Going Retro
May 16, 2009

Have you noticed the 80′s are back?  This isn’t really news–neon tube dresses and big bangs are never really news.  Some even report the 90′s are back also, in a kind of apocalyptic pile-up of decades.   The contemporary teen version of the 80′s is something much shinier than what the teens of the 80′s actually lived with, as if they are willfully embodying nostalgia for a time they never knew.  If the 90′s come back, what will the zeitgeist polish up for us?

If I was going to bring back the 90′s beer wise, it would be dishonest not to include Oranjeboom, a beer I drank a lot of–in cans–in Southern California.  I don’t know if it was because it was, to us, exotic, Euro-trashy, and had this name we liked to say.  Before I knew anything about beer, it was cheap and easy.

Yesterday I met up with a lovely Scouser friend, G, for beer and shoe shopping.  He was gracious enough to ask me to suggest a beer to him.  We were in a Shepherd’s Neame pub Mabel’s Tavern, and I haven’t had many of their beers because I’ve been put off by the ad campaigns.  I ordered a Bishop’s Finger for G and a Kent’s Best for me– this beer was a winner, with a dominant, piny hop character and an enveloping malt, and he preferred his beer to mine.  So then, on our second round, why do I decide to throw out all my beer know-how and order us two halves of crap lager?

I’d never seen Oranjeboom outside of Trader Joe’s in SoCal.  The little red tree–the happy name–I gave in to nostalgia.  So much for being a beer expert! The beer was a forgettable, too-sweet lager.  Apparently it is now brewed by Shepherd Neame, and is one of those rare beers that was probably better in the can!

According to my friend, Oranjeboom’s big British moment was in the 80′s– maybe it’s right at home with the gladiator sandals and splatter prints on the high street.  G regaled me with stories about the British marketing campaign in the 80′s  which included Oranjeboom’s own version of the Bud Girl and he even sang me the jingle.  And he drank it without complaint.  What are friends for, after all?

What are your ‘retro beers’? What beer, when confronted with a tap of it, would have an irresistably surreal nostalgia for you?

Dancing Sparkle in Each Glassful
March 6, 2009

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The Beer Nut has decided on a most compelling theme for this month’s session– lager.

There are lovely lagers out there– Brew Dog’s Zeitgeist being the first that comes to mind.  But I’m more interested in talking about the unlovelies. Homer with his can of Duff.  Billy Beer. Hamm’s Beer Bear– one of the first commercials I remember, and I can still sing the jingle. Marketing beer to children works! But I digress.

In the US I knew lager as simply beer, and I thought there was no other kind.   My mother loved Michelob and would drink it very cold, just one bottle, after her game of tennis. For most of my childhood I thought this was a very sophisticated drink, as my mother was a very polished sort of lady.

The first beer I ever tasted was a Michelob– I was very small and we were on a trip in Florida, lost in the swamps there.  I had to take my tablets and there was no water, only beer, and not cold.  Poison! Suddenly this sophisticated drink didn’t seem so elegant after all.

In college I tried to drink Miller.  I think I liked the sound of the initials, MGD.  But once in a seedy bar in San Francisco my friend handed me a cold bottle of Rolling Rock.  Beer in a green bottle was a revelation!  It seemed colder, happier from the neck of green glass, which is of course how we drank it.  I can still feel the braille of the white and blue printed label and I confess it makes me thirsty just thinking about it.  It wasn’t good beer of course but if I was drinking it, it meant I was with friends, people I loved, and we were having a good time. I’m glad at the time the brand had not yet attempted their hoax marketing gimmick of “moonvertising”, where they claimed to use lazers to project an ad onto the surface of the full moon.  I contemplated a tasting of this beer, knowing it would bring on a bargain-basement of Proustian revelries, but lucky reader, I could not find a bottle of the stuff.

When I moved from San Francisco I just couldn’t drink Rolling Rock anymore.  I flirted briefly with Mickey’s Big Mouth (technically a malt liquor?).  The bottle was green and round, it fit nicely in the hand and the caps featured a picture puzzle on the inside which served as a handy drunkenness test.  But the love didn’t last– I switched to martinis and stuck with those for many years, swearing off all beer.

During my martini phase I was teaching and one of my students worked as a Bud Girl.  One of the writing assignments was to render a formative moment in a few pages.  She wrote about her experience peddling lager to lunkheads and titled her narcissistic ramble, “Beauty and the Beast”, concluding that by the time she was done with the job, Bud would have basically paid for her plastic surgery and she could go on to “real” modeling. The Beast in her story was not the mega brewery and its sexist approach to marketing, but the louts she enticed.

It’s hard for me to see a can of Bud without thinking of her, even now, and how the lager stigma goes beyond just bad beer– it represents advertising’s cartoonish gender divide and the bonehead banalities of our culture.  A Bud Girl doesn’t drink the stuff, she just wears the branded bikini, and the lager lout “beast” has the power to turn your beloved Burberry plaid into trash and your local A&E into a WWF smackdown.

