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5 O’Clock Somewhere

Drinking the World Every Afternoon

Drinking Beer with the Boss of Jingdong County

Apr.28.15

Drinking Beer with the Boss of Jingdong County

by Georgia Freedman

“It looks like we’re going up to the jail,” our minder told us as the minivan we were riding in took a turn and headed out of town and up a steep hill. We had been summoned by Comrade Luo, the “big boss” of Jingdong County, and had been told we were meeting him for lunch. No one had said anything about a jail. I took a deep breath, looked out the window and the pretty countryside, and tried to remind myself that I didn’t have anything to worry about because I hadn’t done anything wrong. Except that was only mostly true.

My husband and I were traveling in Yunnan, China’s southwestern-most province, learning about local foods. We had come to a place so far from the usual tourist spots that it would take four hours of driving down narrow, winding country roads just to reach a highway. Jingdong Town was the county seat, the kind of place farmers came to stock up on motor oil and laundry soap, spend an hour in a tiny internet café, and maybe visit a brothel. But the town itself looked surprisingly modern. There were newly paved four-lane roads, two (mostly useless) traffic lights, and a brand new promenade lined with flowering trees and colorful neon lights that snaked along the banks of the local river.

This, we were told, was all because of Comrade Luo. Just a few years before he had been the local head of the forestry department, but he did such a good job that he was promoted to the city planning office and, after lighting the river with thousands of colorful LED lights, to Legal and Political Committee Chair of the local party. It was a Chinese version of a local-boy-makes-good story: a young cadre uses his smarts and cunning to turn a county into his own little fiefdom.

We had met Luo for the first time earlier that day in his office in a brand-new complex of government buildings. Up in a corner office on the top floor, Luo offered us tea, smoked tobacco through a two-foot tall bamboo water pipe, and asked us if we had been near a particular market the night before. Apparently someone had spotted “foreigners” in town and called him. This is how we learned that the entire town was watching us and sending reports straight to the boss.

Being watched was not, however, what had me nervous. The real problem was our paperwork. Up until a few months earlier, my husband and I had been living in China on work visas, but while we were there the visa requirements changed, and by the end the legality of our visas was, shall we say, questionable. For this trip we were traveling on tourist visas, but this was also potentially problematic, because we weren’t really tourists. Given that some of my research would end up in American magazines and newspapers, one could argue that I should have applied for a journalist visa. In most places, no one cared about these kinds of discrepancies. But Comrade Luo did not seem like someone who overlooked paperwork. If he had the entire town watching us, how hard would it have been to have one of his assistants pull up our paperwork?

I was thinking about this as the van crested the hill and pulled up next to the jail, but then the driver pointed to a little building on the other side of the street. There, in the middle of nowhere, was a restaurant. Luo was inside, sitting in a courtyard made up of wooden trellises with plastic vines and flowers stapled to them—fake nature being used to block out views of the real thing. When we arrived, he got up and proceeded to introduce us to everyone eating lunch at the other tables. Mystery solved: we were there so that he could show off his foreign visitors to all of the officials who worked at the jail. Far from being in trouble, we were trophies, proof that Committee Chair Luo had connections in important parts of the world.

When we sat down with Luo and a handful of his colleagues, they ordered a few bottles of lukewarm Harbin beer. I was offered tea (as I often am when I am the only woman at the table in China), but I decided to stick with the beer. Of all the cheap, flavorless beers made in China, Harbin is one of the most insipid, but I needed a little something to calm my nerves. Luo’s assistant poured the beer into cups the size of shot-glasses, the other local officials crowded around the table, and we all took turns toasting each other and Comrade Luo until the food arrived.

Less Worried About the Blood Thinner Than the Bison Pee in This Vodka

May.23.17

Less Worried About the Blood Thinner Than the Bison Pee in This Vodka

by Cole Whitaker

Vodka in Poland

I had just finished a summer week at a winter resort teaching English to Polish business people outside of Wrocław, Poland and now, with the celebratory bonfire growing, it came time for my Polish students to teach me how to drink.

Vodka seems to be the only drink ever considered—the few beers on the end of the picnic table are ignored even by my fellow Americans. And Żubrówka Bison Grass the only vodka worth mentioning.

A couple of the English-learners have generously decided to show me and another native-speaker the ropes of Polish drinking. As any good teacher would, Emilia and Wojtek offer educational commentary while providing ample opportunities for hands-on learning, in the form of ceaseless refills from their stashes of vodka.

