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

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.