Beer mash

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I never knew I’d have so much to say about beer. Usually after I write Monday’s post I brainstorm a few other ideas that could work for that topic, and I’m lucky if I come up with four. But, just like a good fermented beer keeps feeding on itself, my list of potential topics kept growing and growing…

So here are many of the thoughts that I couldn’t develop more fully:

1. I’ll drink to that

My parents have a set of drinking glasses with words for “cheers” in different languages on the side of them. Here are the words I’ve used to toast, and why: Cheers (English–all the time); Salud (Spanish–while living in Mexico & Spain); A votre sante (French–while in Paris and to sound cultured); Nazdrave (Bulgarian–because I lived for a summer in Provincetown, MA with a bunch of Bulgarian seasonal workers); Slainte (Irish–in Dublin and while drinking with Irish writers); Prost (German–in German class); L’chaim (Hebrew–at Jewish gatherings and at the after-party for “Fiddler on the Roof”); Skål (Scandanavian–I’m a Viking, remember?)

2. Best-sellers

On the multicultural note, it’s interesting–and perhaps somewhat embarrassing–to see which beers are the best-sellers around the world. In the United States we buy Bud Lite more than any other beer. So much for microbrews.

3. How to repurpose an old brewery

Where do breweries go to die? Hopefully, they don’t. Here’s a story of a smart urban planner who found a new use for a wonderful abandoned brewery. (oh yeah, and one of my friends works for this guy).

4. Milwaukee brews

My boyfriend drinks PBR. Pabst Blue Ribbon is the drink of hipsters. Since my boyfriend also wears a lot of plaid shirts, listens to obscure music (he’s a music writer, for goodness sake!), and bikes any time he can, some go so far as to label him a hipster. He counters with the fact that he’s from a town near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and locals always drink local beer. This was known and reported on by the New Yorker in 1960 (it’s free if you’re a subscriber, and I highly recommend it as it’s surprisingly hilarious). Some things never change.

5. Drinking time

My college’s unofficial mascot is Keggy the Keg. Our official mascot is “the big green.” That’s right, a color. Only “big.” No wonder Keggy makes such frequent appearances around campus, like at this tour for prospective students:

Oh yeah, Dartmouth was also the college that inspired this:

I’m planning to add more to this beer list in the coming days, so check back soon!

Drunk monks and microbrews

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Just as real champagne can come only from the Champagne region in France, a real Trappist beer comes only from one of the seven Trappist monasteries that doubles as a brewery, six of which are Belgian, the seventh lying just over the border into the Netherlands.

Trappist monks brew their beer

The monastic lifestyle requires self-sufficiency, and beer brewing in the monasteries began a half millennium ago as a way for the monks to provide sustenance to the community and vice versa. Trappist monks originally brewed three types of beer: enkel, dubbel, and tripel. You’d be correct in guessing that these are the Dutch cognates for single, double, and triple, referring the the strength of the beer (the naming conventions are significant to these Christian monks in that their strongest beer is triple, like the trinity). Many monasteries also have a patersbier, a weak beer that is only for the monks themselves. Though some say the monks began brewing dubbel beers to help them get through their fasting, the Trappists are generally supposed to live austere lives and are thus not supposed to be drunk monks.

All this is to say that the monks are way ahead of the trend. As I was “researching” local microbrews tonight for this post, I couldn’t help myself: I jumped into the car and headed for the liquor store. I browsed through the  bottles of microbrews, getting excited about the names of hops and yeasts that I’m beginning to recognize. I chatted with the cashiers, who were only too thrilled to talk about their own home-brewing experiences. And I thought of those monks who have been experimenting with those same ingredients for hundreds of years. So cool.

So hard to pick up.

I still have a lot to learn about the contemporary American beer scene. We’ve got a few breweries in Minnesota, but I only know two well: Summit and Surly. And even “well” is a relative term. I’ve only drunk Surly Furious (one of their two most popular beers) a few times in my life. I often get Summit’s seasonal sampling boxes of 3 bottles each of 4 flavors–I picked the Winter Sampler up at the liquor store tonight and am currently sipping their Winter Ale–but still wouldn’t be able to recognize any of them from a blindfolded taste test.

I know I like oatmeal and chocolate stouts. I know I like Belgian ales (thanks, monks!) I know I like Guinness. I know I like Kwak (although my friends make fun of me for ordering the hoity toity science experiment beer–see image at right). But there’s so much more to know! I guess the only way I’ll learn is by drinking a lot more beer. I think I’m up to the challenge.

What are your beer recommendations?

Beer through the ages


I remember when I became really and truly interested in beer. It wasn’t so long ago. I had just graduated college, which meant that I had been consuming Key Stone Lite for four years straight. Key Stone is to a nicely crafted microbrew what cement is to ballet. And it’s just the kind of swill that would put a person off beer forever.