Emilia explains that real Żubrówka, the name bumbling off my lips before the drinking even starts, is produced only by the Polmos Białystok distillery, founded in 1928 in far northern Poland, and Wojtek, pointing at the bottle, cheerily adds: “This is not allowed in USA.” After some translation I learn that the liquor is outlawed—in its purest form—in the United States because it contains a natural chemical that acts as a blood thinner, which I deduce on my own translates to getting drunk fast.

The rye vodka is given its name, flavor, and slight tinge of color by filtering the vodka through the bison grasses native to the Białowieża forest of Poland, where the bison roam wild once again, having been hunted out of Europe in the early 20th century and successfully reintroduced in the 1950s. After the filtering process is complete and before the bottles are sealed, each one is decorated with the addition of a single slender strand of this mythical grass, which, according to Wojtek, “must be pissed on by real bison!” before being placed in the bottle.

I don’t have long to appreciate the earthy subtleties of the spirit itself, full of vanilla and almond flavors so rare for vodka, before everyone is drinking Apple Pie. While it’s been adopted and dressed up in bars around with the world, Szarlotka, as Emilia calls it here, is simple—Bison Grass
Vodka and apple juice. It tastes shockingly similar to sweet apple pie and goes down disconcertingly easy even as the vodka pours grow heavier and the apple juice pours grow lighter. I’m grateful for the slabs of bread, slathered thick with lard and topped with a pickle that my teachers hand to me regularly, to help keep me up for one more slice of Polish pie.

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

May.22.17

Tolerance, Tension, and Many Moscow Mules: A Dispatch from Beirut Pride

by Anthony Elghossein

Moscow Mules in Beirut

It’s 10:19 p.m. A woman honks her horn. (No reason.) A pack of young men, doubtlessly dreaming of conquests—or shawarma—guzzle beers outside of a store. In Mar Mikhael, a grimy district that has served as an enclave for Beirut’s pseudo-hipsters and garden-variety boozers since 2013, a familiar cacophony rises: beats, banter, horns, squealing tires, and roaring engines.

A crowd cheers. They’re at Radio Beirut—a bar, radio station, and performance venue—to celebrate Beirut Pride week, the first LGBT awareness campaign of this size and scope in the Arab world. An intrepid young man has scaled the balcony to hang the rainbow flag above the bar. Edging past a skeptical bouncer, I order an Almaza Draft—an unimaginative pilsner that means much to me emotionally, despite its generic taste. Comfort Brew.

This beer is weak. I order a Moscow Mule: vodka, ginger beer, and—in a Beirut twist—cucumber and basil instead of lime. Before I can take a sip, I spot Hadi Damian. He’s the frenetic, but friendly, Francophone who “initiated” Beirut Pride. “Are you having fun?” he checks, hugging me. “Alright, finish your drink. You’re coming with me.”

With his friend Danya, we race through half of the 23 bars flying the rainbow flag that night. At one bar, the flag seems to have gone missing. “It’s probably one of our younger folks,” Danya reassures me, though I’m more concerned about my next zesty beverage. “They’re all excited and keep asking about where they can buy a flag.” The flag causes some commotion at another bar. “The owner was incredibly helpful and supportive last night,” Danya explains, “but his staff, being macho men, huffed and puffed about it tonight.”

We careen down a nearby alley, stopping at another three bars—all owned by straight Lebanese men, all flying the flag and handing out bracelets. At Barclays, we order more Moscow Mules. Between asides on Paris, Seattle, and the merits of unisex fashion, Hadi explains that, “Beirut Pride is not a movement. It’s a platform. It’s collaborative, and is not affiliated with any political party or embassy. We don’t even take corporate money.”

That’s all great, though it sounds a tad rehearsed. Even so, people—gay, straight, Lebanese, foreign—must pursue self-fulfillment and self-expression under their state’s governing laws and society’s prevailing norms. Sure, Lebanese judges have sometimes interpreted laws progressively, but those laws, like Penal Code Article 534, which essentially criminalizes any sexual act that is deemed unnatural, make progress precarious—and subject to arbitrary and capricious courts.

Even in the Beirut bubble, far too many people—including activists, writers, and lawyers who should know better—often mistake consumerism, hedonism, escapism, or exhibitionism for liberalism. And they mistake separation for tolerance. Gathering in hedonistic hotspots, they put on liberal airs because, as my new-found friend “Q.I.” says, “they feel pressure to pretend like they’re open-minded. They want to drink and dance. But they’re not really liberal.”

