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Coming it at second place on the 2015 American Homebrewers Association list of best beers in America and generally revered, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale doesn’t really require much of a defense in terms of its classic-ness as an American IPA. And happily, spending my summer in Wisconsin means that it’s available relatively fresh.

Like I’ve mentioned before, this series is based on my having lived for three years in the relative beer isolation of Bolivia and returning to indulge in all those beers whose praises I’d read from afar and had to imagine through tasting notes, which is at most the faint shadow of a real encounter. So does all the acclaim play out?

Poured out, Two Hearted Ale is a light copper and has a lovely head. Its very low carbonation makes it supremely easy to drink, and it’s a combination of woody and juicy hops. This clearly is not a straightforward juicy banger because there’s much more going on. As expected, it’s sweeter than all these session IPAs and lighter pale ales I’ve been enjoying lately, and the bitterness really lingers. In my mouth it seems all perfectly aligned between the sensations of bitter and juicy hops and sweet malt to fill in the gaps. I particularly enjoy how the hops become spicier the further I get into this beer. And at the very end the taste of pomelo pith carries on.

This is delicious.

But if I’m honest, I’m a tad surprised this is the second best beer in America according to the readers of Zymurgy magazine. It makes me wonder if there must truly be a lot of sub-par IPAs out there given how much this is adored. I mean, is this it? Is this the ceiling for the second-best beer in America?*

Huh. I guess I was expecting some kind of epiphany or revelation and while Two Hearted was great, it certainly was not that kind of great.

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*Realistically, when you look at that list, it’s probably just the second best widely-distributed beer in America, although Pliny the Elder is in essence, the opposite of widely-distributed. Buy everything with Russian River’s name on it probably benefits from some fairly significatnt inflation by primed expectation. So then, controlling for the RR name/expectation boost, who knows, Two Hearted might be the best beer on this list. Whaaaat?!

Whatever, who cares? It was a great IPA. I just would have voted differently. Each to their own.

This summer we’ve mostly spent just south of Milwaukee, and with all my wife’s family in town for a wedding this week, everyone is feeling celebratory. This family has a long legacy in the Horn of Africa as missionaries. Grandma went off to the Horn in the late 40s and Grandpa arrived soon after, they met, got married and had my mother-in-law, aunt and uncle (who today is carrying on the legacy in Afar land in Ethiopia). Those kids grew up in between Sudan, Somalia, and Ethiopia, and their stories of British boarding school, Haile Selassie, and the Queen’s visit are a much more direct connection to colonial Africa than you encounter in any museum or movie.  

So of course with the family all together, Grandpa offered to take us out for injera and various wots at the Alem Ethiopian Village in Milwaukee. Back when my wife and I got married in Philadelphia five years ago this week, we held our “rehearsal dinner” at a tiny Ethiopian cafe next to Rittenhouse Square. It’s nice coda of sorts, upon reflection. 

I’d vowed to ask for T’ej–the famous spontaneously fermented Ethiopian honey wine–next time I could, and indeed they had it. Even Grandpa the teetotaler was in generous mood and ordered it for us anyway. (I’ve been working down his resistance so he’ll share his namesake Schneider Weiss by the end of summer.)

  Served cold in a wine glass, the T’ej was pleasantly sweet, spritzy like a Riesling, very honey-like and more refreshing than I expected. Although, the relatives who actually live in Ethiopia said I’d ordered the digestif too early. Rookie mistake on my part. 

 The menu lists it as Enat, which I think is a brand from California. Next time I’ll have  go at some of the Ethiopian beers on offer, including one on the bar shelf whose writing was completely in Amharic except for the words ‘Amber Beer.’ Sounds promising. 

All in all, a pleasant evening with fine food and good company. 

  

Part five of a series on beer in Asia, and a continuation of Where the empty bottles outside tell you what’s inside.

Taking the odd left, a few steps down I found myself doing a double-take: a sausage shop named Stuff’d was advertising “hand made sausages & homebrew’d beer” on its sign! What was this paradise I had stumbled onto in China–two breweries within a block of one another? Madness! (Clearly I was foreshadowing the deep–if happy–culture shock when I relocated to the US later in the year.)

Stuff'd, the sausage shop.

Stuff’d, the sausage shop.

Stepping into Stuff’d (which, if I recall from my friends who spent time in the UK, is a pretty vulgar bit of innuendo over there), I looked confused enough that the barkeep sitting at his laptop got up to help out. He’s Swedish, and the American sitting down the bar have joined with the Brit who owns Stuff’d (that explains the name?) and started brewing in the first place to get Arrow Factory Brewing up and running. So named for the hutong where it sits, which having been named many things through the centuries at one point derived its moniker from an arrow factory. This brings to mind the early microbrewers in the 70s and 80s in the US, cashing in on a sense of history and tradition to market new ideas (e.g. New Amsterdam or New Albion), but basing it in a consciously local institution.

Of course, given the aforementioned legal nuances that prevent food preparation on site (although, when their beer was much more “homebrewed,” it was actually put together in a back room of kitchen), and with growth, Arrow Factory Brewing just opened a 120 hectoliter (102 bbl) brewery outside the city and are beginning to brew and distribute on a much larger scale. Asked if this was now a full time job, the American who has been here eight years said, “well, hopefully.” By the time I stepped into Stuff’d I was already pushing the time a bit, but the Swede passed a couple tastes of their Bitter End Rye Pale Ale (6.3%) and Guan Xi Pale Ale (5.5%). Both were properly bitter and very notably aromatic. The other two offerings were a porter and stout. John (the Brit) mentioned that they’d be introducing bottling and sampler flights in the next months or so, but it’s still something very few people are doing at this moment.