Dogfish Head's Midas Touch beer

But then along came The New Yorker. The article that changed my entire perspective on beer focuses on a microbrewery in Delaware called Dogfish Head and its head brewer, Sam. This article came out in autumn of 2008 when I lived in a small town in Spain. My roommate and I got deliveries of vegetables from a local farm, and one of our main activities in the evenings was figuring out what to do with produce we’d never encountered before. Sam’s brewing experiments seemed akin to our own (although much more complicated). Furthermore, I was intoxicated by the strong dose of beer history and trivia.

Like this: in 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria imposed purity laws, known as the Reinheitsgebot, that limited beer brewing to only three ingredients: water, hops, and barley (yeast was as yet an unknown substance). Though the Reinheitsgebot was created to control barley and hops trade among peasants, German brewers still follow these laws. For some, creativity flourishes with restrictions–modern German brewers have learned to mimic fruit and spice flavors through endless combinations of yeast, hops, and grains–while others find inspiration in stranger places. Sam uses an archaeological chemist to help him recreate the types of alcoholic beverages drunk by ninth-century Finns and by King Midas’s court in Turkey in 730 BC.

An early depiction of beer brewing

It is somewhat surprising to think of how many centuries humans have brewed beer, considering the effort my family and I put in last Friday to make sure that our wort boiled just so, that all the parts that would touch the beer were sanitized, and that our fermentation system was airtight. Indeed, beer requires much more technology than, say, wine. Crushed grapes will ferment on their own. Beer is intentional. Still, it dates back something like 11,000 years old.

As the Reinheitsgebot once tried to kill variation in Bavarian beer, so Prohibition tried to wipe out the thousands of breweries that once dotted the American landscape (a 1935 New Yorker article bemoaned the “Fourteen Years of Suffering,” but was optimistic about the return of imported beers). And Prohibition was successful in that aim–the majority of breweries closed, leaving only a few that were able to stay solvent by creating “near beers.” But the last few decades have seen an exponential increase in microbreweries and home brewing. As we become more involved in the selection of our food–local, organic, free of artifice–so too are we becoming more cognizant of our drink. While there are still fewer than half the number of breweries in the United States than there were pre-Prohibition, I imagine that number will continue to grow. After all, both the process and result of beer brewing are way too much fun to let die on the vine.


How to be a beer brewer


What you’ll need: grains, hops, water, yeast

Songlist: Beer for My Horses by Toby Keith, 99 Bottle of Beer on the Wall

Further reading: How to Brew by John Palmer

My brother was only home for 48 hours this Thanksgiving, but it was enough time for a new family tradition to be born. The day after Thanksgiving will now officially be Brewing Day, the resulting beers ready just in time for Christmas. Perfect!

In fact, our brewing is better referred to as a return to family tradition. My great-great-grandparents owned a brewery in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They called it the Rising Sun. The Rising Sun had been in business since 1887, but officially closed its doors in 1920 to abide by Prohibition laws. They reopened in 1933, changed the name to Seeber Brewing Co, changed the name again in 1937 and then closed forever in 1939.

Or so some of our virtuous ancestors would have had us believe. In fact, the Rising Sun was run by gangsters (including New York’s Public Enemy #1, Waxey Gordon) and continued to brew beer illegally throughout Prohibition. It was raided at least four times, and led to the death of a Prohibition agent in one of those raids. The gangsters escaped but were picked up again in a speakeasy…in St. Paul, Minnesota, my hometown. Ah, family history, how full of strange coincidences.

A Rising Sun beer bottle

So if we say that beer flows in our veins, it’s not just because our blood alcohol content is getting dangerously high. I think when my mom picked out a home brewing starter kit for my dad last Christmas, it must really have been her ancestral inheritance calling out to her. Fermentation systems! Malt syrup! Pale Ale!

I was on hand to help her pick out all the necessary tools, from a glass carboy to a beer thief (there sure are a lot of weird words in beer brewing–kraeusen, trub, wort, zymurgy…) We marveled at the specialized additives one could choose–berries, spices, orange rinds–and dreamed of the experiments we might someday make.

For beer brewing truly is an exciting experiment. On Friday, my parents and brother and I gathered around the how-to DVD, pausing after important parts and racing to the kitchen to make sure we were doing everything right. We mashed the grains and stirred in the malt syrup, added the hops and aerated the wort, sterilized the funnels and bung, measured the specific gravity. We even sampled the dried hops, unfermented beer, and malt syrup–it was all disgusting. And after three hours of this hard work we were the proud owners of five gallons of burping pea soup.

The beer now sits down in the basement, letting the magic happen. And in about three weeks we’ll transfer it into beer bottles we’ve saved up–there are about 80 sitting empty in the basement–and then come Christmas we’ll have a taste of the holiday cheer. Here’s to holiday traditions, new and old!

