For the monthly Session.

In the eyes of a brewery my preference choices would classify me one of those fickle millennial sorts because I’ve never really had a “go-to” beer that perpetually makes it into my fridge, at least here in the US, the land of beer opportunity. Truthfully I’d probably have a hard time articulating a “favorite” beer because it’s doubtful I’ve had many beers more than once…

With one recent exception: Josephsbrau Bohemian Lager, Trader Joe’s generic answer to a Czech pilsner, brewed by Gordon Biersch. (And yes, pedants, they do also stock the “PLZNR  Czech-Style Lager.”) On my grad school stipend I was determined to find something in the generally expensive embarrassment of riches that is the San Diego gustatory beer shopping experience that was affordable, tasty, and rich. Of course, on a per ounce basis that pretty much leaves you with Costco cases and TJ’s, and the former is simply an expansionary invitation to the waistline. So, I started my way through the many generic offerings at TJ’s, particularly determined to find out why everyone so consistently speaks highly of the decidedly unAmerican tradition of Czech brewing.

The Simpler Times Lager and Pilsener were too flowery/bland and strong/crystal-malt-dense, respectively, the PLZNR just didn’t provide the comfort of something you’d want to come home to, and the Vienna Lager was a bit darker than I regularly prefer. The seasonals–bocks of various sorts, a helles, a kolsch, etc.–well, I’m happy to enjoy seasonally at most. But the Bohemian Lager stands up to that bane of generation: repetition. (I suppose the oldheads out there might call it commitment, but I just celebrated my sixth anniversary, so I think it’s fair to say it’s not a universally applicable failing.)

There’s the unmistakable richness evoked by melanoidins, but the billowy lightness of it all means you don’t get bogged down in it in the density of the flavor. The noble hops aren’t really bitter to my palette, but I see how they might seem that way to someone like my non-beer-loving parents, although I bet my mother would take this with Szechuan food even over her obligatory Tsingtao. Is that mythical “balance”?

And so I find myself with a beer that I buy more than twice a year, although let’s be honest–I still only buy three at a time at most because TJ’s provides the most admirable concession of pro-rata pricing ALL of their beer cans/bottles individually rather than forcing you to commit to a six pack to enjoy any kind of benefit of volume. Take note, TJ’s and others: its little things like this that make me rather happy to come back again and again (and yes, I know they’re owned by Aldi’s).

With any luck, someday I’ll get to visit the Czech Republic and then complain incessantly of the poor imitations available here, but until I become that insufferable blowhard I’m happy to enjoy the generic and delicious $1 bottles of Josephsbrau Bohemian Lager.

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Most of the beer-watching world collectively rolled its eyes when AB-InBev announced that Budweiser would be renamed “America” through until the election, and it was hard to disagree with the impulse given its premise that, “we are embarking on what should be the most patriotic summer that this generation has ever seen.”

This piece by Vinson Cunningham on the New Yorker encapsulates the tiredness and cynicism of the re-branding, noting,

The America evoked by the can is an America that I recognize—one that exists only in advertisements. You find it in commercials for pickup trucks and lawnmowers, jeans and mass-produced beer. What happens here, in this warmly lit, perfectly cast version of the States, is this: a towheaded boy with angles for ribs runs down to the edge of a dock, takes flight, and folds himself into a ball before he breaks the glinting surface of a lake. Or this: a dad in sky-blue Wranglers and a T-shirt smiles through a toss or two of a football, then grabs his son lovingly by the arms and swings him in tilting circles; when he’s done, maybe he gives the kid a noogie. Or this abstract arrangement unfurls: a guy in a cowboy hat jumps out of the high-set bed of a burly truck and directly onto the back of a horse. Everybody’s on a suburban lawn, or passing through the desert, or traipsing through a field of wheat, or somewhere on a safe-looking acre or so of woods. (Safety is much of what holds this shot-on-location country together.) In any case, the city almost never figures in. Somebody’s singing, “This is ouuurrrr country,” and it’s unclear—but, in another way, stupidly apparent—to whom the first-person plural is supposed to refer, and what, exactly, they can be said to possess. The whole thing’s narrated by a man with a carburetor for a voice.

But, but, but: I was watching the Mexico vs. Chile warm-up game last week for the Copa America Centenario on Univision, and this commercial came on.

This is the Spanish-language version of the same spot that seems to have been airing the last couple weeks or so. It’s a very striking commercial to watch in Spanish, because while everyone’s been panning the “America” name change and what is perceived as pandering to lowest-common-denominator patriotism, this version of it is targeting the demographic of the US who have Spanish as their first language. The effect, then, is remarkably inclusive–by airing the commercial in Spanish, it almost seems to communicate a sense of welcoming and inclusion–that those folks whose first language is Spanish are just as much a part of America as anyone else. I don’t think that’s coincidence either, given the prominently featured African-looking woman pledging allegiance at 0:10, and the lucha libre mask-wearing guy who shows up at 0:14 and 0:23.

This invokes a very different vision of America than the idyllic small-town scenes described by Cunningham, and the fact that this vision comes from Budweiser of all companies is somewhat ironic. Inasmuch as craft breweries have tried to cast themselves as foils to the Beer Voltrons of industrial brewers, tribalism is alive and well among its appreciators, and few seem to be making deliberate and focused attempts to market their product and “commnunity,” if you will, to segments like Latinos.

