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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

A Fortifying Drink While Resisting Thieves and Scoundrels

Feb.10.17

A Fortifying Drink While Resisting Thieves and Scoundrels

by Alexander Lobov

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Palincă in Bucharest

During these past weeks, as many in the U.S. pondered the meaning of resistance, they may have missed the news of relatively effective resistance happening in Romania. The country has been experiencing nightly protests in the thousands since Jan. 18, peaking on Feb. 5 at over half a million.

That night, I was in Bucharest’s Piața Victoriei—Victory Square, where the government sits—and pretty much every Romanian I know was also in attendance. The square was completely full; roads were blocked and people were streaming in from every direction.

We were sharing a plastic water bottle filled with homemade palincă from a northern province, Maramureș, shipped into Bucharest to keep us warm. We took turns drinking the clear, sweet spirit, which is distilled from a fruit mash according to traditions dating from the 14th century. It fortified us while we braved the sub-zero temperatures in the square.

We were protesting corruption and wondering how it was possible that after all the progress Romania has made—putting corrupt politicians behind bars, enforcing laws–suddenly, the political situation seemed to be regressing.

After the country’s most recent elections, a new government was sworn in on Jan. 4. It marked a particularly strong showing for the Partidul Social Democrat (PSD): a nominally center-left party that many see as primarily standing for corruption and the enrichment of associated cronies. Politics in Romania have been complicated of late, with coalitions changing and cabinets resigning frequently. But this was the strongest showing for PSD in a very long time.

While Western media celebrated this as a victory for a traditional European center-left party in the face of a far-right populist onslaught, many Romanians knew better. The PSD came to power on the back of an older form of populism: tax cuts for pensioners, a higher minimum wage, and free public transport. But its appetite for corruption did not appear to have diminished during its period in the political wilderness. In fact, it seemed enraged by the striking success of the National Anti-Corruption Directorate—the body charged with rooting out and prosecuting corruption—which has a 90 percent conviction rate and has convicted hundreds of high-level politicians and members of the judiciary, many of whom were PSD cronies.

In a move Trump would be proud of, the government made known its plans to push policies weakening the penalties to corruption through as emergency decrees, rather than going through Parliament. This intensified protests that were already simmering after drafts of the law were published the week before. Jan. 29 marked the largest protest since Romania’s anti-Communist revolution in 1989: 90,000 took to the cities around the country, including 50,000 in Bucharest. This record would soon be broken repeatedly.

The government looked like it would back down at first, but then passed the decrees anyway the night of Jan. 31. Prisoners indicted under anti-corruption statutes would have their sentences halved, some would be freed immediately, and corrupt acts of up to 200,000 lei (US$47,600) would be decriminalized. Outraged at this brazen legalization of theft, 300,000 Romanians took to the streets on Feb. 1.

On Feb. 5, the government announced it would rescind the emergency decrees. But by that point, Romanians weren’t in a trusting mood: 300,000 protested in Bucharest alone. In the square, we were surrounded by cries of “Hoți! Hoți! Hoți!” (Thieves!) and “Demisia!” (Resign!). The Romanian flag was everywhere, either in its current form or the revolutionary flag with a hole in the middle. At one point, cardboard cut-outs of key members of government were wheeled out wearing striped prison garb.

Each swig of the palincă seemed to focus my mind on the meaning of these protests. Romania has seen tremendous gains since accession to the E.U. in 2007. It has enjoyed some of the best rates of economic growth in Europe, a substantial improvement in quality of life, and a litany of small victories against its endemic corruption. Nearly every Romanian I spoke to in the square said they just wanted to live in a normal country, be part of the European community, and be led by people who were not thieves.

Romanians truly were bucking the far-right fascist trend. But their government was still letting them down. At the protests, you could see the children of ‘89 proudly waving banners again, grizzled pensioners, students, and young professionals. There were families with children; some had even brought pets. It was a resolute atmosphere of non-violence, and many said these protests had succeeded in uniting the country.