Last night I was with a dear friend and drinking buddy who loves lagers and is not interested in drinking anything else.  I’m not a very good beervangelist– I’ve tried to tempt her to try other styles but she’s having none of it.  Yesterday, as we were putting a few pints away in the Cockpit,  I’d commented that most ladies in the UK seem to drink chardonnay, so what did that make us, drinking pints in a manly place like this?

“Oh, there’s a word– Ladettes,” she joked.  I’d never heard it before, though apparently there have been reality teevee shows based on sending these individuals to finishing school, etc.   I mentioned I would be brewing some beer, you know, probably whilst skipping out on my deportment class.  She said if I could figure out how to brew a lager we would be BFF.  I’ll be calling it Ladette Lager.

Bad Sheep, Good People, Better Beer.
February 28, 2009

BrewDog has done it again, producing a lovely, drinkable beer that still challenges the modern, mass market idea of a lager.  Their black lager, Zeitgeist, was launched on Thursday night to a packed crowd at the Austin Gallery in Bethnal Green.  Congratulations to the staff who were welcoming and well organized, as well as the entire BrewDog posse who were just good people.

Zeitgeist label art by Heather Brennan

Zeitgeist label art by Heather Brennan

The gallery itself is an intimate space with a spirited mix of DIY and polish.  Downstairs Heather Brennan’s silkscreens for the labels were hung with clips, as if the beer and the spooky sheep-masked people had swooped into London, giving the evening the feeling of a Temporary Autonomous Zone. The masked everywomen/men in artwork were a little bit Wickerman, a little bit baphomet.  It’s sly nod to the wolf in sheep’s clothing, an apt metaphor for a reinvented lager, which is a style made yellow and insipid by herd-market brands.  But Zeitgeist is pitch black and full of flavor.  The masks are off!

Drinking this dark-as-night lager throughout the night contributed to this feeling that we were getting away with something.  The beer was one of the prototype brews where James and Martin asked drinkers to vote for the beer they would like to see added to their range. (I was most interested in Bad Pixie, a 4.7% wheat beer brewed with juniper berries and lemon peel).  I’ve been following their video blog with glee– the brewers put forth arguments for different styles and ingredients and let the readers decide.  BrewDog has plans to continue this drinker-participation with their website for the Zeitgeist, where drinkers will be able to upload missives and visual subversions inspired by the beer, thus making even the marketing of the beer a collaboration between the drinkers and brewers.   Portman group, I’d like to see you try to stop this!

What interested me most about the beer is that it seemed to combine my own beery dilemma with elegant balance.  What should I brew next? I love chocolate malt, but then I also love American-style hoppage, so as I was musing on the possibility of brewing another chocolaty mild or a daring American Pale Ale.  Then BrewDog comes along and makes a lager that combines these two beloved notes– chocolate and estery Chinook hops.

The highlight of the evening though was meeting James Watt, the brewer.  Brewers in general are generous people who have a love of life, and James is no exception.  What most impressed me about him was his passion for brewing and his sincerity.  These characteristics carry through in the BrewDog beers which push boundaries while remaining trad.  They’re daring while never underestimating the drinker.   This is what I love about the brave guys at BrewDog: they embrace paradoxes with veracity– no surprise my favourite of their beers goes by the same name.

Dignity Takes a Holiday
December 10, 2008

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Mr. Malting drinking lager at Butlins, ATP

Last weekend we went with a group of friends for a heavy metal weekend at the Butlins holiday compound in Minehead.  It was All Tomorrows’ Parties, a music festival headlined by the Melvins.  I’d never been to a Butlins before, and was even misspelling it as Buttlands (I blame my inner Beavis) until I’d seen the sign. I didn’t think about beer until I got there and was confronted with the range of mediocrity: a couple forgettable lagers, Guinness and Blackthorn cider.  The first night I drank the cider which made me feel as if I were poisoning myself, and not slowly.   I looked longingly at all the people carrying around their pints of Guinness.  Guinness is usually my choice when confronted with nitro-banalities.  I thought how bad could it be?  Guinness was my gateway beer– paving the way for my adventures in real ale.  I would drink it and feel nostalgic, right?

Wrong.  It was a terrible pint– thin, too sweet and flat.  And it cost £3.50.

The next day we went into town and stopped to get some local beer– Cotleigh and RCH, both Somerset breweries, have yet to disappoint.  I finished the Exmoor Beast (Exmoor Ales), a beer I’d enjoyed at the Twickenham Beer Festival.  It’s a straight up porter with a warming alcohol front.  I watched as Mr. Malting drank not only the Barn Owl but the Pitchfork as well… (I curse the day I coaxed him to try better beer!  That Barn Owl was mine!) I was left to bang my head to Mastadon while sober, or drink the nitro swill.

You can guess what option I chose. I wondered if the camp looked better to those who were drunk?  If really getting hammered would have lessened the feeling that we were all in a human storage unit?  If it would have dulled the flashing machines waiting to eat our money and blotted out restaurants serving ration-like food that had been dried, frozen or tinned and blanked the bars serving the same yellow lager that was soaked into the carpets. In short: beer, beer everywhere and not a drop to drink.

So, when confronted with a mediocre line-up, what is your tipple of choice?  Or, for those of you with a penchant for the heavy, what is your perfect metal brew?

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