Political scientists have been pointing out that Latinos represent the fastest growing subgroups of the electorate in the US, and it seems disappointing that the beer entities doing the most to reach those groups in the beer world are AB-InBev. I live in San Diego, but I honestly can’t think of any beer marketing among the many non-massive brewers here that goes beyond novelty. I’m thinking of Stone’s Xocoveza (brewed in collaboration with Tijuana’s Insurgente) or Sierra Nevada’s Otra Vez, which invoke a certain aesthetic, but aren’t actively seeking out or educating consumers in Spanish-speaking communities. It seems to be a blind spot. (Although to be fair, the extent to which I regularly involve myself in Latino communities is pretty much limited to doing my weekly produce shopping at Pancho Villa Farmers Market.)

To boot, there’s the Bud Light ads proclaiming that “Bud Light proudly supports everyone’s right to marry whoever they want!” Clearly Budweiser’s decided that their future customers are millennials and embracing their values will more likely bring them in. Call it a cynical play at new consumers or not, but the signaling involved in all of this is pretty substantial.

Last week was spring break, and my wife and I hoofed it to her childhood home of Albuquerque to visit some family friends, see the sights, etc. One of our day trips was to Ghost Ranch, Georgia O’Keefe’s home in the desert for fifty-some years, and lo and behold, guess what’s only two miles up the road?

Christ in the Desert Monastery, purveyors of Holy Hops and Abbey Brewing Company. Well, anyway, their website said the turnoff is two miles up from Ghost Ranch–true–but somehow we missed the fact that it’s then 13 miles up a dirt road that meanders up, down, and around through grazing land, national forest, river gorge and striking red bluffs. The landscape certainly fits the feel of what you would expect for a monastery.

We hadn’t made an appointment, so we were only able to walk down to the hop fields, where it’s still too cold for them to have sprouted just yet. But it was a chance to see something somewhat unique within the landscape of US brewing. Holy Hops is unusual in that they only grow and sell humulus lupulus neomexicanus, some of which makes its way into their reserve Tripel, and most of which seems to be sold via their webstore.

I’ll admit I was trying quite hard to track down some neomexicanus rhizomes for planting this year given that I’ve read they tend to yield in the first year and it looks more and more like San Diego will be a place I’m only passing through. Alas, maybe I’ll just wait and pick my own in August at one of the 20-something hop farms in SD county.

I had a chance to try their Monk’s Wit later and I swear up and down there’s a handful of chamomile thrown in at the end (based on a number of wit experiments we carried out in Bolivia for what will be Cerveceria Bendita in the near-ish future in Santa Cruz.

And then yesterday was Orval Day, so I took the opportunity to finally try it down at Hamilton’s. The eight month old bottle certainly had developed a lot of brett character, and it was bitter, dry, and deeply satisfying. Plus the barkeep let me take home 11 bottles, which will be great for letting other brett-spiked beers age indefinitely without fear of explosion.

I leave you with a selection of photos from the very scenic monastery:

On Monday:

“It’s too cold here. We were promised 70 degrees year-round,” said my wife.

[Subtext: it’s been dropping into the 40s at night in our iffy 1920s-era studio, where a strong wind finds enough gap in the walls so that you can see the curtains responding to the drafts on the inside.]

“Well, it’s supposed to warm up this week.”

[Subtext: higher than 70.]

This morning I woke up and checked the forecast: highs rising to 77 by Monday. Finally! And then I realized it’s February 5th, and probably need to stop whining about the cold.

I mean, we’ll probably head to the beach tomorrow, or at the very least try to see some gray whales migrating off Point Loma, and then spend that birthday gift card my wife got me at Modern Times’ Point Loma Fermentorium. And winter though it still technically is, I’ll probably skip the Devil’s Teeth a friend has so very much raved about in favor of the Lomaland, because you know, it’s San Diego.

One year ago today, we drove through the remnants of a three-foot blizzard in southeastern Wisconsin and flew to Hong Kong.

This week was the one year anniversary of leaving Bolivia, but I had a great way to celebrate it. Ben Olsoe, partner in brewing for most of 2012-2013 in Santa Cruz, was in town from Seattle. The only beer I brought back from Bolivia was 750 mL of the passionfruit lambic-style beer that I had brewed in early 2014 (made with a blend of three turbid flaked wheat and pilsner mashes, fermented each with its own culture, and aged for six months on a couple varieties of passionfruit). Wonderfully–shall we say, artisan?–in presentation, it was a Chimay bottle capped with a regular wine cork, held in place with a reused-bottlecap and secondhand wire hood.

But really meaningful part was the full-circle aspect of it: we met up with Jeff Crane (now of Council Brewing Co.), who went out on a limb and sent us the initial set of three brett and lacto cultures back in 2012. This beer was brewed with those cultures, so we got to close the circle with the man who sent us the key component to begin with.

Two years on, it’s flat with an aromatic explosion of guava, over-ripe tropical fruit in the nose. Quite tart, and there’s definitely an acetic note that clears the throat on its way down. Not quite the best pairing for a chilly 50 degree night on the Karl Strauss patio at a homebrew club meeting, but a nice California winter memory to savor for a long time.

IMG_0691 A few days later I re-bottled the last bits to see how it turns out (“oxidized! sherry-like!” I’m sure you’ll all yell), pitched the dregs for a starter, and had the last cloudy sips to myself, paired with…quantitative methods homework. Mmmm graduate school drinking.