Tuesday, June 17, 2008

On Beer

When I reached legal drinking age I always pictured myself aging into a wine person. I pictured myself eating rare cheeses and pontificating about the various merits of the fine vintage I was partaking. I would be able to wax poetic about the various wine growing regions around the world. I would talk at length about their soil contents and how they nurture different types of grapes allowing different countries to produce different types of wines. I would pay attention to yearly weather patterns. I would know what wines to buy from where and how long to store them for optimal enjoyment. I would know and strictly adhere the proper serving temperatures. I would scoff at the cheaper more popular wines people brought to parties. I would be an intelligent man of the world full of knowledge about the delicious wines I drank. In short, I would be an insufferable prick.

I never really got into wine though. Sure, I drink it. I have a vague idea of what I like. If I were to go to a tasting – which I never have, but would like to some time – I would be able to compare the different wines intelligently if not fully knowledgably. No, I do not know wine. Was it the expense? Did I find the volume of knowledge intimidating? Did I just get lazy? No. The simple answer is I have been blindsided by beer. Yes, beer, the nectar of the blue-collar world. I have fallen head over heals for beers, and I do not feel I have lost anything in foregoing wine. As I have grown I have discovered the vast, eccentric, complex world of beer. Beer holds its own against wine. I actually find the variety of beers exceeds that of wine. Once you move beyond the Coors/Budweiser Joe Six-Pack level of beer drinking, you discover a beverage that holds its own against any wine in terms of complexity of flavor and experience. That’s right. I have become a hophead. I save my poetic rhapsodies for fine Belgian concoctions of malt, barley, and hops. I can talk of a beers balance, complexity, and mouth feel. I can confidently turn my nose up to any beer in any keg at any run of the mill party. I have chosen beer over wine and am just as much of an insufferable prick as I ever wanted to be.

Not that I am alone in discovering the true wonder of beer. There seems to be a rising tide of true beer connoisseurs. There is a preponderance of websites and news articles dedicated to reviewing new beers. Beers are being imported at higher rate, and – more exciting yet – American microbreweries seem to be in a boom. New breweries, both local and with larger distributions, are opening across the country. With these businesses comes a new an infectious love and respect for beer and traditional brewing processes. This has also led to an influx of unique beers. While wineries seem to be stuck in more classic methods, microbrews have been freed to experiment with different brewing techniques and ingredients. I have sampled beers with a far range of flavor additives ranging from the more traditional chocolate and coffee to a beer advertising hints of bubble gum – well full confession, when faced with the bubble gum beer demurred, although I have it on good authority that it was pretty gross. Now is a wonderful time to explore the vast world of beer. It is a great to be a beer drinker today.

Beer also offers a more affordable option than wine. Now I fully feel that a good beer offers just as much flavor and complexity of a good wine, but where you may spend well over ten dollars for a single glass of even average quality wine, you can buy a truly fantastic bottle of beer for as little as three dollars – prices of course tend to vary across the country. For the cost of a decent bottle of wine, you can buy a mixed six-pack of beer from a good distributer. While the wine drinker stuck with just the one kind of wine for that money – better hope he likes it – I can have six different beers to tempt my palette. This is certainly a more attractive situation to me.

Of course, I do not know everything about beer. I am looking forward to trying many different varieties. I am enthusiastic about exploring the idea of pairing beers with food allowing the brew and the food to compliment and bring the best out of each other. I want to try every Belgium Double, Trippel, and Quadruppel I can get my hands on. I want to stop at as many local microbrews possible to enjoy beers only be found at these locations. I want to sample and learn as much as I can about beer. I want to the best-informed insufferable prick at the party. And when someone uncorks the wine, don’t be surprised to find me reaching to the cooler for a much more interesting IPA.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Review: Pastoralia by George Saunders

Above all else, the stories collected in George Saunders’s Pastorolia are morality tales. The short stories are thematically linked by the exploration of where personal desires and interpersonal morals meet in a world that places the emphasis on the greedy individual. Saunders’s characters are repeatedly faced with choosing between their own selfish desires and doing what is right for those around them as well as themselves.

