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

Friday, July 5, 2013

Country #39: Costa Rica

Beer: Imperial

Brewery: Cerveceria Costa Rica, San Jose, Costa Rica

ABV: 4.6%

The glass provides a handy translation regarding its contents to the gringo turistas.
Yesterday, us Yanks celebrated our Independence Day. Costa Rica sort-of-kind-of has three independence days: first they said no más to Spain (September 15, 1821), then to Mexico (July 1, 1823), and then they finally split off from the United Provinces of Central America, which apparently was a thing, on March 21, 1847. Many Americans commemorated July 4th by drinking a lot of bad domestic beer. Costa Ricans really only celebrate the first independence day, September 15th, and I have no idea whether they drink a bunch of bad beer to celebrate, but if they do, they’re probably drinking Imperial.

Costa Rican Independence Day celebrations: less beer, more cows.
I have a theory as to why they only celebrate one of their three independence days: for the sake of their health. Imperial is a hyper-drinkable pale lager that, at a measly 4.6% ABV, can be consumed muy rápido. I don’t want to know how spotty my liver would be if we celebrated The Fourth of July three times a year.

It’s curious that the Crap National Lager of Costa Rica should be named Imperial, when the three aforementioned dates represent the nation’s escape from the imperial rule of three separate entities. Funny, too, that the parent company that owns the Imperial brewery and brand, something called Florida Ice & Farm Company, has also started an empire of its own. While it already has a virtual monopoly on beer in Costa Rica (it owns the other big brands in the country too, Bavaria, Pilsen, and Rock Ice), it has made forays into the American market by recently purchasing the Magic Hat Brewing Company in Vermont and the Pyramid Brewing Company in Washington state. Reverse colonialism!

Eagles have long been a symbol of imperial herarldry, as seen here in the flag of Albania, a bottle cap for mediocre beer, and the coat of arms of Austria.
Imperial’s business is also surely helped by the influx of tourists that visit Costa Rica with colons to burn. Approximately 2.2 million foreign visitors knew the way to San Jose in 2011, making Costa Rica one of the most visited countries on earth, pound-for-pound. Most crappy Latin American beers are available in the States largely to serve the immigrant market, but there really isn’t a large Costa Rican community anywhere in the U.S. because, shockingly, Costa Ricans aren’t leaving Costa Rica; in fact, Costa Rica has the happiest population on Earth, according to the people that study these things. So if Imperial is selling in the States, it must be nostalgic tourists who are buying, as well as curious schmucks like me.

Why are so many people going to Costa Rica? Because you can be in both of these places in the same day.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

State #28: North Carolina

Beer: Highland Oatmeal Porter

Brewery: Highland Brewing Company, Asheville, NC

ABV: 5.9%

A Highland beer in a class from a brewery in the lowland part of North Carolina (Wilmington). These are the things that amuse me.
Ah, the quirky liberal enclave. Lots of red states have them. Texas has Austin, home to South by Southwest and one of the best live music scenes on the planet. Georgia has Athens, home to REM and the B-52s. And North Carolina has Asheville, home to hippies and various other left-leaning, artistically-inclined folks otherwise uncharacteristic of the southern Appalachians.

Much like the fellow on the Highland beer bottle, this guy, spotted in downtown Asheville (source), is also a fan of skirts.
It’s not surprising that we find breweries in all of these places either. Austin is home to at least six breweries, Athens is home to Terrapin Beer Company, one of Georgia’s biggest and best craft brewers, and Asheville is rapidly becoming the beer capital of the Southeast. While sprawling Austin crams six breweries into 300 square miles, tiny Asheville, home to only 83,000 people in only 41 square miles, is also home to six breweries, and most of them are very highly regarded by the brewgeoisie (yes, I just made that one up, and yes I’m patting myself on the back for it). A recent article named Asheville as one of the eight best beer towns in the USA, and this strong beer culture has attracted craft brewing giant Sierra Nevada to open an East Coast brewing operation in Asheville later this year.

