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Drinking the World Every Afternoon

The Many Trials of Tracking Down the World’s Best Beer

Dec.13.16

The Many Trials of Tracking Down the World’s Best Beer

by Diane Zahler

Westvleteren 12 in Belgium

We were twitchy with excitement. We were finally seated in the café of the St. Sixtus Abbey in West Flanders, about to taste the Westvleteren 12. It’s a Belgian Quadrupel-style ale (very strong and dark), at 10 percent or higher ABV, and widely considered the best beer in the world.

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Our attempts to order the two cases that people are permitted to buy every 60 days had failed, because the single phone line to the abbey, which allows calls only from 8:30 am to 11:30 am on Wednesdays, was permanently busy. Our first attempt to visit the café had failed because we’d gone on a Friday, when the Trappist monks close up shop.

But now it was Monday, and the café was open. We hadn’t managed to order cases, but we’d lucked out: the Westvleteren 12 was available on tap. The place was packed. Some visitors, many driving Porsches and BMWs, had gotten through on the monk-phone and had come to pick up their beer. One young soldier stationed in Germany told us that every 60 days his commanding officer made him drive to Belgium to get his two cases. A busload of elderly people disembarked, most in wheelchairs or on crutches. It turns out that the abbey has a grotto modeled on the one in Lourdes, where people go to be healed. The group had lunch and beers, and even before heading a bit unsteadily down the path to the grotto, they seemed well on the way to better health.

Our beer came. We drank. It was ambrosial. For all the extravagant hype surrounding it, the Westvleteren 12 really did taste extraordinary. It was dark, heady, strong but balanced, with hints of dark fruit, caramel, and coffee. I didn’t register the “brown bread and workbench dirt” or the “musty barnwood” flavors, but it was deeply complex and utterly delicious.

Our waitress told us that occasionally they sold a few bottles in the gift shop, but there were no extras that day. Undeterred, I accosted a waiter and asked him if maybe, possibly, there was a bottle of the 12 lurking somewhere that we could buy, as we had come all the way from America to taste it.

“Look!” he replied. “They’re selling some right now!” A line of people had suddenly materialized at the gift shop, which was offering a very limited number of four-bottle gift packs, including one 12 and a Westvleteren glass, for an outrageous price. Thrilled, we rushed to buy two gift packs and held them high, giddy with beer and the joy of achieving a near-impossible goal.

A Shandy for the Wine-Lover’s Soul

May.25.17

A Shandy for the Wine-Lover’s Soul

by Charukesi Ramadurai

Tinto de Verano in Andalusia

It was lunchtime deep in the hills of Andalusia in the south of Spain and I was dying for something cold and refreshing. Naturally, sangria was the first thing that came to mind. But they had only red wine sangria at this tiny alfresco café in Ronda, and I could just see myself falling asleep—or wanting to—after a couple of glasses. And that tour of the bullring, one of Spain’s oldest, awaited.

As I vacillated, the waiter walked back into the café without waiting for my drink order. And then there he was, with a tall glass filled with something cold and pink. It was love at first sip for me; the Tinto de Verano had the perfect amount of booziness for a summer afternoon. I downed it in a few gulps and then asked for another.

Waiting for the food to arrive, I looked around to see glasses and pitchers of this drink on almost every table. The sun was climbing higher, the day was getting warmer. By the time we left, I was on a mellow high, combined with a mild sugar rush, ready to take on whatever Ronda had to offer.

Tinto de Verano means red wine of summer, and just as its name implies, is ideal for the scorcher months. It’s a wine spritzer served cold, equal parts red wine and sweetened lemon soda, sometimes with a slice of lemon. Yes, I can see purists purse their lips in disdain, even horror (ice in red wine!) but I am happy to leave them to their sniffing and swirling, as I continue to swig.

Tinto de Verano became my beverage of choice for that week-long drive through Andalusia. I began to think of it as the shandy for the wine-lover’s soul. One morning, I skipped my regular coffee for a glass of it during a 11 a.m. pit stop on the drive, and nobody raised an eyebrow.

Later, I read somewhere that the Tinto de Verano was born in Cordoba at the hands of a particularly creative pub owner, and soon became popular all over the country. Today, it is the drink that locals reach for in summer; ordering sangria marks you out as an outsider.

Back home to an Indian summer and the Spain holiday constantly in my mind, I reach out for that half bottle of red wine left over from a party and a bottle of Sprite.

Photo by: Arkangel

Is There Anywhere on Earth Where One Can Escape Craft Breweries These Days?

May.24.17

Is There Anywhere on Earth Where One Can Escape Craft Breweries These Days?

by Eli Meixler

Ale in Yangon

It’s a quarter to six in Yangon, and it’s finally getting cool enough to sit outside without sweating through my shirt. It’s April, the hottest month of the year, but the sun has mellowed into a fuzzy red orb and the mosquitoes have yet to marshal in earnest. There’s a breeze coming off the river, and the German-style Weizen in my hand is cold and sweet, with hints of honey and banana.

Two years ago, this warehouse-turned-brewery would have seemed like ill-fated venture: too much, too soon. But a lot has changed in Yangon recently. The streets are choked with traffic (steering wheel on the right), Uber has arrived, and the newest mall, with twin luxury condo towers, wouldn’t feel out of place in Bangkok or Singapore.

But not everything has changed. Since the earliest days of the military junta, the men in brass have kept a firm hold on brewing and distribution licenses. Despite dipping a toe in the tides of global trade, Myanmar’s thirst is still mostly slaked by the same few military-owned, watery rice lagers. The most common watering holes are curbside beer stations, where patrons pull up plastic stools, gesture at a waiter for a pint, and presumably try not to think about whose pockets they’re lining.

In a growing handful of upscale bars, foreign imports such as Singapore’s Tiger and Thailand’s Singha are starting to make an appearance alongside locally-brewed versions of international brands, which offer the same familiar swill behind a Heineken or Carlsberg label.

But tonight, I’ve abandoned my local beer stop to venture into North Dagon industrial zone, sit on the banks of Pazundaung creek and sip British and German-style ale. Burbrit (a portmanteau of Burma and Britain), Yangon’s new and only craft brewhouse, opened to nervous whispers earlier this year. How’d they get a license? Would it last? My fellow beer drinker takes a deep swallow of her Burma IPA, a rich, malty brew bursting with hops and floral notes.

Burbrit’s riverside patio, as well as the five varieties of ale, is a welcome respite from the congestion downtown, from the rising levels of air pollution and creeping disappointments in the democratically elected government. We sit in silence until our glasses are empty and order another round. The Irish Red Ale this time? Sure, why not.

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.

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