S.P., the gay son of a Lebanese government official, chimed in: “Just look at the venues that agreed to host events, but cancelled under pressure, or for what they said were ‘commercial’ reasons. Garbage.” On May 14, under pressure for the League of Muslim Scholars, a hotel cancelled Beirut Pride’s launch—a full day of presentations and forums on LGBT issues and rights.

On the other hand, Beirutis enjoy and assert a robust sort of self-expression that just isn’t possible in most of the states and societies of the Middle East. Hundreds of people flooded Mar Mikhael—or turned up to events all week—to celebrate Beirut Pride. For all its faults, Beirut can be a tolerant place. It is, at least, a place that tolerates its tolerant spaces.

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

May.17.17

There’s No Un-Hearing This Scientist’s Explanation of Fermentation

by Steele Rudd

Ginger Beer in Sydney

I’ve been to maybe half-a-dozen tastings in my life. A flight of whiskies at a Scottish distillery; a beer sampler at a brewery in Sydney; and a couple of cellar-door wine evenings.

Most of them have been shambolic affairs, although there’s a pattern to them. At first everyone’s a gourmand, sincere about the early vanillin note on this one and the woodruff aftertaste on that one. But after you’ve gone through 10 or 12 varieties of shiraz, it’s a bit different. Your teeth are redder than a betel addict’s, everything tastes like second-hand tea leaves, and you might as well have gone to the pub.

I’m hoping this one will be a little different, partly because it’s ginger beer on show tonight but mostly because my host is kind of a mad scientist. Dr. Cain is a microbiochemist with an alarmingly Biblical name and a sideline in brewing moonshine. (This ginger beer is not sweetened, carbonated soda, but the boozy kind, made from fermented ginger, yeast, and sugar.)

She’s agreed to talk me through her latest concoction. Apparently, there’s a connection between her day job and her beer job. “Being in the lab is very much like cooking,” she tells me, “and a lab protocol is kind of like a recipe.”

Except, of course, that home brewers are a less pedantic bunch than microbiochemists (without insult to either). “The first thing I did [when beginning to brew] was take a bunch of protocols, extract the relevant information, worked out the formulas and wrote my own.”

That kind of specificity doesn’t sound like my kind of fun, but I guess fun comes in different flavors—and I can’t argue with tonight’s. The good doctor cracks a bottle and decants it into a wide-bottomed glass like a brandy tumbler. The taste is definitely gingery without being overwhelmingly fiery; sweet but not sugary; sour but not in a scrunch-up-your-nose kind of way. There’s a very distinct flatness to it that I’m not used to, something syrupy that goes beyond the absence of carbonation. Another taster describes it as “not the teeth-fuzz variety of ginger beer.” It reminds me of nothing so much as a Spanish cider, and I could happily drink it all night.

“Being a microscientist,” Dr. Cain explains, “and being quite aware of sterility, winemaking is such an inexact process.” She uses the example of roasting lamb in an autoclave as illustration. She doesn’t agree that brewing is an art, calling that “flowery,” and is prosaic about fermentation. “When [the yeast] eat the sugar, they basically shit out the alcohol.” At this point I decide that Dr. Cain is the kind of brewer that puts the poetry in the bottle, not on the label.

When the ginger beer’s finished, we move on to wine (vermentino, a Sicilian white that’s been making headway in Australia) and the conversation spirals away. Dr. Cain tells me about Iberian grapes and Manuka honey; about the looming antibiotic apocalypse; about suicide genes in seedless fruit. We discuss transporting hazardous or delicate biosamples, and the cost involved; and enzymes that can slice themselves apart spontaneously or on command. It’s the most informative tasting that I’ve ever been to.

A Slice of Pure Manchester

May.16.17

A Slice of Pure Manchester

by Alec Herron

Bitter in Manchester

In 1819, sword-bearing cavalry charged a gathering of 80,000 political reform protesters on St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, killing 15 and maiming hundreds more.

The day, now commemorated as the Peterloo Massacre, would spur industrial unionism and inspire the creation of The Guardian newspaper.

Local legend has it that as thousands scattered the streets of Manchester in panic, one of the Peterloo wounded was carried into the Sir Ralph Abercomby pub, and lay dying on the bar.

Just shy of 200 years later, the Sir Ralph Abercromby has seen Manchester grow into the world’s greatest industrial city, survived a direct hit of incendiary Second World War bombs, watched the city fall into post-industrial rot and rise again to its current creative-industry led rebirth. It retains the countryside aura of a time when it sat on the edge of a burgeoning mill town.