While Asheville is the beer capital of North Carolina, the state as a whole is performing quite well on the craft beer scene. It has the highest number of breweries (gross and per capita) in the Southeast, and is home to five of the 50 fastest growing breweries in the country, including Highland (shown on the map above, from this excellent series of maps on the state of craft brewing done by The New Yorker, found here).
Among the cluster of microbreweries operating in Asheville is the Highland Brewing Company. The name is fitting: Asheville is indeed in the highland part of North Carolina, which made it an attractive landing spot for immigrants from the Scottish highlands in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Highland Brewing Company has used this Scottish heritage as their branding motif, featuring as their logo a grizzly, bagpipe playing chap wearing a tam o’shanter and holding a massive mug of beer. The bottle also features a tartan pattern, though I’m not about to spend ten hours looking at swatches of plaid to figure out which clan it belongs to. Anyone who can figure this one out gets a free pint.

A slight resemblance, nay?
While Highland makes a variety of brews, oatmeal porter is a fitting style, given the association of oatmeal with Scotland. Porters are usually sweet and malty, and this one is no exception, but the sweetness is fortunately understated. Oatmeal is added to beers to give it a smooth texture rather than a distinct flavor, as the oils and proteins and such in the oats give it a nice creaminess. Normally one finds oatmeal stouts rather than oatmeal porters, but as far as the difference between a stout and a porter is concerned, it’s very much up for debate. Either way, a brown creamy ale like this one goes very nicely with a foggy afternoon in the crags, be it in the Appalachians or in Scotland.

Asheville is located in the high part of North Carolina, and also in the high part of North Carolina.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Country #38: Albania

Beer: Korça Pils

Brewery: Birra Korça Shpk, Korçe, Albania

ABV: 5.0%

This glass reminded me of Albania, probably because I know very little about Albania.
Whenever I’m back in Connecticut, I have to make a trip to Amity Wine and Spirit, as they never fail to stock beers from some of the world’s most obscure countries. On my most recent trip I found a six pack of something called Korça Pils, from someplace called Albania. As far as Europe goes, it doesn’t get a whole lot more obscure than Albania.

Molvania is a bit more obscure than Albania, mostly because it doesn't actually exist (link).
As far as the beer is concerned, it was fairly predictable. While Albanian is a weird language (more on that later), we see the word ‘pils’ in the beer’s name, and we know it’s a pilsner. It was so-so: a bit sweeter than some of the better, hoppier pilsners, but not bad for a country best known for having half its population killed by a vengeful Liam Neeson. 

"I don't know who you are, or where your country is. I can tell you that I don't have any money. What I do have is a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a year and a half of doing this blog. If your country doesn't make beer, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if it does, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will drink you."
According to the bottle cap, the brewery, Birra Korça Shpk, was founded in 1928, which is about when the Industrial Revolution finally made it to Albania. While the Albanian coastal plain is where most of the tiny country’s people live, most of those people are Muslims, a rarity in Europe, but not in Albania. However, the town of Korçe, home to its namesake brew, is off in the hills near Greece, which makes sense, because most of the people there are Albanian Orthodox Christian. 

If this is really "The First Albanian Beer," I'd hate to know what Albania was like before 1928.
Regardless of their religion, and their religion’s attitudes about alcohol, most Albanians speak the Albanian language, which I don’t hesitate to describe as weird. I think it deserves this description not because it is so strikingly different from English, but because it is so strikingly different from just about every language in the world. Because it is an Indo-European language, it shares some cognates with other European languages, and as such the links on the brewery’s Albanian-only web page can easily be translated (Foto, Kontakt, Histori, etc.). However, try clicking one of those links and reading about the brewery’s histori. Good luck. This is because Albanian branched off from the other Indo-European languages ages ago, and now has no close linguistic relatives. As a result, Albanian looks like it would be a bitch to learn. Even the country’s name for itself in its own language, Shqipëria, is a mouthful. 

