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

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.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Country #33: Taiwan

Beer: Taiwan Beer Draft

Brewery: Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation, Taipei, Taiwan

ABV: 5.0%

Taiwan Beer Draft with actual Taiwan in the background. P.S., that is a regular pint glass. The bottle was about two feet tall.*
I recently returned from a trip to Taiwan. In addition to getting to see and experience a new country and culture for the first time, I also went to visit my insanely gregarious Taiwanese friend Ray, who showed me around his country, made sure I ate all the best food, and gave me a place to stay. In addition to good food, Ray is also a connoisseur of "lame jokes." One of his favorites:

Q: What kind of bee produces milk? A: A boobie.

So, when he told me several years ago that for a long time there was exactly one beer available in his country, called Taiwan Beer, I thought he was pulling my leg. Taiwan has a population similar to Australia (both about 23 million people). Imagine if Foster’s was the only beer in Australia and it was called Australia Beer. The commercials would have been surreal: “Australia Beer: Australian for Beer.” 

And no, "Taiwan Beer" is not some bastardized English translation. The characters on the label, and on this bottle cap, literally translate to "Taiwan" (the two characters on the left) "Beer" (or pijiu, the two characters on the right). Don't believe me: lookie here.
But he wasn't joking. Going into the 21st century, Taiwan Beer was the only beer available in Taiwan. It was, and still is, brewed by something called the Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corporation (TTL), which was about as socialist as the name sounds. If you thought that the mainland Chinese were just a bunch of commies, you’d be surprised to learn that Taiwan, with its relative freedom, still leaned way to the left for many decades.

No longer in possession of a national monopoly on beer, Taiwan Beer is forced to compete with Busch, which goes remarkably well with whole grilled squid on a stick. It's not called Busch in Taiwan though, it's called Snowy Mountain Beer. Really.
Since 2002, when Taiwan joined the World Trade Organization, its beer selection has gotten a bit better, and in the last year or so highly regarded American craft beers from breweries like Rogue and Sierra Nevada have started to show up on Taiwanese shelves. But the Taiwanese keep drinking Taiwan Beer, which (in its various styles) enjoys about an 80% market share in the Republic of China. It’s not like they have to advertise the stuff—I didn’t see a single ad for it anywhere in the country. Hell, it’s named after the country! There is a professional basketball team named after the beer though, and they engage in titanic matchups like this one:

From the Taipei Times. Liquor before beer, in the clear! Also: yes, that is former Duke and Villanova jerk Taylor King, ball-hogging it for the last place team in Taiwan, where he is four feet taller than everyone.
Taiwan Beer is supposedly brewed with a special, local variety of rice, which gives it its “distinctive flavor,” but I think the Taiwanese are really just exercising local pride here, as the stuff is not bad, but also not particularly interesting. Besides, the Taiwanese get their fill of interesting flavors from a variety of things that aren’t beer, so I guess it’s not a big deal if the beer is kind of boring. 

From top left: 1) Home cooked meal courtesy of Ray's lovely mom, consisting of tender stewed beef, marinated boiled eggs, broad rice noodles, fried rice, and finger sandwiches with crispy fried tofu and crispy pork belly, followed by sweet rice cake for desert. Not pictured are the dumplings that got snuck onto the table after I took the picture. 2) Century egg, reeking pleasantly of ammonia, plus more beer. 3) Grilled and fried squid balls on a stick. 4) Duck noodle soup with all kinds of duck meat and duck organs. The stinky tofu (not pictured) was also, um, interesting.
In addition to the regular Taiwan Beer, there is also Taiwan Gold Medal Beer, which is a bit sweeter and somehow won an award that one time; Taiwan Beer Pineapple and Taiwan Beer Mango, which are even sweeter, obviously, and every bit as gross as you think they are; and Taiwan Beer Draft, which I recall being the best of the lot. I won’t lie to you: I don’t really remember exactly how it was different from the others, and I don’t understand what the “draft” implies, unless it means they’re actually pouring the stuff from a keg right into the bottle.  I just remember liking it more. 

*Not actually true.