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Drinking a classic beer I’ve only read about

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(Please excuse the parenthetical in the title; this is meant to be an ongoing reflection on encountering beers I’ve only read about and it’s probably a bit much to assert that this particular beer is “classic” given its rather recent introduction. One day, perhaps, it could be accurately called that, but for now perhaps it’s better to withhold the hyperbole.)

Session IPAs are all the rage of late, and the Founders All Day Session IPA is one of the leading lights of the “style” and even makes up around 50% of Founders’ total volume. I’d read about All Day, I’ve been following the Session beer movement for the last few years (which of course would be at the least peeved given that this “session” ale is 4.7% ABV, just over the 4.5% designation), and I recognize that my tastes and preferences since spending three months in China have shied away from strong, mind-warping high alcohol levels. I’d rather have a delicious, less alcoholic beer and keep my head more often than not. Part of that is returning to the USA, where a designated driver is basically always necessary if you’re not drinking at home, whereas in Bolivia a taxi could always be relied on to take one home.

Anyway, they didn’t/don’t have Session IPAs in Bolivia for the moment. But here in Wisconsin, they live in abundance and Founders All Day Session IPA is quite easy to track down.

Poured to accompany the MLS All-Stars’ defeat of my preferred Tottenham Hotspur, All Day smells so much like grapefruit and soft, sweet oranges. Truly this is the first beer I’ve smelled that really nails that aroma of grapefruit juice–there’s no beery other smells or odors to interrupt it. In the mouth it’s more OJ, and overall it’s dry and biscuity, which makes it quite lovely and it goes down quickly. Low carbonation helps with that, too.

I’d go back to this, as long as it’s reasonably priced, because the fact is that I’ve had comparably excellent beers this summer in New Glarus’ Moon Man Pale Ale and Ale Asylum’s Hopalicious, and the former in particular was a real revelation.

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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.

I recently arrived back in the US after having spent three years and six months outside of it (with a couple four-day weekend exceptions that were whirlwinds of task accomplishment). Bolivia became home for us, and we adjusted our expectations, tastes, and preferences accordingly. What culture shock we experienced to adapt to our life there, we now face in the inverse at our return.

This is termed “reentry shock” by those who have studied relocation among expatriates who live abroad and then return to their “home” locales. Intuitively, everyone expects that reentry ought to be easier because we’re familiar with the “old” place, but at least in my experience, this is the more difficult change.

It mostly has to do with expectations. Arriving in Bolivia, I had made an effort to come with an open mind and set aside as many prior assumptions as I could manage to consciously do, and this helped me encounter this new place on its own terms. It’s a much harder mental game to do that here.

Take, for example, the simple act of going to a grocery store. In Bolivia I knew my three local groceries and market quite well; I could find the goods I needed with ease, had a good grasp of what would be seasonally available, and if need be could easily improvise a menu on the spot. Three days back in the US, we visited the blandly-named Pick ‘N Save and made the mistake of not bringing a list. Even in a relatively average, suburban US grocery store, we faced such an overwhelming variety of new options in an unfamiliar format; and trying to keep a reasonable budget, my mind simply shut down and refused to cooperate. I couldn’t come up with a single simple meal idea without a surprising amount of stress attending the process.

How does one set aside expectations for a place that was once intimately familiar? It’s a daunting task. My years away changed me, and returning to the familiar is often jarring because it all seems so much of the same (which of course is probably a mistake of not looking past aesthetic continuity to see deeper into a community’s life).

And in the context of a blog written about beer and homebrewing, I certainly have changed. When I left for Bolivia I probably had brewed maybe 15 times in total, and truly knew very little about beer in general. I’m still no expert, but I’ve read a lot in three years. I still have tasted very little beer on a grand scale. My taste buds are still very novice.

So returning the US and its beer scene, which is undoubtedly thriving and approaching some kind of zenith, I have found it a very shocking experience. Even just wading through and trying to pick something off the make your own six pack racks inspires if not exactly awe, then perhaps another overwhelming feeling as I try to absorb all the possible options and sort them internally according to preference. What even is my preference? What even are the expiration dates? Where was this brewed? Have I ever tried something in this style?

I should probably just ride over to these places and spend an hour looking around so as not to delay my wife or whoever is unlucky enough to be there with me.

All things considered in my life, beer is quite trivial, but it’s an area where reentry shock very clearly expresses itself. Leaving Santa Cruz, where an IPA has only become commercially available in the past couple months, and arriving to the US where a middling grocery store rack features five kinds of session IPAs feels all too much like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant.

 

One of the odd upsides to living in Bolivia for three years was its isolation (in beer terms). Which is to say, seeing a Boston Lager show up at a grocery store was enough to set off a certain thrill (that happened once, at the very end). In the meantime, I had plenty of access to the internet and many ebooks, so there’s plenty of places to learn and read about the various beers of the world, even if it was almost impossible to get my hands on any of them locally.

So upon returning to the US, I’m in an interesting spot where I’ve read and learned about a number of beers wherein the closest I’ve come to actually trying them is when I tried to clumsily replicate it at home with very limited and often home-made ingredients. That said, I’m going to try and make the most out of savoring the opportunity to try some of these beers I’ve seen highlighted but never gotten my hands on over the next few months and make a bit of series out of it.

Up first, Anchor Steam Beer. I had someone bring down a Wyeast California Lager packet sometime back in 2013, I think, and gave it to a friend. Unfortunately, infection got into everything and I was never able to actually replicate the venerable Californian godfather of modern American beer.*

Sitting down to a dinner of falafel sandwiches at the in-laws, this beer smells of fresh leather, like the new belt I recently brought home from the store. It tastes of malt and baked pear cobbler. As it hits the tongue, the resinous cedar hops coat it and bring to minds memories of childhood summers, sitting at Birch Bay watching a sunset, or camping in the Cascades. It gives way to a full mouth of rich malt that meets those memories to deliver a most comforting feeling.

This is a beer to have on hand at all times.

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Truthfully, I did once try this back in 2009 or so, but my pitifully novice taste buds rejected it outright. Based on my reaction this time, the lupulin shift is clearly a true phenomena.