Raise your hand if you thought I made a terrible typo at the intro to this blog post, listing the brewery as "Birra Korça Shpk." What in the hell kind of word is SHPK!?!? Apparently it just means "limited," though it looks awfully similar to "shqiptare," which means "Albanian."
This linguistic isolation runs parallel to a longstanding cultural isolation in Albania. This isolationism was best embodied by paranoid madman Communist dictator Enver Hoxha, who, in order to thwart invasions, had over 500,000 concrete defensive bunkers built around the country. Because, you know, everyone wanted to invade Albania. Freedom appears to have had the last laugh, however, as Albania is slowly crawling out of its own bunker and into the international community. It has applied for EU membership, its Mediterranean coast is attracting tourists, and one can sit and have an ice cold Korça Pils in one of Hoxha’s bunker, turned into a bar, in the seaside town of Durrës. Shëndeti tuaj!

Half a million of these things to hunker down in, so as to protect a poor country barely bigger than Massachusetts. At least this one is currently being put to good use (source).

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Country #37: Egypt

Beer: Sakara Gold

Brewery: Al Ahram Beverages, El-Obour City, Egypt

ABV: 4.0%

I just had the one, and it was a bottle. Had a drank 30 cans of these things, I TOTALLY would have made a beer-amid.
Egypt is a Muslim country, so it’s generally not a big fan of booze. Egyptian leisure activities involving unhealthy consumption run the gamut from hookah smoking to Coca-Cola binging to fig gorging, but hitting the sauce generally isn’t very popular. Egypt does make beer, though, which you should have figured out by now, because you’re reading this. So who’s drinking it?

This guy, catching rays in Sharm el-Sheikh.
There is a sizeable Coptic Christian minority (9%), and despite Hosni Mubarak’s general repression of the population, Islamic fundamentalism was never on the government’s agenda, so the beer stuck around. Egypt is also popular with tourists, what with its pyramids and excellent Red Sea scuba diving, and it’s a known fact that tourists like beer. So there are your boozers.

Egypt's Coptic Christians can be identified by their raucous partying, and pretty much always have a cross or a beer in their hand. But in all seriousness, they have been persecuted a lot lately.
It turns out that there are multiple Egyptian beers. But as far as I can tell they’re all made by the same brewery, Al Ahram Beverages (located just outside Cairo), which is, of course, owned by Heineken. The most popular domestic beer is Stella—no relation to Stella Artois—but I found a bottle of something called Sakara Gold at an upscale supermarket in Hong Kong.  The name refers to Saqqara, an ancient burial area along the Nile home to the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser. It tastes like beer, and in a hot country with few choices for alcohol, I’m sure it hits the spot.

The Step Pyramid of Djoser, at Saqqara, as pictured on the Sakara Gold logo.
But it’s unclear for how long it will hit continue to hit that spot. While Mubarak was undoubtedly a jerkface, he was a secular jerkface who, while Muslim himself, still enforced a separation of mosque and state. While democracy has been trying to bloom in Egypt in the wake of the Arab Spring, many of the people winning elections are a little less sympathetic to non-Islamic culture, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have gained increased influence. It makes one wonder what might happen to the brewing industry (and, more frightening for Egypt’s economy, the tourist industry) if more conservative Muslim elements are able to pass laws in Egypt.

Horus getting shitty. Beer was used as on offering to the gods in Ancient Egypt, who were surely grateful (image credit here).
Even if theocracy takes over and alcohol is illegalized in Egypt, the country’s history will forever be tied to beer. Soon after the Ancient Egyptians figured out that the Nile’s biannual flooding made it possible for them to grow lots and lots of grain, they started making bread with the grain. And soon after they figured out how to make bread, they figured out how to make beer.  This low-alcohol beer was very different from the stuff we drink today. It was an important food source for the population of the Nile Valley, was used as wages for the workers building the pyramids, and was probably very thick and syrupy, with flecks of grain floating in it. It was so pervasive in the culture of Ancient Egypt that children drank it for breakfast. Now that’s my kind of country! (For a more detailed account of beer in Ancient Egypt, I recommend A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage, available here). Of course, since beer nerds are so often plain old nerd nerds, plenty of people have tried to replicate it. And while nobody can truly say what the stuff would have tasted like, it clearly wouldn’t have tasted anything like Sakara Gold.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

