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

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Country #30: Fiji

Beer: Vonu Pure Lager

Brewery: Vonu Beer Company, Nadi, Fiji

ABV: 4.8%

This beer is not made with this water, which is probably for the best.
As hard as it will be to find beer from Africa, it’ll be even harder to find beer from any of the countries comprising Oceania, the motley smattering of volcanic and coral islands dotting the Pacific Ocean. Some of these countries are just too small to produce a beer. Tuvalu, for instance, consists of nine coral islands and atolls, has a smaller land area than Bayonne, New Jersey, and is home to only 10,000 people. Instead of attracting honeymooners, Tuvalu makes money by selling web site domain names, since their country’s top-level internet domain is (by a stroke of luck!) .tv. Nearby Nauru, a single island barely bigger than Tuvalu, made its cash by selling bird shit for fertilizer, until they ran out of the stuff and had to start laundering money for the Russian mob before giving up the practice. Both places are about a thousand miles from anything, so even if they had the population and infrastructure to support a brewery, the cost of exporting the stuff (and importing the ingredients) would be astronomical.

Volcanic islands like Fiji (and also Tonga and Vanuatu) make beer. Coral islands, like Tuvalu (left) and Nauru (right: all of it!!) don't have the space or the resources. They're more concerned with staying above water.
Fiji, however, is unique among Pacific island nations. It’s bigger and more populous than the rest of ‘em. It has mountains, and therefore much more rain, so water—a fairly important ingredient in beer—is not at a premium (though drinkable water is unfortunately scarce). And it’s a bit closer to Australia than some of the smaller islands, so it attracts loads of tourists. So, making beer is not only possible, but it’s pretty much required. Aussies like to drink, and you might as well make money selling them beer.

It aggravates me to no end that the map I use to keep track of my progress doesn't show small island countries like Cape Verde and St. Lucia, which could easily be drawn on the map. Fiji is big enough to show up here, but most of the other countries in the Pacific literally are too small to draw at the scale of this map. Still, maddening.
So a few breweries are operating in Fiji. Fiji Bitter is the most popular beer in the country, but it isn’t exported to the United States. Vonu Pure Lager is though, at least as far as Hawaii, where my wife picked some up for me. Fittingly, Vonu is made in Nadi, Fiji’s most popular tourist center, which reduces the shipping costs to get the product to the sunburned bogans who want it. It’s a pretty standard pale lager, and considering it came from thousands of miles away in a country better known for coconuts than beer, I’d say it’s quite good, and certainly more flavorful than most cheap American beers. 

Vonu is the word for sea turtle in several Polynesian languages. And now you know.
Since it’s really just an ordinary beer, the only reason I found myself drinking Vonu was because of this blog. I can find a dozen and a half beers that taste just like it that aren’t shipped thousands of miles across the ocean. I make this same argument when encouraging people not to buy Fiji Water. You can get artesian water (which is what Fiji Water is) from a variety of sources in the United States, minus the consumption of fossil fuels. This is a slight moral dilemma for me: in bringing the world to my stomach (and liver), I’m supporting unnecessary carbon emissions, all in the name of a silly hobby. In this case at least, I can be pleased that the folks at Vonu are donating a good deal of money to sea turtle conservation efforts in Fiji (vonu is a word for sea turtle). Good for them, but maybe they can do something about getting potable water to poor Fijians, too.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

State #24: Ohio

Beer: Christmas Ale

Brewery: Great Lakes Brewing Company, Cleveland, Ohio

ABV: 7.5%

Merry Christmas to me!
When you’re thirty, you’re finally old enough to ask for beer for Christmas without worrying that your family will think you have a problem. I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing it in my early twenties, especially since I was mostly drinking Keystone Light at the time. Thirty ‘Stones would have made for a rather unceremonious gift, and the sheer volume of beer involved would have been a bit too crass for Christmas.

Thanks to the dozens of places I saw this on the internet in the past month (and credit to these folks).
This year, however, I asked for beer, and beer I got. My wife got me a growler of the month club membership from ChuckAlek Independent Brewers, the brilliant new venture of my good friends Grant and Marta. I get a t-shirt, two growlers every month for a year, and a growler koozie, in addition to the prestige of being the very first member (Hey you! You should be the second!).

From Ramona, California, but by way of Ohio (and Poland). Try it!
Also, my sister and brother-in-law picked me up a six pack—a much less obscene volume!—of Christmas Ale from Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Company. For some reason I can’t find beer from Ohio in San Diego or in Connecticut, but they acquired some in New Jersey, and I’m grateful for their efforts. (Grant is also from Ohio, incidentally, but he makes his beer in California, so ChuckAlek’s stuff would not have counted).

When I think of the Great Lakes, I think of Michigan. And then Wisconsin. And then probably Ontario. And then New York. And I guess Ohio, too. (To be fair, the brewery IS only about a mile from Lake Erie).
Christmas Day in my family's house has turned into a lazy man’s dream (translation: my dream). We sit around petting the dogs, looking at the fireplace, watching my niece play with her toys, drinking dark beer, playing Scrabble, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, and eating Chinese food (I am a quarter Jewish after all, not too shabby). The Christmas Ale made a nice contribution to the afternoon. It was a bit spicy, with the usual winter ale spices, but also sweet, due to the inclusion of honey in the brew tank. I normally don’t enjoy sweet beers, but honey sweetness somehow is much more enjoyable to me than the malty sweetness of certain beers, like brown ales. Regardless, the high flavor content made for a nice early afternoon sipping beer, and made my Christmas (and my cheeks) merry and bright.

