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

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Country #23: Bolivia

Beer: Paceña

Brewery: Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional S.A., La Paz, Bolivia

ABV: 5.2%

Notice the mountains on the label. That should tell you something.
I recently enjoyed a bottle of Paceña, the most popular beer in Bolivia. It wasn’t bad for a Crap National Lager. It was very light, but had a decent level of hoppiness for a pale lager, and was more than a few steps above watery. Not great, but not bad. I’m continuously impressed by the fact that tropical republics with no longstanding tradition of brewing beer consistently produce beers that are far better than Budweiser. Besides, with the gold foil, I knew it had to be pretty good.

But enough about the beer. It’s time for science!

I'm the king of Bolivian Beer! It's not saying much, but look how awesome I am! This is also my third South American beer, and the third with this weird code on it (upper right of the photo).
My investigation began when I read the peculiar list of ingredients on Paceña’s label: water, malt, selected cereal (Cap’n Crunch? Rice Krispies?), hops, antioxydant 224 (sic). What on earth is antioxydant 224, and do I really want it in my beer? In this case, why not? Antioxidants in general are good things to have in our body. When oxidation happens to chemicals in our body, it releases another type of chemical called a free radical, which can in turn result in cellular damage and degradation. Antioxidants jump in and bind with these oxidizing agents, preventing the whole thing from happening.

It’s like this: Mr. Oxidizer, a notorious rake and womanizer, is at your friend’s wedding, which is taking place inside a cell in your body. He badly wants to dance with Miss Important Cellular Chemicals, and the prim and proper Miss Important Cellular Chemicals finds Mr. Oxidizer very attractive. But if they were to cut a rug together, it would be SCANDALOUS, and a massive brawl would eventually break out, ruining the wedding and destroying the banquet hall (aka the cell). But Miss Antioxidant steps in at the last minute and dances with Mr. Oxidizer, and since Miss Antioxidant is kind of a tramp anyway, nobody cares, and everybody goes about their business. Later on, they are seen going into Mr. Oxidizer’s room together.

Potassium metabisulfate. Doesn't she look kind of slutty?
Antioxidant 224 is also known as potassium metabisulfite. It interferes with important oxidation functions in some strains of yeast, fungi and bacteria (yes, oxidation can be bad, but all life also needs it to happen to some extent). When used in beer it basically helps sterilize the product from unwanted little baddies. But most brewers take care of this when they boil the wort, or the mixture of malted grain and water. Boiling not only kills the baddies, but it helps the bitter flavors from the hops become activated. Win-win.

This will almost certainly be the highest brewery I try for the blog. (Image from Google Earth).

So why is Cerveceria Boliviana Nacional using the stuff to make Paceña? Because La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the location of the brewery, is located about 12,000 feet above sea level. At that elevation, air pressure is significantly lower than it is at sea level, and as a result water boils at a significantly lower temperature (in this case about 189° F, as opposed to 212° F at sea level). This happens because air molecules are able to evaporate and escape their liquid state more easily, as they have a less dense shield of air pressing down on them from above. But microorganisms don’t care about air pressure. Their cell walls are ruptured only by sufficiently high temperatures. Hence the potassium metabisulfate to knock out any of the little critters that aren’t bothered by 189 degree boiling water. SCIENCE.


And while we’re at it, let me dispel the rumor that people metabolize alcohol any differently at higher elevations (which would allow you to get drunk faster). Yes, you’ll have less oxygen in your blood, especially if you’re a lowlander visiting a place like La Paz, but oxygen doesn’t play into the metabolism of alcohol, so you won’t be affected. People in La Paz use drugs (coca leaves) to help dispel the negative effects of living at high elevation, rather than embellishing them. So good for them: they can have a Paceña without getting trashed.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Country #22: Croatia

Beer:  Karlovačko              

Brewery:  Karlovačka Pivovara, Karlovac, Croatia

ABV: 5.0%

...and by 8-6-09 we were in Croatia pounding this stuff. The Croatian words on the bottle there mean something to the effect of "crowned quality, old tradition." Thanks Google!
Karlovačko is a not-so-special beer with a very special place in my liver heart. It is one of the two most popular beers in Croatia, where my wife and I spent our honeymoon, and boy did we drink a bunch of the stuff then.