State #27: Mississippi

Beer: Southern Pecan

Brewery: Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company, Kiln, Mississippi

ABV: 4.4%

Similar in color to a pecan pie, but not as sweet, thankfully.
Ah, Mississippi. The state you proudly learned how to spell in third grade, then forgot all about for a while. And while you weren’t paying attention, Mississippi was busy doing Mississippi Things. Like striving for the highest rate of obesity, the lowest rate of education, and the highest rate of 1860s-style thinking in the U.S. of A. Like fetishizing the Confederate flag. Like trying to frame your Elvis impersonator rival for poisoning the President. You know… Mississippi Things.

Eli Manning doing far less objectionable Mississippi things.
Under a list of these Mississippi Things, one would not typically think to include the making of good beer. After all, the Bible Belt is still full of dry counties, antiquated homebrewing laws, and a generally positive attitude about temperance, because boozing takes away from time spent with Jesus. So I was surprised when I tried Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company’s Southern Pecan and found it to be darn tootin’ excellent. 

What's so lazy about a tree, anyway? It's all busy photosynthesizin' while Jethro takes a nap in its shade.
I liked it despite the fact that Southern Pecan is a brown ale, and I normally don’t enjoy brown ales. They are my least favorite style of beer because most of them are just way too sweet for my liking. Some, like Newcastle, are still enjoyable to me because they have a much drier finish, but they still aren’t particularly interesting. Fortunately, Southern Pecan is a bit more interesting. While it is sweet, it also has a unique toasty, nutty flavor, because it’s actually made with whole roasted pecans—according to the brewery, that makes it the first beer in the world to pull that trick.

So apparently the natural ranges of the pecan and magnolia trees don't overlap much. But Mississippi does have 'em both.
More terroir here: pecan trees are native to the lower Mississippi River coastal plain, and magnolias grow like dandelions in the deep south.  It would be silly and gimmicky for a brewery from Denver to put pecans in a beer, but it makes perfect sense for a brewery from Kiln, Mississippi—hometown of Wrangler jeans aficionado and noted schlong photographer Brett Favre—to do it. And people seem to be enjoying it, as the brewery’s distribution footprint extends throughout the South (the same can’t be said for breweries from Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas, which rarely make it across state lines); I got mine in Florida. And hey, if you like the taste of the stuff, and want to smell like it too, Lazy Magnolia has you covered!

Or, you could just pour the beer all over yourself in the shower.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Country #36: France

Beer: Belzebuth

Brewery: Brasserie Grain d’Orge, Ronchin, France

ABV: 13.0% (!!)

Given the price, the style, the ABV, and the Frenchness, I thought this beer deserved the fancy glass.
France’s gustatory honors are many. It is home to some of the world’s best wine, best cheese, and (arguably) its best cuisine, mostly because everything is sautéed in butter. You can say a lot of snarky things about French people and French culture, but one thing you can’t say is that they are cavalier about what they eat and drink. Sure, they eat snails, but have you tried them? Good lord, those are some tasty crawling boogers!

Methinks these taste better than the things that are constantly crawling around my front walkway.
One thing France is not known for is beer. The reasons behind this are mostly geographic. Barley and hops grow well in the wet, cool climate of northern France, and beer is indeed the preferred beverage in the departments along the Belgian border. But when you think of France and alcoholic beverages, you think of wine, and for good reason. The climate and soil of the southern 90% of the country is not only perfect for growing grapes, it’s also variegated enough to result in many different varieties of grapes. French places like Bordeaux and Burgundy are synonymous with the grapes grown there, and many French wine varieties are, by law, exclusively French: for instance, you can’t call your sparkling white wine “champagne” unless it was made from grapes grown in a particular region in France. French take their terroir very seriously, which makes sense, because they invented the word and the idea behind it.

