (but seriously, if you do, let me know because I want to try it). 

How do you say bottle cap in Montenegrin? Apparently it's boca kapa, which seems about right.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Country #16: Brazil

Beer: Xingu Black Beer

Brewery: CKBR S.A., Jacareí, Brazil

ABV: 4.7%

It's pretty black, alright.

When you think of hot, tropical countries, you think of watery, yellow beer. And, as I’ve maintained, that’s okay. When you find yourself in that part of the world, nothing beats a nice cold bottle of swill. So, it’s surprising to find that a brewery in Brazil is mass-producing a schwartzbier (black beer) for both the import and domestic markets. 

I like this beer that much more for having a map, complete with lines of latitude, on their label. I dig the caiman, too.
Xingu Black Beer (pronounced “SHIN-goo,” and named after a major tributary of the Amazon) may be just a gimmick. After all, the more popular Brazilian beers, like Brahma, are of the typical fizzy yellow variety. Xingu, according to its official history (available here), was first brewed in homage to traditional, pre-Columbian beers made by Amazon Indians, which were black in color. But without hops or barley, which weren’t brought to South America until god-knows-how-recently, this claim seems specious. Maybe the coloration is the same, but I guarantee you the flavor is not. 

Jack Russell terriers: unlike the caiman, not native to the Amazon.
And that’s for the best, probably. I’m all for a taste of the exotic (I drank raw corn beer out of a communal bucket in a township in South Africa and rather enjoyed it), but, knowing what little I do about the natural botany of the Amazon Basin (not much grain there!), I can’t fathom what ingredients might grow there that could result in a tasty product. Instead, Xingu uses regular beer ingredients, and the result is pretty good. Schwartzbiers are basically darker, slightly more full-bodied lagers, not as sweet as amber ales, not as hoppy as pale ales, but somewhere in between all of these, and Xingu is a fine example of the style, despite the Amazon’s distance from Germany.

Deforestation in the Amazon Basin. Red indicates dense vegetation, while, oddly, the green indicates non-forested areas. The Xingu River is highlighted in blue. A national park protects a large part of its watershed, but deforestation is rapidly encroaching on the Xingu.
So there’s nothing authentically Brazilian about the stuff, but I do appreciate the brewery’s efforts at preserving the ecosystems and cultures from which their beer did not come. They financially support Y Ikatu Xingu, a non-profit (warning, site is in Portuguese) dedicated to preserving the Xingu River watershed. While the entirety of the Amazon is in need of preservation, the Xingu is particularly vulnerable. As one of the southwestern-most tributaries of the Amazon, it is located far closer to Brazil’s major population centers than is much of the rest of Amazonia, making it a more attractive site for, say, cattle ranching, or, say, the growing of grains to make beer. I love me some steak and I love me some beer, but neither of things belong in the Amazon, so kudos to the makers of Xingu for doing something about it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Country #15: Slovakia

Beer: Golden Pheasant

Brewery: Hurbanovo Brewery, Hurbanovo, Slovakia

ABV: 5.0%

Golden Pheasant, golden foil, golden beer, golden-rimmed fancy glass. I feel rich.
Slovakia is a bit misunderstood by most Americans. By the time we finally figured out how to spell Czechoslovakia it wasn’t a real country anymore, having splintered into Slovakia and the awkwardly named Czech Republic. The name sounds uber-Slavic yet still familiar, and as a result I think a lot of people might think of it first when they think of Eastern Europe, and when they think of Eastern Europe they still think of backwardness and Communism. Simply refer to 2004’s cinematic masterpiece Eurotrip, and its depiction of the capital, Bratislava, as a semi-abandoned shitscape of Soviet-style housing blocks and sad anachronisms.

The reality is much different, of course. However, it’s not surprising to learn that when Slovakia’s renowned Zlatý Bažant beer came to America, the marketing gurus decided to sell it under its translated name, Golden Pheasant. After all, if our ignorant image of Slovakia includes babushkas, breadlines, and mullets, then we’d be right to assume that their beer might not be of the highest quality.

Scotty doesn't know that Slovakia is portrayed unfairly in this movie.
So here’s how wrongheaded all that is:

1) Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004. Now, the EU might be in shambles at the moment, but ascending to member status is still a major milestone for most post-Communist states, and Slovakia got there fairly quickly (along with a bunch of others in the major EU expansion of 2004).

