Coyote Mercury

words, birds and whatever else by James Brush

Tag: beer

A Fine Austin Brewery

Last week I stopped in at HEB for some beer and saw a brew I’d never noticed before – Independence Pale Ale. As I was checking out, I saw that it’s brewed here in Austin. The beer was a very good pale made with lots of hops, especially cascade hops, which happens to be my favorite variety.

It turned out that last weekend was the second anniversary of the Independence Brewing Company and that my wife had already made plans for us to go to the celebration. She’d never had the beer and so was surprised to see that that’s what I had happened to buy.

On Saturday, we went to the brewery in one of the many warehouses off of East Ben White. The brewery is very small and the people friendly. There was a band and Jasper was there wagging his tail and greeting the guests, but I didn’t try the beer named for him. I did try the Freestyle Wheat which was crisp and refreshing as well as the Bootlegger Brown. The Brown was my favorite. I’m not a big fan of browns, but this one with its dark color and rich chocolatey flavor reminded me more of a porter. Delicious.

The Independence Brewing Company is the best thing to happen to Austin beer in a long time, at least since the days of Celis and Waterloo. Hopefully, they’ll grow and continue to brew great beer for many years to come.

California Beer

Irish Pub in Squaw Valley
(inside an Irish pub in Squaw Valley)

In 1994, I was working on a made-for-TV movie in San Jose. On a day off, I drove up to Mountain View with one of the sound guys. We attended the Small Brewers’ Festival of California where I tried many beers including Pete’s Wicked Ale, which quickly became my favorite.

When I returned to Austin, I preached the gospel of Pete’s but it would be another year and a half before it made its way here. By the time I found it, in a 7-11 on MLK, it tasted different. I still liked it, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. Perhaps beer tastes better in memory?

A few years ago, I mentioned it to a friend’s father who is an alcohol distributor. He claimed that all California and all European beers were skunky by the time they reach Texas and that they taste totally different (meaning fresh) closer to the source.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but when we were in California, I found that my favorite beer of all time, my comfort beer if you will – Sierra Nevada Pale Ale – was not the same in the Sierra Nevada mountains as it is in the hills of central Texas.

I love Sierra Nevada for its crisp hopiness, almost IPA-like in character. It’s the cascade hops that I love, I suppose, which is why when I make beer I try to load it up with similar-tasting hops. Still, there’s nothing like a cold pint of Sierra Nevada Pale. The idea of drinking a pint of Sierra in the Sierras was too much to pass up, but imagine my surprise when I tasted it. It was like a great beer made perfect. It had greater complexity of flavor than it does here. There’s an almost floral presence in the taste, but it’s not sweet or soapy, it’s just… better.

Perhaps my friend’s dad was right. Perhaps Sierra is a bit off here in Texas, but I still like it. The test will be if I can locate a local purveyor of any of these fine beers that we tried on our trip and see if they taste as I remember them:

  • Tahoe Red Ale from the Lake Tahoe Brewing Company (whose site I can’t find) somewhere on the Nevada side. I liked this one. Reds aren’t my favorite, but it was smooth and pleasant.
  • Steelhead Extra Pale Ale from the Mad River Brewing Company in Blue Lake, CA. Truly a light pale in color. Nicely hopped, and I say the hoppier the better. This was my favorite of the beers we discovered.
  • Eye of the Hawk Select Ale by the Mendocino Brewing Company in Ukiah, CA. You can tell it’s a very alcoholic beer (8.0%) without reading the label. It’s thick, full, and strong. Reminds me of some Scottish ales. One is enough.
  • Great White Hefe-Weissen by the Lost Coast Brewing Company in Eureka, CA. I like a hefe after a hot day. It wasn’t really hot the day we tried it, but it still went down clean and smooth. Very refreshing with a wedge of lemon. Beautiful rich golden color.

We also drank Sierra Nevada Pale. Of course.

In his book River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon at one point describes reaching the west coast as coming to the end of the “Great American Beer Desert.” It’s not too deserty here in central Texas, but I do love going to California if for nothing else than to try new beers.

Beer, Mass Culture and God

“Beer is proof that God loves us.”
-Benjamin Franklin

Beer. It’s really very simple. Hops, barley malt, water, yeast. You can add some grains or any number of other things to create unique flavors, but the essence of beer is simple. Yeast eat sugar, producing two basic by-products: alcohol and carbon dioxide. Beer, or more broadly put fermented sugar water, is one of the oldest creations of the human race. Nearly every civilization from the Egyptians to the Aztecs to the English have brewed beer. One can travel the world over (or visit a good well-stocked pub) and sample beers from different cultures and climates, each with its own unique taste and character. Australia’s hearty lagers can be just the thing after a hard day in the sun, while Mexico’s lagers go with a nice easy day at the beach. The British stouts warm a winter evening and the Caribbean’s milk stouts offer a touch of sweetness after a spicy meal. Germany’s famous bocks and hefe-wiezzens should be savored for their rich complexity, as might a fine wine.

There are two basic styles of beer: lager and ale. Lagers tend to be lighter in body and have a cleaner flavor. They are cold fermented at lower temperatures and are usually light in color. Ales, fermented at room temperature and occasionally served at room temperature, have a much more complex flavor and range in color from light amber to black. Both are excellent styles and a matter of personal preference analogous to the differences between red and white wine. I personally prefer English ales to any other style. There is a third beer style, unfortunately. This is the swill produced by the major American breweries. You know who they are. Their beer is a perverse replica of the pilsner style of lager originating in eastern Europe in much the same way that Frankenstein’s monster was a twisted version of a human being.

Too often, when offered a beer, I am treated to a flavorless concoction consisting of slightly metallic tasting carbonated water mixed with alcohol. The sad truth is that this is not beer. This is an alcohol delivery device, not a fine drink to be savored and appreciated for its flavor or character. Perhaps, a handful of hops was held near the wort while it boiled and dissolved sugars, but certainly no hops were lovingly thrown into the mix. Prior to 1920 and prohibition, American beer was just as interesting and unique as the beer of any other country. We had variety and regional flavor. During prohibition, only the larger breweries survived by shifting production to non-alcoholic products. In 1933, prohibition ended and the major breweries proceeded to market a lighter style of beer that would appeal to both women and men. Over the years, beer came to mean a watery beverage, often brewed with rice or corn, that carried alcohol into the body without carrying flavor across the tongue. This is franken-beer made by corporations that love profit more than beer. I have spoken with many people who say they don’t like beer, but have only ever sampled the twisted products of these breweries. I was one of them until I tasted a true beer, a certain Irish stout that looks like coffee. I then realized that I had never previously tried beer; I had only tried franken-beer.

The mass market ad campaigns have taught many people too well that beer with flavor is bad or as one brewery put it, “skunky.” To combat skunkiness, this brewery put born on dates on all of its bottles. But when is a beer born? Is it born when the hops are thrown into the boiling wort as my religious friends might say, or do we take the more secular view that a beer is born when the bottle leaves the brewery? I say that too often American beer is in fact stillborn, or perhaps is not even born at all, no more deserving of the language of birth than a machine. Beer is born when there is love. Love for originality and uniqueness. Not love of money.

Referring back to Ben Franklin’s quote and thinking of the popularity of American macro-brews, one cannot help but wonder if perhaps God no longer loves us. Perhaps we are being punished for following the trendy ads rather than our taste buds. I believe that this phenomenon, which occurs in other industries (think hamburger chains), is the end result of mass culture. Are we doomed to a steady diet of blandness and nothing?

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