The Booze Belts of Europe. Brasserie Grain d'Orge is in the beer part of France.
When the French do drink beer, it’s usually the fizzy yellow stuff, like Kronenbourg. But if I’m going to drink a French beer, I’m going to choose something interesting. And so I found myself in the beer aisle staring at something called Belzebuth (Beelzebub), with an artsy looking devil on the label and its wine-like ABV of 13 percent prominently advertised. The beer store had a bottle put aside for me. For me! FOR ME!

13 percent is pretty evil, alright. But way to make Satan himself look like a Teletubby, France.
I did a little research before imbibing, and found that the brewery that makes the stuff, Brasserie Grain d’Orge, translates to Barleycorn Brewery: off to a good start. I also found out that the brewery is in far northeastern France, a baguette’s throw from the Belgian border, which is a good place to be from if you’re a French beer. And so I drank, excitedly, and I was… underwhelmed. It had a nice enough flavor, like a well-executed Belgian strong ale, but the flavor of the alcohol was stronger than it needed to be, and it overpowered the finer flavors that would otherwise be present from the yeast. It seems to me that the high alcohol content is a bit of a gimmick. If you’re going to drink to get drunk, your $5 (that’s what a single bottle set me back) can be more efficiently spent, and if you’re going to drink to enjoy the flavor of delicious Belgian-style beer, you can find hundreds of fantastic examples that will still pack a punch without the boozy overtones. I'd still recommend it, because it was definitely different from anything else I'd ever had. It just wasn't monde-shattering.

Some grain d'orges, or barleycorns.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

State #26: Florida

Beer: Jai Alai IPA

Brewery: Cigar City Brewing Company, Tampa, Florida

ABV: 7.5%

A Florida beer on a real, Florida kitchen table. How authentic!
Let’s play a game of word association. If I say the words “Florida” and “beer” to you, what image pops into your head? Give it a minute. Ready? Here’s mine: a fat white guy wearing a wife beater in a trailer park throwing an empty bottle of Miller Lite at a cameraman for Cops. 

And this is his Twitter feed
Surely this image gives an unfair portrayal of Florida and its beer scene. There are old people there too, and many Floridians prefer Busch over Miller Lite. But the guy on Cops is still what I think of first. And I’ve been to Florida, like, 15 times! 

The skyline of Ocala, probably.
Okay, joking aside, Florida isn’t all that bad once you get past the humidity and complete lack of topographic relief. It’s not cold, which is nice. Miami is interesting enough, from what I’ve heard from friends and seen on Burn Notice (I haven’t been since I was ten). There are, um, theme parks? And armadillos. Sorry guys, I’m struggling here. 

There are breweries! Yes! But instead of being located in Tampa's party central neighborhood, Cigar City is located here, in a warehouse by the aiport. Which is fine by me, actually.
At least good beer has come to Florida. There are several breweries making tasty suds in the Sunshine State, but none of them distribute as far away as California, so I had to go visit my in-laws to try some. They live outside Tampa, so my wife and I checked out Cigar City Brewing Company during our last trip back east. We would have stayed longer, but there were literally zero seats available inside the brewery, forcing us to sit outside, where it was Florida. I was able to try four of their beers, however, two of which were interesting, to say the least: the Cucumber Saison, which I imagine is fantastic if you like cucumbers, and the Humidor Imperial Stout, which tasted slightly like dirt and patchouli, but in a pleasant, earthy way. (I also had something called Florida Cracker White Ale, which that guy on Cops would probably like if he’d only try it). 

Tasty drinks from Cigar City.
The samplers were enjoyable in small quantities, but I had heard many good things about the Jai Alai IPA, so I brought a six pack of it back to my in-laws' house. It was a real-deal, ultra-hoppy west coast IPA, using citrusy hops instead of piney hops, which is fitting given its Florida origin. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I’m not alone: it scores a 99 on RateBeer, which compares very favorably with my last entry from Puerto Rico, which scores a 1. 