Now, I do not want to make the collection sound like a drab assortment of stern moralizing. The stories found in this book are very entertaining, and quite often hilarious. Saunders is often described as a satirist. His eye for the absurdities of modern life is fantastic, and he has a knack for drawing them out to their logical, but brutally silly extremes. He utilizes a simplicity of expression to describe the bleakest of societal situations which reminds me of Vonnegut at his best. Saunders is also brave enough to allow traces of optimism shine through the cracks in even the most seemingly nihilistic situations.

The stories in Pastoralia are not perfect. “The Falls”, the book’s concluding story, underlines the theme – which is also the theme of much of the book – a little too bluntly making it feel more like an incomplete exercise rather than a fully fleshed out story. Still, by and large the stories succeed in drawing the reader into the author’s slightly bent world-view. The title story offers a caustic rebuke of impersonal corporate culture set in a strange amusement park where employees are paid to act like cave men for the entertainment of visitors. The story shows the almost Orwellian impact of corporate language, and the toll taken when hierarchy pits person against person. It says a lot that the people dressed as cavemen are more human than the corporate bosses above them.

The books best story is “Sea Oak” which mixes elements of horror and pathos in it’s description of a lower class family trapped in their bleak existence by their own laziness and apathy. It takes an act of ghastly, almost zombie intervention to begin to shake the family out of its stupor. It speaks volumes to Saunders’s abilities that hope begins where the rotten, fallen apart body of a family member ends.


Monday, June 9, 2008

The 1% Solution

My grandmother is the only person I know who buys 1% milk. She may be the only person in the entire world who buys the 1% for all I know. I do not recall ever seeing another soul opening the cooler to the 1%. I have never seen anyone at a check out with the stuff. I have never witnessed it in any friend’s refrigerator – not that I often search through acquaintances’ kitchens, unless, of course, I suspect they are harboring good beer. I have no idea what advantages the 1% milk holds over its more popular whole, skim, and 2% brethren. There must not be many. I am not even sure what the percentage refers to. 1% of what? I want to say it has something to do with fat or cream content, but I cannot say with any authority. It may just as well refer to some insidious secret ingredients – medical wastes, rat feces, vitamin D – as any known dairy product. I guess I’m not really up to snuff on my milk knowledge. I don’t really like milk. It’s gross, a beverage with absolutely no quenching capacity. It’s the only thing people drink which still needs washed down with another beverage. It’s opaque. It comes from underneath cows. I really do not like milk, which is odd since I love so many other dairy products. I have an abiding passion for many of the things milk becomes – cheeses, creams, yogurt, mustaches – but no real love for the pure stuff itself.

My grandmother on the other hand must have a long-standing affair with milk. I’ve never actually witnessed her drinking milk, but I have seen the empty cartons. At least twice a week I am sent to the store to by half a gallon of 1% milk. Why she settled on 1% as her milk of choice is beyond me. Why my grandmother scorns the more conventional milks is a question I have long pondered, but never asked. Maybe it is doctor’s orders. Perhaps, she just likes being different – not really much like my grandmother, but everyone has to have his or her little quirk. She may honestly like the stuff. She may be onto a milk secret no everyone else has yet to discover. 1% milk may be the tastiest milk out there. It might be so good you don’t need to add chocolate to make it remotely palatable. My grandmother may be on the cutting edge of milk drinking. In the future, 2% may have sissy cap colors like pink and yellow while 1% wears the manly blue mantle. All I know is that I get strange looks at the counter when I bring up the 1%. I can see it in every checkout girl’s eyes, “Oh, so YOU’RE the one.”

No. I am not the one who drinks the 1%. I am only the one who buys it. And, no, I have no idea why.