New Bar Room Reads

books

Although I haven’t added to my Recommended Reading section in some time – I’ve been chewing through several non-drinking-related books this spring and summer* – a few new works on boozing may soon change that fact.

Over the last week or so, I’ve learned of three new books (two just published) that I’d like to add to the informally categorized “Food and Drink” section of my library.

According to Max Watman, writing in the Wall Street Journal, The Audacity of Hops, by Tom Acitelli, is an “exhaustive chronicle of the American beer revolution” beginning with Anchor Steam Beer’s creation during the summer of 1965. The book tells the grand story of American micro-brewing: “all of the major players are here—Sierra Nevada, Geary, Bell’s—and many readers will flip through in search of their favorite brews or their favorite anecdotes.”  Just as importantly, the book traces how Americans decided they wanted better beer, telling “the story of the maturation and increased sophistication of the American palate.”

Unfortunately maturation and sophistication can sometimes lead to excess. And the association between drinking and literature (i.e., sophistication) might not as be as rosy as we often think; so surmises Ian Crouch in a New Yorker blog entry discussing The Lost Weekend, by Charles Jackson. There are no jokes or clever comments to be made of alcoholism, and Crouch disconnects the allure of reading while drinking by mistakenly choosing to read Jackson’s novel over a pint.

“On this weekend, Don [Jackson's protagonist] suffers cruel hangovers, tremors, hallucinations, and a terrible, maiming fall down the stairs that leaves him in the alcoholic ward for the night…As his body falls apart, the novel tightens into a frightening psychological claustrophobia, and the reader is faced with all the little lies that Don tells himself and all the disappointments that no amount of alcohol can blot out.”

Counterbalancing Jackson’s fictionalized account of his own tragic experience with the bottle is Dwight Garner’s New York Times review of The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey, by Lawrence Osborne. Tippling on multiple continents is Osborne’s clever method of considering “East and West, this supposed clash of civilizations…to think of them as ‘Wet and Dry, Alcoholic and Prohibited.’”

Based on Garner’s few quotations, Osborne’s British wit shines while conversing with locals over tea, chatting with Lebanese warlords who moonlight as wine makers, or mocking “certain lifestyle editors” (of which Garner appears to take gleeful delight in).

Yet humanity is the key to understanding both our non-drinking fellow man as well as those who struggle to drink within their limits. “Mr. Osborne is aware that it is possible to take drinking too far, and he has sympathy for those who have become its victims. He is grateful not to be among them, to mostly be able to regulate his desires…as a real human being indeed – a complicated man mixing complicated feelings into fizzy, adult, intoxicating prose.”

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* For the curious, or those with an interest in history, I’ve recently enjoyed the following books:

K Blows Top, by Peter Carlson – A comedic look at Sergei Krushchev’s 1959 tour across the U.S.

The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes – A deep look into the little-known mid-19th Century Eurasian conflict.

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by Mark Mazzetti – An overview of several notable counterterrorism operations of the past decade.

An Armenian Sketchbook, by Vassily Grossman – A short chronicle of the Soviet author’s few months in Central Asia.

Published in: on July 25, 2013 at 11:20 pm  Comments Off  
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Crowdsourcing Cocktails: Iced Tea

iced tea ad

Here is where I turn to you, dear readers – my fellow patrons of booze, the great unwashed drinking masses – for your guidance, inspiration, creativity, and advice.  I cannot, for the life of me, find a suitable cocktail recipe that makes good use of brewed iced tea.

I have tried and I have failed.  Thus, I submit a humble request: please enlighten me to your favorite cocktail that uses iced tea as an ingredient.

You see, I enjoy tea – naturally brewed and unsweetened – over ice. It makes a superbly refreshing non-alcoholic beverage, which I do choose from time to time.  So, on a recent sunny afternoon, I placed several tea bags in a half gallon mason jar (the same jars I use to make homemade brandy).  A fresh batch of sun tea was ready only a few hours later.

However, I now find myself with quite a surplus of tea.  Why not put it to good use in a cocktail, I thought.  But this is precisely my problem: I cannot find a recipe that doesn’t sound overwhelmingly sweet and sugary.

So here we are, you and I and a jar of tea.  I patiently await your suggestions, concoctions, or whatever you have enjoyed and wish to pass on.

Of course, thank you for your assistance.  I am forever indebted.  Please accept my sincerest gratitude.

Published in: on July 23, 2013 at 11:21 pm  Comments (6)  
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Your Simple Beer Glass

stella chalice

Next time you open a bottle of beer and reach into your cabinet for a glass to pour it in, stop and consider that glass.  Chances are, it’s an ordinary pint glass (or soda glass).  No frill and very durable.  But in bars, it’s quickly becoming extinct.

Look around the next time you’re out.  You’ll likely see that specialty beer glasses – customized and uniquely shaped, emblazoned with the name of the brew it contains – far outnumber the humble pints. Instead there are snifters, stemmed pokals, and French jelly glasses.

This has been the case with imports for some time now.  Every import requires its own particular vessel, the common perception being the beer will taste best if drank from the proper glass. Belgium is notable not only for its beer, but also for its large number of specialty glasses.  The number of glass variations is so absurd that a good friend (and fellow connoisseur) jokes that the Belgian glass industry exists solely to support the Belgian beer industry.

Stella Artois is a particular excellent example of the specialty glassware trend, stretched to the extreme.  In most establishments, Stella is served in their signature 11.2 centiliter chalice (or goblet) with the gold rim and star-imprinted stem. Capitalizing on the chalice’s recognition, Stella’s marketing team formed an entire advertising campaign around it.  Further, specially-marked 12-packs of Stella bottles offered a free engraved chalice by simply entering an online code.

Was a free, personalized glass reason enough to buy a half case of Stella?*  You bet it was.