In the aftermath of these protests, the government has promised to rescind the decrees but will still try to pass them through a Parliament dominated by their own party. And of course, the PSD refuses to resign. Romanians continue to hit the streets on a nightly basis, cautiously hoping for better. As temperatures look to dive deep into negative Celsius territory, one thing’s for sure: more palincă will be necessary.

Photo by Jake Stimpson / Flickr Commons

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

Dec.11.17

Tri-Tip Sandwiches and Disappointment in Wine Country

by Jason Avant

Wine in Santa Barbara

It had been a few years since I’d gone wine-tasting in the hills above Santa Barbara. I had good memories: meandering country roads that led to decent wines and excellent tri-tip sandwiches. I’d gone through a divorce and gotten remarried, coming out the other side fitter and happier. Kelli, my new person, and I were both looking forward to going back to the Santa Barbara wine country; she had spent time there in her previous life and we were keen on making new memories. The Santa Barbara wine country, meanwhile, had gone through Sideways.

I left the wines to Kelli. My task and purpose: find a good tri-tip sandwich. Tri-tip is the great mystery meat of Central California, a particular cut of sirloin that most non-Californians have never heard of. I knew just the place. R Country Market, a tiny grocery store located on the edge of the town of Los Olivos. I’d been there on previous trips; my memories were of huge slabs of beef slowly roasting over a wood fire to still-bloody perfection, then sliced and served atop delicate French rolls. I remembered the sandwich costing five bucks; if memory served, that was also what the wineries charged for tastings, if they charged you at all. The plan was to grab a couple of sandwiches and eat them over a tasting at the Zaca Mesa winery.

My first clue that things had gone, well, sideways: the big grill outside of the R Country Market was unlit. Walking past it, it looked like it hadn’t been fired up in a while. We ordered two tri-tip sandwiches at the counter at $12 a piece, and they were handed to us, foil-wrapped, from beneath a warming light. “Maybe they were carved just before we got here,” I said to Kelli. I also noticed lots of people wandering up and down the streets of Los Olivos. It was a Sunday. Shouldn’t they be at home?

The Zaca Mesa winery had a bit of a crowd as well, people who weren’t there to merely taste, but to drink—open bottles were at every occupied table. The tastings were $15 a person. Inflation and Hollywood, I thought. We unwrapped our sandwiches. The meat inside was cooked to the greyish color favored by hospital kitchen cooks and the current President of the United States. It was served on what appeared to be slices of grocery store garlic bread. My fond memory had become production-line food, tourist grub. At least the wine was decent. I sipped at it, trying to stretch those 15 dollars. As we left, a guy from one of the crowded tables yelled out “I’m NOT drinking fucking Merlot!”, to the delight of his companions. It was the fifth time I’d heard Paul Giamatti’s signature line that day, and happy hour was still two hours away.

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

Dec.05.17

A Brief Introduction to the Basque Houses of the American West

by Fil Corbitt

Picon Punch in Nevada

Anna Lekumberry pours barely a drop of grenadine over ice in a small highball glass. Her dad and aunt own the place. The high ceiling is covered entirely in dollar bills. On the walls, there are mostly old cowboy hats signed with Basque last names—some from people who died decades ago, some from people still grazing cattle and raising sheep in this corner of northern Nevada.

The JT Basque bar and restaurant is on the edge of the high desert, at the base of the usually snowcapped Sierra Nevada. Lekumberry pulls the next ingredient from behind the bar—an aperitif called Torani Amer—and explains (as most bartenders making a Picon Punch might) that this isn’t the real stuff. You can’t get the main ingredient, Amer Picon, in the U.S. anymore.

The replacement for the bitter, citrusy, French liqueur is made by a syrup company in San Francisco, and it takes up about half of the small glass. Though it’s a substitute, Torani Amer has been adopted by most Basque-American bars since the 80s or 90s or 50s, depending on who you ask.

