Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Beer: U.S. Vs. The World

This week we got together with our favorite urban hillbilly band, TRAVIS WHITELAW AND THE LONGHORNS -- the band that performs our podcast's theme song, "Beer!" We met to put some of America's iconic beers to the test against some fairly obscure "ferner" beers, and also match one import that's much like an American beer against an American-made Belgian style beer.
The cashier was very perplexed at this purchase.

 To make it easier to listen to, we broke the session up into 5 short podcasts.

Coors Light vs. Gaspar of Belgium
Miller High Life vs. Mikkeller of Denmark
Budweiser vs. Baird of Japan
Southampton vs. Stella Artois of Belgium


OK -- it wasn't really a serious beer panel. It was really more of a "beer baiting" session, with an attempt at a little humor. I mean, how can you have a head to head competition between one set of beers which strives to have an abundance of flavor, color, body, aroma and character and another set which strives for the utter lack of character? Well, if nothing more, it was a good demonstration of how advanced some mega breweries are at producing the cleanest tasting (read "sterile") beverages, which approximate neutral profiled carbonated water.

                                          (Infected Exploding Beer)
Coors Light was a no brainer for a session like this. The fact that their website says nothing about the actual beer, how it's made or its flavor is telling. The only thing that Coors Light seems to be proud of is that their beer is "cold." Seriously. That's why you should buy it -- because it's cold. And the colder, the better.

Gaspar was chosen for two reasons: 1. I had never heard of it before, and; 2. I thought that the label listed the beer name as "Caspar". So, that would work with Coors/Caspar, Miller/Mikkeller, etc. I bought all of the beers (except Miller) at New Beer. Gaspar was in the Belgian section, and the description on the label was very promising.

But Gaspar was a geyser! If you listen to the podcast, you can hear it erupting out of the bottle, amid screams of horror and cries of hysterical laughter! In all my years of judging at homebrew contests, with all the "interesting" beers that they inevitably offer, I've never seen such a gusher! With no exaggeration, a column of tan foamed beer shot straight up out of the bottle, which was sitting on a low coffee table, and positively soaked the ceiling!
Travis: "Yer gunna need a ladder if'n ya wanna taste that beer! Coors  -- 1; Gaspar -- 0!"
Not one of us were spared a soaking. It was as if a beer grenade went off. The carpet was soaked, the couch was soaked, we were soaked -- and the level of horror was equally matched by our fits of uncontrollable laughter. It was the funniest beer disaster that I've ever witnessed. We had so little beer left, that it was hard to say anything about the brew, aside from that it was, indeed, bitter, and also likely infected somehow.
The remains of the "effervescent" Gaspar.

[podcast] After Coors Light, Miller tasted like an actual beer. But when put side by side with a barrel-aged chipotle porter from Mikkeller... Miller was only qualified to be a glass rinser once we were done with the Texas Ranger (as it is known in Europe; here it's just plain ol' Chipotle Porter), which was brewed by Mikkel at De Proef in Belgium. This one was aged in used bourbon barrels, and that subtle smokey flavor was quite apparent amid the rich, robust roastiness and expected hop bitterness. Though finding the pepper flavor proved to be a bit elusive.

"Real 'mercan beer!"
"It's cheap."

I can't remember the last time that I tasted a Budweiser. And now I know why -- there's nothing to remember! If this Bud was so devoid of flavor, color and body, then I dread the thought of what Bud Light offers, or fails to offer.
The Bud was clean to the point of not seeming to exist at all. If I was used to the "flavor" and "aroma" and "body" of Bud, then I think that tasting something as exotic as Baird's Jubilation would send me screaming. It would be like drinking non-fat, pasteurized, factory-farm milk your whole life, and then getting a squirt of warm moo-juice straight from the udder!
Jubilation, a winter celebration beer, was amber/red in color, and rich and figgy in flavor. The well balanced use of cinnamon twigs offered enough spiciness to compliment the ripe candied figs used in this delicious, cold weather tipple. Side by side, Bud tasted like a beer which had every possible "beer character" distilled and scrubbed out of it, while Jubilation was a symphony of flavor.

Remember the 2004 US Mens Olympic Basketball team, comprised of multi-million dollar NBA players, that was beaten by Argentina and Lithuania? That's what it's like for 300+ year old Stella Artois going up against a brewery from Long Island!

OK, another unfair fight. Clearly, Stella puts all their efforts into image, marketing and advertising -- not into making interesting beer. And Southampton is one of the most brilliant, creative and technically savvy craft breweries in North America. Their Abbot 12 puts even some of the most established traditional Belgian breweries to shame.

Our bottle of Stella did have more flavor than the American light lagers that we sampled. But that's like saying helium has more electrons than hydrogen (for non science geeks, it does -- one). This Stella had a hint of sweetness, and a touch of skunkiness, that reminded me a bit of Heineken. 

I think that a lot of Americans associate "imported" with "premium", regardless of what the beer actually tastes like. That's clearly how Stella is marketed, fooling Americans into thinking that this mega brewed, mass marketed, industrial beer is special. What makes Stella special? According to their website, their "9 Step Ritual" for pouring their beer does. Yup. Not the flavor, body, or aroma. Not the ingredients. Just as Coors sells their beer with a particular meaningless superficial quality ("it's COLD!!!), Stella is "special" because you pour it special! The Pour....

I'll say it's poor. And best poured down the drain. It is the Schlitz of Belgium, and I'd rather drink the Schaefer of Belgium, Maes Pils... or the Belgian PBR, Jupiler -- at least they don't pretend to be something that they're not.

Now, the Southampton Cuvée des Fleurs is a truly special beer. And so much so that it might not be for everyone. It's an 8% saison style beer made with a bouquet of unlikely ingredients: English Lavendar, Roman chamomile, Marigold, Dog Rose and, of course, hops. Delicate perfume certainly comes to mind, both in the aroma and flavor. It is truly a flower-beer experience, and for those who must try every interesting beer available at least once, just to say that they've had it, this one needs to go on your list.

[podcast - summary] I'm not sure that the tasting panel was all that practical. It wasn't intended to be. Though I definitely learned more than I had expected from the experience. And B.R. and I had some genuine great laughs sipping suds with Travis and Kyle. I hope that we either entertained, offended or educated you to some degree. Our apologies if we did none of the three. If that's the case, then either you're not reading well enough, or drinking well enough.

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