1) Good call on the cans, Cigar City, which enables me to bring your beer back to the west coast without worrying about it breaking in my luggage. 2) 7.5% packs quite a punch, like 200 mph pelota to the cabeza.
I also have to applaud Cigar City on their geographic awareness. The brewery’s name is a reference to its original location in Ybor City, Tampa’s traditional Cuban neighborhood, which has lately transformed into Bourbon Street minus the jazz and boobs. While Cigar City has proudly been located “Not in Ybor Since 2009,” many of their beers pay homage to the region, like the Florida Cracker (a nickname for an early white Florida settler), the Tocobaga Red Ale (named after the local indigenous tribe that the Florida Crackers probably wiped out), and WAIT A SECOND, DID THEY JUST NAME THEIR WHITE BEER AFTER A DEROGATORY WORD FOR WHITE PEOPLE, AND THEIR RED BEER AFTER A NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBE???

Where was I? Oh, and the Jai Alai IPA, named after “the most dangerous game,” once popular as a spectator sport throughout Florida because you could gamble on it and because it involves a 200 mile-per-hour ball hurtling at your face, with only a wicker basket tied to your hand to defend yourself from concussion or major dental work. Seriously, check it out. The beer, not the sport. For that, we have Youtube.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Country #35: Puerto Rico

Beer: Medalla Light

Brewery: Compañía Cerverca de Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, Puerto Rico

ABV: 4.2%

Don't let the robust head fool you: there's not a lot going on here.
Writing this blog has been fun for me not so much because I’m a beer nerd, but because I’m a geography nerd. Getting to experience different beers from all over the planet has been great, but many of them don’t taste very interesting, and beer from Asia often tastes exactly like beer from Africa, which tastes exactly like beer from Europe.

Um, North America, and... is Puerto Rico a continent? And I guess one more too.
Every now and then, though, I have a beer that tastes truly unique. Most recently, I had a bottle of Medalla Light from Puerto Rico. Medalla isn’t available in most places. Despite Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. dependency, and the lack of any importation taxes or tariffs to ship it to the mainland, I’ve only heard of it being available in places with large Puerto Rican communities, like New York and Florida, which is where I found mine. If you live somewhere without many Puerto Ricans, but still want to try Medalla Light, you’re in luck, for I have devised a recipe! Just follow these simple steps:

1)   Get a Budweiser
2)   Pour out 1/3 of it
3)   Fill the vacated space with water
4)   Voila! Enjoy your approximated Medalla Light!

For those of you who prefer your recipes in visual form.
Of all the crappy light beer I’ve had in my life, I have never tasted anything as flavorless and punchless as Medalla Light. It wasn’t really bad. I’ve had many beers that made my taste buds recoil in horror, and this one didn’t elicit such a reaction. It literally tasted like nothing. It wasn’t even very fizzy, which would have at least leant it a refreshing character to pair well with Puerto Rico’s warm weather and spicy cuisine. It was just… barely there.

This is an island that is very exuberantly proud. Just not of their beer.
Puerto Rico deserves better. In constant political limbo, teetering between the dependent status quo, possible independence, and even more possible statehood, it has developed a vibrant culture all its own, full of mofongo, salsa music, and crazy parades. Not quite country, not quite state, it is certainly a place all its own, and it’s made many interesting cultural contributions to the world.