American breweries also took note of this specialty-glass-equals-fancy-import-beer trend: Sam Adams introduced their Boston lager glass a while back, putting a new, rounded spin on the traditional pint.  According to the brewery, the glass’s notable bulb or tulip shape gives “a full sensory drinking experience by fully showcasing Samuel Adams Boston lager’s complex balance of malt and hop flavors.”

Whether Sam Adams’s glassware will impart an air of refinement, as those Belgian imports are arguably intended, is anyone’s guess. They say it’s supposed to make a difference in taste, and that’s well and good, I suppose.  But perhaps I’m overcomplicating the point.  Maybe it’s just about brand recognition, as glasses carry logos.  Or maybe it’s just about selling a collectible.

I’m likely not the only drinker to hold intrinsic value in a glass from a notable evening or event.  So the next time you open your kitchen or bar cabinet, maybe you too will pass over that simple pint for that special, fancy glass you bought on that one vacation, where you first tasted a new and exotic brew.  Or maybe it’s that simple pint that holds the fondest memories of all.  Regardless, here’s hoping those memories will make your beer taste that much better.

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* Stella is a damn good beer.  So it’s not like I had to buy a dozen bottles of swill for the free glass. Not that swill would have stopped me, I’m a sucker for free stuff.

More importantly, Stella’s marketing and wider availability in the last 5-10 years has resulted in something of a pooh-poohing by snootier beer drinkers, who unfortunately equate availability with poor quality – unless it’s really bad, then it’s ironic).  This is hardly the case: as I remarked in a Booze News entry in January 2012 (citing an Economist article), Stella is a top-selling beer, even in Belgium of all places.

Published in: on July 9, 2013 at 9:37 pm  Comments (1)  
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Port City Brewing’s Derecho Common

derecho common

Late in the evening on Friday, June 29, 2012, an extraordinary thunderstorm roared through the DC metro area. This fast-moving storm – which introduced the term derecho to most of us – gave little or no time to prepare.  Power was knocked out to most of the region, including my suburban town of Alexandria, Virgina.

My family and I had it easy: we camped out in the basement and lounged around to stay cool, and we were fortunate to have our power restored within 24 hours.  The good folks at Port City Brewing, located a few miles away, had a far more serious problem with which to contend: how to keep their fermenting containers cool without electricity?

The brewers weren’t able to solve the problem, which in turn raised another question altogether.  What do you get when you ferment lager at a higher than normal temperature?

The answer: A California common-style lager (also known as steam beer).  And even though Port City’s inaugural batch was made under less-than-optimal circumstances, it made the best of a bad situation.

To mark the one year anniversary of their accidental brew, Port City planned to re-release a more purposefully-created version of their accidental brew, named Derecho Common.  I learned this when I stopped by the brewery last Friday afternoon for a pint (and a six pack) of their seasonal Tartan Ale.  In a stroke of hilarious timing, an afternoon thunderstorm (which I unfortunately had to drive through) had just rolled across the area and Port City was again without electricity, this time on the day before the release of their beer created because they had no power.

Mother Nature is not without a sense of humor.

Power was quickly restored – a few hours later, I learned – and Derecho Common was released without further incident the next day. I picked up a six pack of it Sunday and enjoyed one while my kids played in the sprinkler that afternoon.  It’s a perfect summer beer: medium-light, sweet, and slightly tart, with only a touch of bitterness.  Not as heavy as a hefeweizen or a Belgian double (dubbel), but not so light as to be insubstantial.

Although the circumstances surrounding Derecho Common’s inception were certainly no fun, their beer is a special way to memorialize a notable event in the region’s recent metrological memory.  Now if only they’d come up with a beer to mark 2011′s epic earthquake. I suppose we have the Washington Monument construction to remind us of that.

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Port City’s staff is not without a sense of humor either.  While I enjoyed by pint of ale in the brewery’s tasting room Friday, Bill Butcher, Port City’s owner, gave out commemorative Derecho Common key chains that include a small LED light and a bottle opener.  It’s the only tool you’ll need during the next power outage.

Published in: on July 5, 2013 at 6:07 pm  Comments (4)  
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Arnie and the Myth of the Cool Office

office sleeping

Permissible office drinking – It’s the mythical unicorn sought by every working professional.  You see it on TV and may have met someone who claimed to have once worked in such a place.  But you’ve never landed one of those fabled positions.

Now out of nowhere, it seems employers everywhere are pouring drinks.  “Workers cluster around a beer-vending machines—nicknamed Arnie—after the day’s client meetings are done” at Boston advertising agency Arnold Worldwide, says the Wall Street JournalBloomberg profiles Manhattan-based tech company Fab.com Inc., who “provides beer on tap, free lunch, and an ice cream machine.”

Office-sponsored drinking has suddenly gone from myth to mainstream.  In such a circumstance, one is wise to ask: what’s the catch?

The catch is best summarized by Thrillist.com founder Ben Lerer: “Allowing workers to drink on the job may even keep them at their desks longer… I’m fine if you are having a beer out on your desk, sticking around and doing more work and enjoying yourself doing it.”  Note his main points – being at your desk long and doing more work.

The Atlantic Wire’s Rebecca Greenfield, summarizing several articles discussing management and workplace benefits, explodes “the myth of the cool office:” in reality, extras such as free food and drink, unlimited vacation, and open office spaces are benefitting the employer rather than the employee.  In other words, they are benefits alright, but you aren’t the one benefitting.

Greenfield, quoting Bloomberg, writes, “each and every kegerator serves as a reminder of what you owe the company.”  That company beer you’re enjoying, it’s really meant to extract more work and to implicitly subjugate yourself to the firm.

As economist Milton Friedman once wrote, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Or a free beer.

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