Now somebody just needs to buy me this for Hanukkah next year! (From here).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Country #29: Peru

Beer: Cusqueña

Brewery: Union de Cervecerias Peruanas Backus y Johnston, Lima (not Cusco), Peru

ABV: 5.0%

Still Life with Bottle, Glass, and Aji Peppers (J. Rossiter, 2012)
Cusqueña, one of the leading Crap National Lagers of Peru, originally hails from the Andean city of Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire. The Incas, despite all their prowess in empire building, architecture, and potato cultivation, did not have a writing system. Instead, they communicated ideas with quipu, which were series of knotted cords used for counting. 

The Incas built this, but couldn't figure out writing.
Since they didn’t have a writing system, the conquistadores had to listen carefully to what the Incas were saying and write it down using whatever letters sounded about right (it’s called transliteration). At first, Cusco was spelled Qosqo, or sometimes Qusqu, and then later Cuzco and Cusco. Since the beer is simply named for the city, it could have been called Qosqoeña, or Qusqueña, or, if not for smallpox and horses, whatever the Incas themselves called someone or something from their resplendent capital. Who knows? Whatever the case, it would have sounded pretty exotic.

Pretty exotic nonetheless: an embossed bottle cap.
The Incas didn’t have a written language but, as I said, they were pretty nifty architects. They built Machu Picchu and all kinds of other ingenious structures, including a wall in Cusco featuring a single stone with twelve sides: la piedra de los doce ángulos. As far as individual masonry stones are concerned, it’s rather famous, and the folks at Backus and Johnston (least Peruvian names EVERRRR!) have engraved its image onto the Cusqueña bottle.

If you squint, you can see the "stone of 12 angles" in the bottle on the left. Don't bother counting: it has twelve sides (thanks, website!)
The Incas did not, however, have barley or hops. They did have a beer made from maize called chicha, which is still available in Peru today, but I’ll stick with the modern stuff. Cusqueña is exactly what you’d think it would be: a typical pale lager that goes splendidly, if cheaply, with the spicy food typical of Peruvian cuisine (like those bad-ass orange peppers in the picture up top). At least it doesn’t bait you with pretense, like Backus and Johnston’s other popular Crap National Lager, Cristal, which tastes nothing like the champagne (not that I’d know). 

Cristal champagne, from France: $200 a bottle. Cristal cerveza, from Peru: $1.16 a bottle.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

State #23: Texas

Beer: Elissa IPA

Brewery: St. Arnold Brewing Company, Houston, TX

ABV: 6.6%

Not so big now, are ya Texas?
In my entry about Washington, DC, I made the case that our nation’s capital should be made a state. Admitting DC would give us 51 states, which would require a redesign of the stars in our flag’s canton. UNLESS! UNLESS we decide to get rid of some states. Texas wants out? I say let ‘em go! It already fancies itself as a country anyway—and it used to be one, for what it’s worth—so why not? (Other than the fact, in actuality, it can't secede). So, for now this entry will be titled “State #23” instead of “Country #29.” 

Eh, I guess we'll keep Texas. The map would look kinda funny without it.
Anyway, on to the beer: I recently tried a bottle of St. Arnold’s Elissa IPA, from Houston. The first thing I thought of when I cracked it open was “There was a Saint Arnold?” Seriously, when I think of Arnolds, I don’t think of the performing of miracles leading to beatification. I think of these guys:

Saints they ain't.
But it turns out that there was a Saint Arnold, and, appropriately, he is the patron saint of hop-picking and beer brewing. He lived in 11th century Belgium, made beer in his abbey, and encouraged his followers to drink beer because drinking the water in 11th century Belgium frequently resulted in one’s intestines becoming liquefied. Good job, Arnie!

There's Arnie, not to be confused with some chick named Elissa.
It was only a matter of time before some brewery honored Arnold’s exploits, and so the St. Arnold Brewing Company opened in Houston in 1994, in a building that formerly housed the Houston school district’s food services offices. Fortunately for the fine citizens of Houston, the brewery only took over the building, and didn’t take over the feeding of schoolchildren, though a nice stout would probably compliment sloppy joes and tater tots better than chocolate milk.

Any bottle cap that includes a map on it is okay in my book, and the shape of Texas is pretty iconic after all. It's not like a brewery from Wyoming would get much mileage out of putting an outline of Wyoming on a bottle cap.
The Elissa IPA (named for an old tall ship anchored in Galveston) wouldn't really do those sloppy joes justice, however. It wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t particularly good either: it was bitter, but lacked the citrusy or piney flavors that make most American IPAs so tasty. It was also maybe a bit too malty for an IPA. It tasted more like a bitter amber ale, and if you had told me it was an amber, my expectations might have been more in line with what was actually in the bottle. My beer loving Houstonite friends have good things to say about St. Arnold however, so if you see one of their other offerings available, don’t be afraid to give it a try. I'm sure it at least beats scummy, dark-ages water.