The Picon Punch is not a measured cocktail. In whichever Basque house or bar you pick in the Great Basin (or parts of Northern California) the drink will taste different, and since the recipe is passed down by word-of-mouth, it tends to take on the personality of the bar in which it’s made.

They say the Picon in Winnemucca is friendlier and smoother. One in Reno might be simultaneously rough and a little flashy. The Picon here in Gardnerville swaps the traditional stemmed glass for a short highball glass, which either means it’s more down-to-earth, or that it’s a couple inches closer to falling asleep on the bar.

Basque houses are a staple of the high desert, and since the early 20th century have been hotels, restaurants, bars, and community centers for both immigrants from the Basque country and for their descendants, whose culture is entirely woven into the West. Striking up a conversation in one Basque house, it’s not rare to find someone who has tried a Picon in every other Basque house in Nevada.

After the Amer, Anna adds a squirt of club soda. The Star in Elko, NV, on the eastern side of the state, is famous for skipping the club soda. That makes for a harsher, more bitter drink, says Marie Lekumberry, co-owner of the JT and Anna’s aunt. “When you think of Elko, you’re a little more isolated out there, it’s a little tougher.”

After a stir, Anna adds a float of brandy. From the lacquered bar wood up through the grenadine, Amer and brandy, there’s a rich gradient of browns. Right before sliding it across, she adds a touch of yellow in the form of a lemon twist.

Despite the variations across the Great Basin, there’s an atmosphere that ties them all together. The high desert is harsh and bitter, burning and sweet. And looking closely enough, there’s depth and nuance in the shades of brown.

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

Nov.29.17

The Democratizing Effect of a Collective, Punishing Headache Caused by Strong AF Spirits

by Kaspar Loftin

Pitu in Recife

The first time I was offered Pitu (pronounced ‘Peetoo’) was at one of Recife’s many outdoor events: a protest party in downtown Boa Vista. As the tropical rain fell on the northeastern Brazilian city, I gazed around the crowd, catching the eye of one of Recife’s many drink-vendors. These guys pull large polystyrene ice chests of alcohol around the city, somehow always managing to find their way to cultural happenings no matter how remote or late at night. The vendor shouted to me and, smiling, waved a can in my direction. “Nao!” I responded.

I had heard stories of this lethal drink: a cachaça with more than 40 percent ABV, popular with heavy drinkers and rumored to be the undoing of a famous local street poet. At only US$2 a can, the drink is so cheap that for the price of a beer you could end up under the table. Pitu seemed like Pernambuco’s answer to White Lightning, a strong, budget cider found in my native England. Pitu’s slogan, ‘Mania do Brasilero’ (Brasilian mania), plays on the drink’s infamy. Even the brand’s logo looks deadly. Its colors—black, red, and yellow—are the same as the poisonous coral snake, indigenous to Brazil.

The experience at the protest party was early on in my stay in the northeast, long before I realized Pitu’s wild popularity. This liquor transcends social boundaries. Outside of the region, Brazil’s first-choice cachaça is the famous 51. However, most people in Pernambuco embrace Pitu. The state is one of the poorest in the country and its people have a history of hostility towards outsider interference, and this seems to extend to their taste in cachaça. In Recife, the capital, the iconic red shrimp of the Pitu brand adorns T-shirts, baseball caps, shop fronts, and bar walls.

At noon at the hectic and colorful Casa Amarela market, fruitsellers share a can of Pitu under the hot, blue tarpaulins. Later in the day at one of the beachfront kiosks in wealthy Boa Viagem, an exhausted street-cleaner drinks from a large plastic cup with a big wedge of lime, and the barman pours from a can with frivolity—Pitu. At night in the trendy bars of downtown Recife, Pitu is mixed with fruit, ice, sugar, and condensed milk to create a delicious cocktail enjoyed by middle-class partygoers.

In the morning, they all wake up with the same punishing headache.