2) While Bratislava certainly has its share of ugly utilitarian architecture on its fringes, so does Paris. Central Bratislava looks beautiful.

3) Slovakia is not some isolated backwater on the eastern fringes of civilization. It has an advanced and stable economy (for now), and Bratislava itself is less than an hour’s drive from Vienna, what with it’s classical music, stunning art and architecture, and delicious cuisine.

4) Lest we forget, though it’s culture and language are distinct from the Czech Republic’s, the part of Europe in which Slovakia lies is very friendly to hops and barley. The Czechs invented the pilsner, and the Slovaks haven’t forgotten how to make it.

Because clearly proper soil management, adequate rainfall, irrigation, and pest control are irrelevant. If this pretty little guy shows up, the barley crop will be bumper.
So it was no surprise that Golden Pheasant, or Zlatý Bažant, or whatever you call it was incredibly good for a pilsner. It’s made by the Hurbanovo Brewery in bustling Hurbanovo (population 8,000), which Wikipedia helpfully informs us has “a public library, a DVD rental store, and a cinema.” I bet half the population works at the brewery, and their product is quite nice. I don’t need to describe it for you. You’ve had pilsners, you’ve had good ones, and you’ve had bad ones. This is a good one. Try it. And, if your travels take you to Europe, try Slovakia too.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

State #15: Missouri

Beer: Bully! Porter

Brewery: Boulevard Brewing Company, Kansas City, Missouri

ABV: 5.4%

Believe it or not: St. Louis is not the largest city in Missouri. (That’d be Kansas City, by a score of 459,787 to 318,069).

I've seen pictures, and the brewery itself sorta-kinda looks like that.
Believe it or not: Kansas City is IN Missouri! I bet if you’re reading this you’re probably sharp enough to know that there are two Kansas Citys (one in Kansas, one in Missouri), but, being a geography teacher, I am keenly aware of what the average American knows (and doesn’t know) when it comes to geography, and I bet there are millions of Americans who don’t have a clue that Kansas City, Missouri, is really the Kansas City.

Finding a beer from Kansas is going to be tough. Boulevard (named after Southwest Boulevard) is less than a mile from Kansas. Hey, brewer people! Move a little to the west and make my blog easier!

Believe it or not: Anheuser-Busch is not the largest American-owned brewery in Missouri. Seeing as how the Belgians bought Budweiser in 2008, America’s worst beer is now ironically owned by people from the country that make by far the best of it. The answer to this one is Boulevard Brewing Company, the 10th largest craft brewery in the country, also of Kansas City. And everything they brew makes the cross-state swill from St. Louis taste that much worse.

Six too many Bud Lights.
As promised, I am not taking the easy way out with this blog. I could have had a Bud Light three months ago and written something snarky about it. It would have been easier to drink, and easier to write about, but instead I had a Bully! Porter (yes, the ‘!’ is officially part of the name) from Boulevard, and the world was a much better place for it. This is really tasty stuff. I found it at the State Liquor Store in Utah during my recent road trip, and enjoyed it after a sweaty day of hiking in Zion National Park. I had it on the same night that I tried Utah’s own Polygamy Porter, and found it to be a far better companion to the chili I was eating. This is a real-deal porter, unlike Polygamy: thick and black and rich and chocolaty and hoppy.  

Boulevard Brewing Company has flyover country covered: these are the states to which they distribute. What's up, Massachusetts! (Super professional awesome map made using GIS for Nitwits)

So apparently porters are not just for winter anymore. I’ve had quite a few of them this summer and enjoyed them all. It’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite styles of beer, and I’d love to get my hands on some more Bully!, but their distribution footprint leaves something to be desired, unlike Budweiser’s. Now, of course it’s fun to rag on Budweiser for being tasteless and ubiquitous, but I’m glad some people still like it for two reasons. Firstly, because the economy of St. Louis is hurting, and it needs all the brewery jobs it can support; and secondly, because it makes stuff like Bully! Porter taste all-the-more interesting.