At a circular oak table I sip a pumped bitter. The pub fills with Londoners-in-exile, there to watch their capital soccer rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea in an FA Cup Semifinal on three plasma screens.

The walls are pure Manchester. Profiles of players from local side Manchester United are joined by a graffiti mural of the 2015 Stone Roses resurrection. In 2014, the Manchester United captain, Wayne Rooney, led the players’ Christmas party to the Sir Ralph Abercromby from an upmarket restaurant.

Now a pair of former United greats want to knock the pub down.
Gary Neville, known for his defensive prowess and astute decision-making, has transferred the skills that earned him captaincy of the England national team to the world of real estate. Along with Welsh winger Ryan Giggs, the pair have opened luxury hotels, upmarket nightclubs, and restaurants headed by Michelin-starred chefs.

Their latest project comprises two of the tallest towers in a predominantly low-rise city. Thirty-two stories of luxury apartments, ‘leisure space’ and a five-star hotel will be named after the patron saint of British police, St. Michael, alluding to the demolition of the Bootle Street Police Station next door. The pair have promised to retain the jobs lost from the Sir Ralph Abercromby, and will install the 1950s oak bar in an allocated ‘leisure space.’

But the pub’s locals have rallied on social media, and along with other citizens are voicing their complaints to the developers. Video visualizations show the towers imposing over the 19th-century Manchester Town Hall and surrounding Victorian and Georgian streets, underlining the opposition of Historic England, a British government heritage agency.

Neville announced that he has asked the local government council not to consider the St. Michael’s plans just yet, while they make “refinements to the project,” giving some hope to opponents of the plan.

Manchester recently bulldozed another early 19th-century boozer, the Smith’s Arms. That time, it was in a partnership between Manchester City Council and the Abu Dhabi royal family-owned Manchester City football club, Manchester United’s eternal rivals.

Intrinsically linked to radical politics, industry, and soccer, Manchester’s modern renaissance leaves a bitter taste, at a pub that carries all three in its heart.

Let’s Pick Garlic All Day and Drink Some Cherry Wine

May.15.17

Let’s Pick Garlic All Day and Drink Some Cherry Wine

by Chris Malloy

Visciolata in Italy

After sun-blasted days working the garlic harvest in a rural part of the Apennine Mountains in Le Marche, Italy, after hoeing bean plants or feeding pigs or husking barley or whatever we were doing that August, there was always visciolata.

“Christof!” the farm’s patriarch addressed me after my first day. Paolo was roughly 50, tan as a catcher’s mitt, short, and pure pazzo (crazy). “Have you ever tasted visciolata? NO!? You are in for A TREAT.”

The garlic was down the mountain in Paolo’s lowest field. With his blue tractor he dragged a blade through clay soil, freeing bulbs. For eight hours a day I followed with his sons and wife and others, lobbing garlic into the cart hitched to his ride. Sometimes he slit a bulb and we gave him shit.

Sometimes he pretended to fall asleep at the wheel as he careened down the slope. After a few lines of garlic we’d stop for a drink, looking across the expanse of low hinterlands down from Paolo’s fields at distant Mount Strega.

After work, after sausages made from his sheep and risotto flecked with zucchini from his field, after rivers of local Verdicchio wine, after the day had blazed out and the dusk had faded to deep night, it was time.

Vi-scio-la-ta. Cherry wine. The drink is legend in the western wilderness of Le Marche. Like so many Italian aperitivi and digestivi, visciolata occupies a zone somewhere between food, booze, and medicine. I have heard of vintners cutting visciolata with grape wine. Given the flavor of the visciolatas I tried, I’d be surprised if the bottles Paolo got from his neighbors were made from anything but 100 percent cherry.

Visciolata was poured at night. In the glass, the cherry wine is dark as liquid roses. Swirl it, and behold the surprisingly syrupy viscosity. The aroma of candied cherries and cinnamon and vanilla punches you in a distant part of the mind, in a zone of old travels and youthful dreams of the exotic and songs from past decades.

Stars burned over the mountain. Torches glowed around our outdoor table on nights we had a large crew done laboring on Paolo’s farm. A sip of visciolata melted the stress, but not the memory of the day’s work. The sweet, dusky cherry flavor had a narcotic effect. People savored their two fingers of cherry wine and relaxed, tired but happy, happy to be on Paolo’s farm and alive. People drank and joked. People watched the planets and shooting stars and galaxies. People slapped down briscola cards.

Cackling rang out from our clearing and through the mountains of Le Marche, black but for a few lighted farmhouses.

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