The United Maps of America

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Relief map of the United States of America

The United States inspire some pretty good-lookin’ maps. Since the land mass is so enormous and the landscape so varied, our weather maps always end up a veritable rainbow of temperatures. And because each region and state have their own identities we can plot our differences in multifarious and beautiful ways.

Let’s start first with our history. This is what the fledgling country looked like in 1800 (I especially like the contrast of the named states to the pink “Claimed by Georgia” territory):

After spending so much time studying a modern highway map on my road trip two weeks ago, it’s fun to look back on the roads available to the early driver:

And let us not forget the origins of the place names of our country, most of which we don’t really understand. The following is a map of English translations of the Native American names that have stuck with us. Check out National Geographic’s interactive version to find out that Manhattan means “where one gathers wood for bows” and Chicago means “at the skunk place.”

Poor Chicago “Skunk Place,” Illinois. It’s easy to be embarrassed by one’s state, especially after looking at the following map that shows what each state is worst at (thankfully, my state, Minnesota, is only the worst place for tornadoes!):

And perhaps some of us would feel embarrassed–while others would be proud–of which country our state’s GDP most closely resembles:

The next map is as lovely as it is shameful–a rendering of the lower 48 through the locations of every McDonald’s:

Wash that burger and fries down with a nice soda…or is it pop? Obviously we disagree:

Ah forget it, let’s just crack open a beer instead. At least we can agree on the name, if not the brand:

It’s a good-looking country, really, as long as you don’t divide us up by political leanings. Then we end up looking like a constrained heart, just one McDonald’s vanilla shake short of a heart attack:

The genius of Guinness


It’s a proven fact that Guinness tastes better in Ireland, so when my friend Hilary and I visited Dublin two years ago a trip to the Guinness Storehouse was foremost on our itinerary.

I’d had the unreasonable hope that we would actually see the legendary beer being made but for sanitary reasons tourists haven’t been allowed into the brewery since 1972. The Guinness Storehouse is instead an interactive museum for adults, and one huge advertisement for the drink. You wander through a display on the ingredients (simple: water, barley, hops, and yeast, though there is a small amount of that yeast permanently stored in a vault at the brewery just in case something were to happen to the main supply). You learn about the the highly-skilled coopers who crafted the wooden barrels that once transported Guinness. You can try foods made with Guinness (this recipe for Guinness cupcakes with Bailey’s frosting sounds incredible). You are taught how to pour a perfect pint, as Fergal Murray demonstrates below:

Hilary and I spent a good deal of time in the advertising section, which catalogs the iconic Guinness posters so popular in the American college dorm room (this 1930s Guinness toucan shows that I’ve both got class and a love of alcohol!) As I discussed in a post from my previous blog, Hilary and I were underwhelmed by the advertising we’d seen in Dublin up to that point. We loved most of Guinness’s advertising exhibit, except for one story that we assumed was supposed to impress us. As I wrote then, “Two advertising executives were locked in a hotel until they came up with something stunning. After three days they emerged with one word: genius. Hilary and I scratched our heads. Sure, “genius” is a good word for Guinness–they share so many letters! But how did it take these execs three days?”

The tour ends at the top of the building in the Gravity Bar where you can enjoy a complimentary Guinness with a shamrock carved into the foam and 360-degree views of Dublin. It really is an extraordinarily flat city.

I was so enamored of Guinness by the time we were leaving, I made Hilary go to the expansive first-floor shop where I was hoping to find some sort of brewing kit for my dad or brother. I didn’t know anything about home brewing at the time, but I thought if there was a chance Guinness had home brewing merchandise, it would be here. I explained to a shopkeeper what I had in mind; he looked horrified. But that’s illegal! he exclaimed. Um, not in the US, I told him, and he shook his head as though this validated his belief that Americans are a morally repulsive lot. Well even if it were legal, he added, do you really think Guinness would be looking to sell their product for home manufacture? I shook my head. I guess I’ll just buy a Guinness-flavored chocolate bar? I said. He nodded smartly and left us in our shame.

My dad had a meeting in downtown St. Paul this morning and he said there was already a line down the block at 8 am in front of an Irish pub. Perhaps that shopkeeper would be shaking his head at the US if he knew, but more likely he’s already slurrily singing Danny Boy in a pub with his mates. It’s good to know that Minnesotans are keeping up with their Irish counterparts (the Irish got a seven-hour head start over us so it’s only right!)

So, happy St. Patrick’s Day everyone! Enjoy your Guinnesses and your green paraphernalia. If you truly want to “go green” on St. Paddy’s, remember that kegs are less wasteful than bottles or cans. And, as our Irish friends would have us know, you can’t have a perfect pour unless it comes from the tap. Sláinte!

Hilary and I, at the highest point in Dublin: five stories up.