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

Nov.28.17

Pale Ale and the Indiana Banana, Together At Last

by Laura Marie

Pale Ale in Kentucky

Taking a break from a long interstate journey for a small libation, we walked into Ethereal Brewing Company in Lexington, KY. The building is an old distillery that went under. Now, the industrial décor fills a brick-walled space and a big chalkboard announced the typical offerings: some IPAs, some stouts, a pilsner or two.

I found a collaboration beer between two local breweries, Ethereal and West Sixth, called Paw Paw Pale Ale. When it arrived, it was shockingly yellow; less the goldenrod of a typical light-colored beer and more like the color of a banana peel. It had a rich soapy foam on top, and was cloudy with wheat.

The first sip was beer-forward, tasting of Motueka and Citra hops. Then, notes of melon and mango and a general tartness came out. I had to look up what in the world a paw paw was, because for some reason I had thought it was a nut. I’d had nutty brown ales, but no nutty pale ales, and as it turned out, paw paws aren’t nuts at all.

Paw Paws are a soft and squishy native fruit that grows throughout the middle of the United States, but has rarely been cultivated and commercialized. Now that some farms are producing more of the fruit and breeding it to be hearty, beautiful, and delicious, craft breweries have quietly purchased the pulp to add to their fermenters. After all, yeast will eat many kinds of sugars, not just the grain-based ones.

The Paw Paw is one of the only tropical-flavored fruits to grow so far north. With hints of banana and mango, it has its own flavor but seems to fall in more with the fruits of the equator. (It is not the same as a papaya.) While limited quantities are available commercially and at very specific farmer’s markets, the most common way to get them is to forage in the woods of Indiana, Michigan, and other deciduous forests; that was how it became known colloquially as the Indiana banana.

As I sniffed my own beer to try to identify what made it different, I even got a whiff of grapefruit and custard, as well a bread-like must of wheat and yeast. I was happy that the beer was mostly hoppy, rather than a Paw Paw beer that was more fruit than beer, but with each swig of the foamy drink I noticed more of a sweet finishing aftertaste.

I basked in the unseasonably warm November air, and took in the refreshing twist on my craft beer preference of a good hoppy pint. It wasn’t a bad way to take a break from driving across multiple states in a single day.

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

Nov.21.17

Local Beer Over Questionable Tapas Is Always An Easy Choice

by Lauren Cocking

Tzotzil in Chiapas

We hadn’t done much in San Cristobal de las Casas, the cultural capital and tourist darling of Chiapas. It’s a city with a remarkably measured pace of life.

It’s also flush with travelers, at the heart of a poor state with a reputation for individualism and political rebellion. In the city center, there are no guerillas anymore, just harem pants-wearing tourists mingling with locals.

On San Cris’ central pedestrian walkway, Real de Guadalupe, international drinking options abound, coffee shop culture dominates the center, and tapas bars, for some reason, are all the rage.

One of the most popular tapas bars on the main strip, Viña de Bacco, pumps out tempranillo for 20 pesos and gives free tapas with every drink (which is nothing to write home about, as it goes; think tomato sauce smeared on untoasted bread with a soggy slice of ham slapped on top).

Crowds spill out onto the pavement, huddled over barrels-turned-tables, perched precariously on stools as they enjoy their imported wine, while locals walk past selling handicrafts.

Given the ebb and flow of activity surrounding the place, we were naturally sucked in, and opted to sit in the doorway when the mezzanine appeared off-limits. As it turns out, we’d picked the perfect spot to people-watch.

We declined the tempranillo and instead ordered a Tzotzil beer. Named for the indigenous Tzotzil people of Chiapas, the beer is produced by a Tuxtla Gutierrez-based brewery, allowing for an added layer of ‘craft beer’ smugness when ordering, not to mention far more flavor than many commercial alternatives.

It was delicious. Better than a glass of tempranillo any day. We’d only split one, but after trying it we wished we’d ordered another. In the heart of a city notorious for being overrun with travelers, the Tzotzil was a pleasant reminder that San Cristobal and Chiapas are still there underneath it all. Even if the beer doesn’t come with free tapas.

Photo by: Tjeerd Wiersma

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