I wrote this immediately after eating dinner, saw this picture, and got hungry all over again.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Country #14: Papua New Guinea

Beer: South Pacific Export Lager

Brewery: SP Brewery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

ABV: 4.9%

Unfortunately they could only give me this much of it, but I said "wanpela moa, plis!" ('one more, please' in tok pisin), so I think I got a feel for how the stuff tastes.
When I started this project, I made a list of countries from which I knew I could find beer, and a list of countries that I knew would be virtually impossible to check off without actually going there. Papua New Guinea was solidly on the latter of those two lists.

I didn't actually say that, of course, because the woman pouring the stuff (the blonde gal ont he left) was probably from Carlsbad, and was definitely not from Port Moresby.
So, sampling South Pacific Export Lager definitely qualifies as a “good get” for me. Even though the name implies that it is exported beyond PNG, I don’t think it makes it to the States. I was able to try it because it was available at the San Diego International Beer Festival this year, along with more than 300 other beers from 140 or so breweries. SP Brewery was definitely the odd man out, in terms of exoticism: the festival featured libations from just about every local brewery, while its international selections were limited to the likes of Canada, Mexico, the UK, and Belgium. The next most exotic brewery featured at the festival was probably one from New Zealand. 

As if the stuff you make for the locals ISN'T brewed with pride? Whatever, man.
The policy of the festival is that you can drink as much as you want, but only one ounce at a time. In order to ensure that I really “had” the beer, I asked for three consecutive tiny pours of the stuff.  Guess what? It tasted like every single fizzy yellow beer you’ve ever had. A lot of times breweries in faraway countries will produce a beer labeled as “export” to signal to the locals, who are used to drinking the brewery’s typical swill, that “this stuff is good enough for us to ship off to people who can afford better beer.” I was also able to try SP Lager, the brewery's flagship swill, and it tasted identical to the Export. So much for that.

It's the same damn beer, practically!
While Papua New Guinea’s beer may not be fascinating, just about everything else about the place is. The country consists of the western half of New Guinea and the surrounding islands, and is home to over 800 languages (Europe is home to about 50, for comparison), including the native lingua franca tok pisin (“talk pidgin”), a mish-mash of English and other languages that has developed into a full-fledged official language with increasingly complex grammar. In the remote parts of the country, the men of some tribes wear gigantic penis gourds. In the surrounding islands, the natives have figured out a way to make cricket interesting. And then there are the birds, particularly the birds-of-paradise, one of which are depicted on both the national flag and the bottle. 

I really like it when beer marketing evokes national or local symbols.
So Papua New Guinea is a paradise for birds (and penis gourd enthusiasts), but not for beer. But that’s okay, because the world needs places like that.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Country #13: Ukraine

Beer: Obolon Magnat

Brewery: Obolon Brewery, Kiev, Ukraine

ABV: 5.3%

Fancy Ukrainian beer! It's "exclusive!" It has gold foil! It's definitely NOT an ale!
If you want to upset a Ukrainian person, call them Russian. The people of Ukraine have been trying to shake Moscow’s influence since their annexation into the USSR around 1921, and the problem continues today, though Ukraine has been independent for over 20 years now. During the Cold War, Ukraine was the “breadbasket of the USSR,” and was called upon to feed the bellies of millions of impoverished Russian “comrades.” Today, ethnic Russians own half of Crimea, and exert a lot of influence in Ukrainian business and politics, to the chagrin of most Ukrainians. 

An FYI on all the bottle cap pictures: we've been collecting caps for about 5 years now and have something like 400 unique caps in our collection. It makes me especially happy to peel back some gold foil to find out that they actually have some kind of design on the cap. I'm weird.
Despite the Russian encroachment, Ukrainian identity has been, and will continue to be, tied to its fiercely independent mindset, but even more importantly, to its fields of grain. Ukraine should therefore be a great place for making beer. Hops (not a grain) grow really well in the temperate climate stretching from central Europe (around Bavaria and the Czech Republic) eastward toward the steppes of Ukraine and Russia, and Ukraine devotes a greater percentage of its land to the cultivation of barley than any country in the world. Just add water and time, and you’ve got beer. 