What else does one do when on a beautiful, tranquil, Mediterranean island (in this case Mljet)? Drink beer and play Scrabble. Obviously. 
Croatia’s borders are contorted into a weird, boomerang-like shape. One wing of the country covers miles and miles of beautiful Adriatic coast, with its requisite fresh seafood and concrete beaches covered with beautiful women dressed as if it were 1987 and hairy, hefty men dressed as if it was Gay Pride week in The Castro. This part of the country has a very Italian feel to it, and wine is the preferred beverage. That’s where we spent our time, and, despite the Speedos, it was stunningly gorgeous, and despite the popularity of wine, we drank beer.

The only thing atypical about this Croatian beach scene is that the chap here is wearing the largest men's bathing suit in the country. (Taken on the island of Rab)
The other wing of the boomerang extends inland, cramming itself between Slovenia, Bosnia, and Hungary. Seafood is out in favor of spicy meat stews, and beer is more popular than wine. I don’t know how people dress, as we didn’t travel to this part of the country, but I imagine that at least the men here have more clothes on.

Textbook-quality annotated map of Croatia and its environs. Really all you need to know.
The city of Karlovac (pronounced KarloVOTS) is smack-dab in between these two wings, at the joint of the boomerang. The beer made there, Karlovačko (pronounced KarloVOTCHko, and just meaning “from Karlovac”), is second in market share and pronunciation difficulty to Ozujsko, but after drinking gallons of both, I'd say Karlovačko is a hair better. It’s a standard pilsner, but a pretty good one. For the sake of Jaime and I being able to drink our fill of honeymoon nostalgia, I have to thank Heineken for purchasing a majority stake in the brewery, because otherwise I probably wouldn’t be able to get it at my local booze emporium. Thanks for owning everything, Heineken!

Pivo was one of about four words of Croatian I learned (it also means beer in Russian,  Ukrainian, and a slew of other Slavic languages). The only complete sentence I remember how to say is 'dva pivo, molim," which means "two beers please." Priorities, right?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Country #21: Finland

Beer: Kataja Olut

Brewery: Lammin Sahti Oy, Lammi, Finland

ABV: 7.0%

Kataja Olut just mean 'juniper beer' in Finnish. I don't know the significance of the IV B. Gold star and a bottle of this stuff to anyone who can dig up the answer.
Finland does things a little bit differently than the rest of us. The Finnish language is a crazy mishmash of difficult vowel chains, like some bizarro Nordic version of Hawaiian. For example: Suomi on hyvin outo maa monia miellyttäviä valkoiset ihmiset, jotka haluavat istua alasti pienessä kuumassa huoneessa. 

Now here's a country that is secure in its masculinity. A little too secure, maybe.
Their national pastime is sitting naked in tiny hot rooms, and while they do enjoy baseball, just look at what they’ve done to it:

They also have a slightly different take on beer. Sure, regularly hopped beer is available for purchase in the country. But the traditional, national beer style, sahti, is a whole other animal. Since hops don’t grow well in the frigid glacial till near the Arctic Circle, boozehound Finns had to come up with some other kind of concoction that they could make with whatever they had lying around in their country.

Like this stuff (juniper branches and berries)
Sahti is still considered a beer because it is a yeast-fermented beverage made from malted grain. But the similarities end there. Most sahti doesn’t use any hops (though some use a pinch). Instead, the beer is flavored with juniper, just like gin. But it tastes nothing like gin; instead, it has a sweetish, highly tart and fruity flavor, to go along with a reddish brown color and very little carbonation. Those who enjoy sour beers might enjoy sahti, but it really is entirely different from anything else I’ve ever had. I liked it, but I can't foresee purchasing the stuff again, unless I somehow find myself in Finland.

No bottle cap design. Just an exorbitant price tag for a wacky Finnish beer (that's the price for one 11.2 ounce bottle).
The stuff I had was called Kataja Olut, and was made by Lammin Sahti Oy, the oldest commercial sahti brewer in Finland. But they’ve only been making it there since 1987. Before then, sahti was only made by home brewers in their barns. According to The Oxford Companion to Beer, in order to homebrew sahti “the traditional vessel used is the muuripata, a wood-heated built-in cauldron, which is standard equipment for heating water in a Finnish sauna.” Sounds about right.

Monday, September 3, 2012

State #19: Louisiana

Beer: Purple Haze

Brewery: Abita Brewing Company, Abita Springs, Louisiana

ABV: 4.2%

A bottle of Purple Haze. Abita also packages their beer in cans, which is smart: the French Quarter has no open container laws as long as you're not carrying glass. So bottoms up, Bourbon Street!
Other than Texas, Louisiana is the only southern state that is home to a craft brewery that distributes nationally. The Abita Brewing Company has been churning out scrumptious suds since 1986, which is ancient in the world of craft brewing. This makes some sense: while most of Louisiana has a conservative streak, New Orleans, with its jazz, boobs, beads, and lack of open container laws, is just across the shallow waters of Lake Pontchartrain from Abita Springs, where the brewery is located. If you ask me, making beer less than 50 miles from the party capital of the United States is a solid business plan. (And don’t tell me it’s Vegas, or wherever you went to college, because you are wrong: it’s New Orleans).

