Extreme Beering
July 5, 2009

usa

When Mr. Malting and I moved across the pond, one of the first things we noticed was the difference in advertising.  In the UK there was a clear absence of images of SUVs driving over small cars on the motorway or dudes chugging yellow soda while snowboarding down a mountain.  In the UK, it’s all fey turtles carrying cans of cola on their backs and Vashti Bunyan singing about her Hebridean cow while hawking a phone plan.

After this weekend’s American Beer Festival at the White Horse in Parson’s Green, one could say that there is a similarly cartoonish contrast in beer.  Many British beers may ask you to be attuned to subtleties all the while courting you with a mild buzz.  American beers are flashy, with big hop-bling and alcohol percentages that will have you arm wrestling strangers before the night is up.

hopdevil_200Forget your 2.5% milds, your quaffable bitters…this weekend’s festival was beer tasting as an extreme sport. Boak had the brilliant idea to meet up at the festival in the afternoon, beating the inevitable evening crowd. I made it there first and chose to start with Victory Hop Devil, a beer I’d never tried before, but I’ve always thought the little hope creature was cute.  Palate pandaemonium!  Was I wise to start with this?  Was my palate f*cked now?  After a few sips of the warming stuff, served in a very nice brandy-shaped half pint, I stopped worrying and just embraced the intensity.

I’d almost finished when both Boak and Pete joined me. If you are going to be tackling these extremes, these are the drinking buddies you want–engaging and passionate about beer, the kind of folks who will sympathize when your half of Hop Wallop goes barn-yardy on you.  We decided we couldn’t detect the oak in the “blind taste test” between the two Arrogant Bastards on offer.  Both were tastier than AB’s I’ve had in the US.  I read that some of the beers had been extra-dry-hopped for the journey. Many were also served American-cold which, while not fridge-cold, is a few degrees colder than what in the UK is cellar temperature (which can vary wildly but sometimes is room temperature).  It might be heresy in some beer circles, but in the summer I like beer to be cold.  Really cold.

Johnny_Cask

Why can't British breweries learn a bit of marketing from the US micros?

Next, Pete suggested we try the fabled Dogfish Head 75 Minute IPA, a mixture of IPAs that have been re-fermented in their special “Johnny Cask” with maple syrup, yeast and even more hops.  It was by far my favourite of the evening with loads of tropical fruits and big hops balancing it out. In typical US fashion, the alcohol % is not advertised on the gorgeous pump clip (or anywhere else where the beer is profiled on the web…)

Sometimes alcohol percentages seem like an absurd obsession in the UK (see the controversy over Brew Dog’s 12% Tokyo).  Whereas in the US many brew pubs will serve pints of 6%+ offerings without blinking.  Indeed, the first time I had an Arrogant Bastard (that sentence sounds bad…) the place didn’t serve halves and yet most of the beers on their menu were upwards of 6%.  What would the Daily Mail say?

Luckily, the White Horse does halves, but as the sun came out and the the post-work crowd showed up, I wished they did thirds.  There were so many beers I wouldn’t be able to try because I was already getting goofy.  At one point Pete asked me if I could still taste anything!  Like a boxer you just retire to your corner, drink some water, strategize and get back into things…

Boak went to get us halves of Meantime’s London Porter. Brewer Alistair Hook playfully “[threw] down the gauntlet to the American brewers by giving drinkers a comparative taste of an extremely traditional beer, a six-month old porter vatted in the original London brewing style…”  Indeed, much of what seems new in the US is actually a reinvention of something quite old, and good American brewers know this.  Likewise, exciting UK brewers like Meantime and Brew Dog are having a beery dialogue with the US and this friendly sparring just means better beer for both sides of the pond.

I believe the London porter was Boak’s favourite; she declared it “liquid tiramisu.”  It was indeed deliciously deep– a contrast in sweet, seductive darkness next to the Dogfish Head IPA which had a sun-in-splendor brightness.  At 9.? % it was the thing that made my liver cry uncle.

But, Alastair…you haven’t won yet!  I am considering returning for another round today.

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Back in the Home Country
January 14, 2009

Lucky Baldwin's in Pasadena, California, by joedecruyenaere on flickr.

Lucky Baldwin's in Pasadena, California, by joedecruyenaere on flickr.

I’m in America for a month, on a bit of a beery safari.  I’m staying with my friend Bob who is an amazing brewer and the person who first turned me on to good beer.   So, when I arrived some fresh, homebrewed Kolsh and a super-grapefruity American Pale Ale welcomed me.

We’d decided that we’d brave the frat-guy atmosphere of the Yard House (a place that serves beer to bone heads in yard-long glasses) because they have an extensive menu of beers on draft.  Our plan was foiled when I got carded!  (To Brits, this means you are asked for ID to prove you are over 21). I was completely out of the habit of carrying ID with me, as I don’t have to do this in London.   All I had with me was my expired California ID which proved I was old enough to be the waitress’ mother, but since it was expired she refused to serve me.  A surreal moment indeed!

So we ended up at Lucky Baldwin’s in Pasadena, an “English” pub which had an array of English beers on draft that would put most pubs in England to shame.  And, unlike most British pubs, we were able to luxuriate outside in the sun in mid January wearing only tee shirts, and as evening came on we ordered another round and the fairy lights came on in the beer garden.

I ended up trying two beers I’ve been curious about, both by the American brewery, Stone.  I started with the Smoked Porter and was impressed with the sneaky smoke note, and the overall drinkabilty.  Next up was the Arrogant Bastard ale, a beer beloved of certain British friends, probably because they like saying the name.  Bob described it as a barley wine.  It did have a malty middle that I associate with a barley wine, but bookended by an oily, resinous hoppiness that coated the mouth completely.  I had a pint of this because they only serve pints here…I had to nurse the damn thing, happy it would be my last beer of the night.  My palate was done for.  It was a reminder that I am now in the US, and things could get mighty hoppy.