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

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.