But it also contributed Medalla Light to the world: the bottle claims that it is “premium,” “recognized on 3 continents,” and that it is an “award winning beer.” It even depicts a bunch of medals that it apparently won. Indeed, the beer is even named for a medal, which begs an interesting question: did they name the beer Medalla, and then hope that it won some medals, or did they re-name it after it won, like Pabst did after earning their glorious blue ribbon in 1893? Either way, it’s typical of the false braggadocio given to beer branding in the Caribbean basin, as seen in Famosa, Presidente, Prestige, and others. Regal name, no substance

If a beer tries to tell you that it's "premium," you can probably take it to mean that it's terrible. Premium is an empty adjective, devoid of any real meaning in the context of beer, and is often used as a marketing distraction for bad product.
After trying Medalla Light, I wondered to myself if regular Medalla might be a little bit more interesting. There are plenty of “light” versions of already-light beers from tropical countries, like Red Stripe Light and San Miguel Light, so I figured this was one of those. It turns out there is no such thing as regular Medalla. My theory is, after concocting what would become Medalla Light, the brewery HAD to label it as a light beer right off the bat, because sooner or later the marketing gurus would tell them they had to make a “light” version, and they couldn’t legally sell a bottle of air as beer.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Country #34: Hong Kong

Beer: Hong Kong Beer

Brewery: Hong Kong Beer Company Limited, Hong Kong

ABV: 4.7%

A tasty beer, made all the tastier after a day of walking approximately 47 miles around Hong Kong.
I just got back from my second trip to Asia, where I ate entirely too much food and drank entirely too much beer. The food was to die for, and I nearly did, twice: a man’s stomach lining can only take so many dumplings in one day. The beer was far less interesting, however. If you’ve had one Asian beer you’ve had ‘em all, the saying goes. People in Japan, China, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea all like pale, fizzy yellow beers made with rice. At least the rice gives Asian beers terroir, since it is literally the lifeblood of the region and included in almost every meal, and in the best cases it gives Asian beers a very dry, crisp finish that goes well with spicy cuisine. But really, most of them are pretty boring. 

A typical Hong Kong meal: a bad beer (Harbin Beer, the Coors Light of mainland China) and REALLY good food (deep fried oyster pancake).
Hong Kong, which I visited along with Taiwan in January, was under British control for over 150 years. While the Brits suck at making food, they figured out how to make good beer a long time ago. While the population of the Fragrant Harbor has always been overwhelmingly Cantonese, a whole bunch of drunken limeys and gweilos have been living there since the mid-1800s, and most of them have stuck around even though the People’s Republic regained political control in 1997. 

There sure is a lot of junk on this label, and also a junk. This is confusing: up top it says "Established," and then it doesn't tell you when it was established. It says 1997 farther down, but that's the year that HK went back to China. Somebody fire the graphic designer! (Though I do like the Mets-ish color scheme)
Given its large population of expats from a beer-loving part of the world, and the go-go capitalism still present in Hong Kong despite Chinese rule, you’d think that somebody there would have started making something thick, dark, and tasty a long time ago. Alas, you’d be wrong. Until just ten years ago, the only locally made beer was San Miguel, a Filipino brand contract brewed in Hong Kong, and it dominated the market along with something called Blue Girl, which is made in Korea exclusively for Hong Kongers with bad taste. 

I tried not to be too foreign and awkward, but asking the tiny Cantonese bartender for the bottle cap got me a strange look.
But finally, in 2003 the Hong Kong Beer Company was opened. Their flagship offering is the cleverly named Hong Kong Beer, a darker, malty lager that’s not too heavy for the tropical heat, but still plenty flavorful and interesting, especially compared with its local competition. Think Samuel Adams, but without the advertising. I had Hong Kong Beer on several occasions, mostly because I was looking out for it, but the average person might not even know it exists. San Miguel and Blue Girl are still utterly ubiquitous, and only a handful of bars and stores carry Hong Kong Beer. 

Hong Kong Beer is not heavily advertised (if at all), but it's not like Hong Kong doesn't like ads. Pretty much every street in Kowloon flows under a canopy of iron and neon, and Blue Girl signs were as plentiful as the beer itself.
Furthermore, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region also recently passed a law that eliminated tariffs on beer, so the few craft beer bars and specialty stores in the city now stock a bewildering variety of imported beers that Hong Kong Beer will have to compete with, along with another newly opened local craft brewery. For a diverse country* with good taste in food, I don’t see this being a problem, and it appears that craft beer might be ready to take off in Hong Kong. When and if it does, Hong Kong Beer can claim to have started it all.