The same state, but worlds apart.
The beer I tried here is called Purple Haze. While Abita makes a variety of regular craft beer styles (pale ales, IPAs, etc), Purple Haze belies the macho, overhopped bitterness that seems to pervade craft beer culture. Let me cut to the chase: the stuff is made with raspberries. Sure, maybe some of the girlishness associated with raspberries is mitigated by naming the beer after one of the best rock songs ever, but seriously: raspberries. I’d had Purple Haze many times in the past, but not in several years, and I was afraid to try it again because frankly I thought it would be terrible now that my tastes have evolved. But, I chose it over Abita’s other offerings because it’s different, and I thought it would be more interesting to write about, even if I was making fun of it.

Bottle cap! Considering the stuff is made in Abita Springs, they better be using spring water. It sure beats whatever's running down the gutters in New Orleans on Ash Wednesday.
But check this: I still really like the stuff. It’s a lager, but a full bodied one, and the raspberries give it a nice tartness, rather than an obnoxious sweetness. Think of eating actual raspberries, as opposed to some candy that turns your tongue blue. If you have a friend who dislikes beer and only drinks Smirnoff Ice or other such liquid abominations, have them try Purple Haze. They might like it, and you probably will too.

Seriously, why call it a malt beverage? It's beer! Are they obliged to label it as such because it has fruit in it?
Finally, let’s drink to Louisiana as they clean up after yet another hurricane. This time it was called Isaac, and it missed the world’s most oppressive party (the Republican National Convention in Tampa) and instead went straight for the world’s most liberating one (every single night on Bourbon Street). Fortunately Isaac was weaker than Katrina, and a lot of levees and floodwalls have been rebuilt or improved since 2005, so the damage was minimal in New Orleans, but it was still devastating in some places.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Country #20: Uruguay

Beer: Pilsen

Brewery: Fabricas Nacionales de Cerveza, Montevideo, Uruguay

ABV: 5.1%

A generic glass for a generically named beer.
Ah, the pilsner. Invented in the Czech town of Plzen and since disseminated all over the globe, it is often one of the few styles we have to choose from when traveling around the world. Oftentimes, when I’ve found myself traveling someplace where I didn’t speak the language, I would have to gamble on my beer selection by choosing the one with the most interesting sounding name. After all, who is to know which of the three beers available is a pale lager, which is a pilsner, and which might be something a bit more interesting? 

I've done two beers from South America thus far, and both of them had some weird code printed on all the bottle caps. The Xingu bottle cap had some indecipherable symbol, whereas these all had some random series of numbers. Batch number? Any ideas? (The 120211 is probably a packaging date, if I had to guess).
This strategy has sometimes worked out well (such as when I tried Cerveza Kunstmann in Chile), and sometimes not well at all (when I went for the Sarajevesko in Bosnia over the brand simply called ‘Pan’). Now if only some enterprising brewery would just make these choices easier…

A slew of creatively named Latin American beers. Pilsen, Pilsener from El Salvador, and Pilsener from Ecuador.
A-ha! Muchas gracias, Fabricas Nacionales de Cerveza of lovely Montevideo, Uruguay! Your beer Pilsen is not misleading in the slightest. It’s a pilsner! It turns out that Patricia, the other major brand of beer in Uruguay, is also a pilsner and tastes remarkably similar to Pilsen, but who could guess what the hell Patricia tastes like based on that totally weird, vague name?

A nice little street scene in Colonia del Sacramento. Much of Uruguay lends itself to a slow paced life full of beery afternoons (provided, you know, you're not from there, and have to be at work and whatnot).
All kidding aside, Pilsen is pretty good. It’s considerably sweeter and fizzier than the average pilsener, but that makes it unique (ironically, despite the generic name), and I like it. I like Uruguay, too. It’s one of the few countries I’ve written about for this blog that I’ve actually visited, and Jaime and I wished we had spent more time there during our travels. It’s like a smaller, calmer, less fanatical Argentina, with all the great culture, food, and architecture of its massive neighbor, minus the hubbub. They even speak more slowly, so I could actually understand what people were saying despite their thick rioplatense version of Spanish. Perhaps they speak so slowly because they’ve had a few too many Pilsens?