See the dark red splotch in Eastern Europe? That's the Ukrainians using much of their land to make barley. Good job, Ukraine. (Map thanks to University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment).
The result, for me anyway, was Obolon Magnat. I hadn’t thought I would be able to get any Ukrainian beer in San Diego. Last December, during Balboa Park’s wonderful December Nights celebration, I got to sample some Ukrainian beer, poured by a real-live Ukrainian guy, who loved Ukrainian beer, who told me “no, only in Los Angeles!” in a very thick Ukrainian accent, when asked of its local availability. I’m happy to report he was wrong. 

When we're all dead and gone, maybe alien archeologists (or maybe evolved cockroaches?) will use this bottle as a Rosetta Stone to decipher and reconcile the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. Maybe.
Magnat is advertised as an ale on the bottle, but it is anything but. It looks and tastes exactly like every single European pilsner you’ve ever had, which is not so terrible once you get past the disappointment that it’s not going to be anything special. It is made by the country’s biggest brewery, whose history in two sentences sums up pre- and post-Communist commerce Eastern Europe. 

Obolon's attempt at advertising their civic responsibility, mixed with their limited English skills, makes it sound like they want every single man, woman, and child to be drunk on their beer.
1) In typical Commie utilitarian fashion, the Obolon Brewery was originally named “Kiev Brewery #3.”

2) Upon independence, the brewery quickly became the first private enterprise of any kind in the country, and just as quickly became the dominant brewing operation in the country (though now it surprisingly only has a 32% domestic market share). It's not quite the oligarchic madness that dominates industry in Russia, but having only three breweries in a country with 46 million people and all that barley seems a bit unfortunate.

Friday, July 6, 2012

State #14: Arizona

Beer: Texas Tea

Brewery: Mother Road Brewing Company, Flagstaff, Arizona

ABV: 6.0%
Enjoy some Texas Tea whilst leaning against a mash tun. As beer geeky as I get.
After ten long but fun-filled days of driving and hiking through the Southwest, my wife and I decided that we needed an afternoon and evening of good beer and real food. Fortunately, our last night placed us in Flagstaff, Arizona, which is a fantastic place to find both of those things. After walking around a bit and enjoying $2 pints at the bar of an historic downtown hotel, we decided to walk back to our (non-historic) hotel to rest and regroup.

Flagstaff had other plans for us, however. You see, Flagstaff has gone beer mad, and it’s difficult to walk more than a few blocks without running into a brewery. Our route, down a little side street that apparently used to be the old, original Route 66, took us past Mother Road Brewing Company. We had to stop in.

Mother Road describes itself as "A brewery with a motoring problem," and all their beers' names have an automotive twist to them. I'm guessing the car parked out front doesn't belong to any of the people involved.
We sampled a few of their wares in their tap room, but were particularly smitten with the Texas Tea, a blend of their Gold Road Kolsch (35%) and Lost Highway Black IPA (65%). Despite only opening in November, Mother Road (named after the aforementioned Route 66) is already bottling their product and has a small but pleasant tap room attached to their brewing operation. The Texas Tea, being a blend of two beers, is ONLY available at the brewery itself, and in my opinion is worth the trip from wherever you are. It’s color resembled the crude oil for which it is named, but it’s not nearly as thick as, say, a stout or a porter. It did have a lot of the chocolately, malty flavors that a good porter would, plus a really nice hoppy flavor on account of its genes being mostly IPA. Basically, it had a ton of flavor, and yet hit the spot on an 80 degree afternoon.

Here's a closer look at the Tea. It's about 1/3 kolsch (the light beer in the background) and two thirds black IPA. Yum!

We liked it so much that we bought a growler of the stuff and brought it back to San Diego with us. We also stopped into a store later that night to try to find some more local beers, and the girl working there proceeded to tell us about EVERY SINGLE BEER in her store. We think she was probably high.

Cool: you can sit at a table and drink your beer literally right next to their equipment. One of the fermenters in the background (at left) had a bucket full of bubbling something-or-other below it, all right on the taproom floor. Anyone more knowledgeable than myself want to clue me in as to what's up with that bucket?
So thank goodness for Flagstaff. In a state where politicians have lost their everloving minds, where green lawns and golf courses exist miles beyond the developed core despite 5 inches of rain per year, where a walk outside in August can result in third degree burns and heatstroke, and where people appear to live in fear of just about everything, Flagstaff has retained a cool head, cool temperatures, and a cool vibe. Cheers to that.