Shamefully, I lost my notes for this outing and can only remember that's the Swede on the left and the American on the right, and their beers on the board.

Shamefully, I lost my notes for this outing and can only remember that’s the Swede on the left and the American on the right, and their beers on the board.

In fact, the only craft brewery John knew of in Beijing that was bottling was Great Leap Brewing, probably the best known and oldest of Beijing’s relatively small scene. But that’s for another night. I made my way back to the cash machine and headed back into the depths of the hutong alleys I’d never be able to navigate if someone hadn’t shown me first. But if I learned anything in Beijing, it’s that wandering those depths can lead to some most excellent surprises.

It was still a forthcoming brewery when I popped in, but it's since come awake.

It was still a forthcoming brewery when I popped in, but it’s since come awake.


More to come…

Part four of a series on beer in East Asia.

In Beijing, bars, bottle shops, and corner stores announce the beers you’ll find inside not through fluorescent signage, but by the the empty bottles lined up on their outside facade. Rows of empty bottles, a bottle tree, a hanging garden of bottles, and so on declare variety and speak to the apparent popularity of Trappist beers in Beijing. Rochefort and Chimay are abundant, and Delirium, Liefmans, and Lindemans are also everywhere. Duvel and Vedetta almost seem pedestrian by the standards here.

Walking down the back alley understatedly known as Beixinqiao 3rd Lane–famous among Beijingers for its variety of ethnic foods–I stumbled across the tiny Hippo bar, which seats about four people and has a wall of Orval bottles gracing it. I swear I felt like the fish that found the ring on the label in that moment.

The lovely, quiet Hippo Bar. Seek this out!

The lovely, quiet Hippo Bar. That’s about the entire place in your view. Seek this out!

One night I needed to find an ATM, and our French Airbnb host John, a cosmetic company’s marketing creative director, offered to drive me to the nearest on his eerily quiet electric moped. I feared for my knees–stuck out on the sides–as he quickly weaved his way left and right and through terrifyingly small spaces created by people and traffic all through the hutong alleys that splinter the city blocks of this older Beijing neighborhood. Arriving at the main road, John merged into traffic on the wrong the side of the road, playing chicken with a Mercedes. I was a bit glad to be dropped off shortly thereafter.

Throwing my task to the wind of not really being in any hurry, I set out in the opposite direction from my ATM and headed into the neighborhood across from the Yonghegong Lama Temple, one of the city’s many tourist attractions which we never ended up visiting because, you know, it was too close? Alleys abound in this part of Beijing–many parts of the city, really–and it’s remarkably just how busy they constantly are. It seems as though you’re never alone on a hutong alley, with pedestrians sharing space with cars, scooters, and tricycle pickups. No one really slows down, so the pace of movement in the thin alleys can be overwhelming to someone unused to it and/or gawking at the many small details to see. I.e. me.

Getting to Beixinqiao 3rd Lane:

While our alley featured the aforementioned Hippo bar after a plethora of Chinese ethnic and regional eateries, a couple more bars with, you know, just a tree of Hoegaarden empties, fruit shops and impromptu vegetable stalls set in the back of truck, crossing the street was like jumping over to Pearl Street in Boulder. No more haphazard commerce, but the pruned and trimmed retro-hipster feel of a place that caters to expatriate residents and well-off locals. No judgment, I’m just saying you probably won’t find boutiques selling vintage clothing and such on most Beijing street corners. This was the domain of Westmalle and Maredsous. A place for refined tastes.

Which reminds me, I’ve been wondering why the Trappist and premium Belgian beers are so readily available here (besides the marketing prowess of say, Moortgat). Given that the Chinese love for European wine is well-documented (and real, I might add: it’s exceedingly difficult to find Chinese wines in the grocery stores I’ve popped into, but there are lots of French options), it seems logical to project a similar dynamic onto beer. That is, the corollary to premium European wines in the beer world could be premium European beers. I.e. the esoteric Trappists. Or, again, maybe it’s just that Moortgat and some of their European beer exporting peers wisened up quick that there’s a huge market waiting for them in China and jumped in headfirst. American brewers: take note! (Well, depending on the follow-on effects of this week’s plunging Chinese stock markets.)

Just to give an example of how refined the tastes were in this neighborhood, the beer fridge in the local convenience store didn’t just stock Chimay White, Blue and Lindemans Peche. Sure, they had those, but they also had two types of gueuze and a healthy selection of American imports as well (Rogue Ales are very generally well-represented in China). Heck, it was a tad surreal to see three Americans studying abroad picking out a six-pack of beer that would rival a lower-middle-average bottle shop in a larger American city. We didn’t have that on my study abroad in Uganda.

Inside Panda Brew.

Inside Panda Brew.

Meandering on down this alley, I came across a bar called “Panda Brew” with a bunch of eponymously labeled bottles on a barrel out front. That looked mighty promising, so I ducked inside and sure enough, a microbrewery! (Well, technically none of the places I visited in China have actual breweries on site; rather, because of some kind of law that says food cannot be prepared on site with out a special license, they have to brew outside the city and then set up their own pubs inside it. This is also the case with certain run of the mill restaurants.) Sparse, small, and very minimal apart from two angry urban panda bears graffitied on the wall, Panda Brew featured six taps and distressingly, no bottles to take out. Nor a sampling flight option.

I was to find this is pretty much the case with everyone in China: a few places do growlers, one bottles a beer, and the rest serve it all on tap. Kind of annoying when you want to truck it with you in the suitcase. Oh well. Not really fancying anything on offer–the wit had won some kind of domestic award, but it’s winter in Beijing and most certainly felt like it to my tropically-primed bones–I continued on my way.

Outside Panda Brew.

Outside Panda Brew during the blue hour.

In the hopes of keeping things concise, I’ll continue this next week.

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