*Yes, I'm calling it a country, even though it's Chinese territory. Hong Kong is the first place I've written about with an ambiguous status as a country, but it has its own passport, its own money, its own flag, and it sends its own teams to the Olympics and to World Cup qualifying. Sounds like a country to me.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

State #25: Kentucky

Beer: Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale

Brewery: Alltech’s Lexington Brewing Company, Lexington, Kentucky

ABV: 8.2%

Chefs and foodies get very excited when a dish’s flavors vibrantly represent a particular geographic region. Different kinds of tomatoes with different kinds of flavors—say, sweet or tangy—may grow in different regions of Italy, and the sauces of that region’s cuisine may be reflect the region’s tomatoes. Oenophiles take this idea a bit further, as those with well developed palates can sometimes pinpoint the precise valley in which a wine’s grapes were grown, based on the characteristics of the soil, and how the slope and aspect of the valley might have influenced the sunlight that struck the vines. Collectively this concept is known as terroir

Where champagne comes from. There are people out there who can taste a glass and tell which of these colored map splotches the stuff came from. THAT'S terroir.
It’s rare for beer to have instantly noticeable terroir. German beer is made with distinctive Bavarian hops, but they can be dried and compressed into pellets and shipped just about anywhere.  Belgian beers are made with particular strains of yeast, which impart a precise, tangy flavor to the beer, but these strains of yeast are also portable, and can be cultivated in labs anywhere. Aside from the obvious German and Belgian examples, the idea of terroir in beer might be better expressed by the inclusion of added flavorings that speak of a region. A Hawaiian beer with coconut is a good example, but precious few ingredients compliment beer’s natural flavor, so these examples are few and far between.

Less likely Kentucky terroir possibilities. You can't make a beer taste like an open-faced, cheese-smothered turkey sandwich (photo credit here), but if a product like this exists, I could see chicken flavored beer.
If a brewer in Kentucky wanted to jazz up a beer with a bit of local terroir, s/he wouldn’t have many options. It’d be pretty difficult to make a beer taste like fried chicken, and even harder to make it taste like a hot brown sandwich (see above). So that leaves us with bourbon, the sweet, fiery water of the Appalachians, named after the French House of Bourbon, which bestowed its name to a county in Kentucky, among other drunken places. The brown stuff has been distilling and then aging in oaken barrels in factories, sheds, and under porches in The Bluegrass State for over 300 years straight, prohibition be damned.

I know that they were trying to evoke imagery of Kentucky's thoroughbred racing history, but when I see this I think of chess first. And then Khartoum from The Godfather.
So, some enterprising Kentuckians, knowing that beer needs to spend some time sitting in barrels too, decided to take barrels that don’ had some bourbon innit, an’ put that there beers in them barrels. Result: beer that tastes like bourbon! I’m not a huge fan of bourbon, but these folks nailed it. The smell and the taste of the ale instantly evokes bourbon, and in a good way for those who really do like the stuff. It’s basically an amber ale that spent a few weeks soaking in the residue of booze left behind on the inside of old wood, picking up the sweet vanilla and smoky woodiness of the whisky. The brewery also operates a distillery that makes bourbon, but their website advertises that the beer spends time in barrels from "some of Kentucky's finest distilleries." This, to me, means "other distilleries." So, maybe stick to Maker's Mark for the real stuff, whether they start diluting it or not. But for beer that tastes like bourbon, look no further than these guys.

From the brewery's website. Looks pretty bucolic, but nothing says charred, oaken barrels and centuries of tradition less well than a name like "Alltech."
Its alcohol content, north of 8 percent, might indicate that it has literally picked up quite a bit of actual bourbon. Just like bourbon, you wouldn’t want to plow through a six pack of this stuff in one night, but it makes for a delightful sipping beer, and I imagine it tastes even better in a rocking chair on a rickety old porch.