Monday, October 27, 2008

King of Kings

"Beer has regained a comfortable margin over wine when U.S. drinkers are asked to name which alcoholic beverage they most often drink. In recent years, wine had narrowed the gap, including pulling slightly ahead in 2005 (though not by a significant margin), but for the first time since 2002, beer enjoys a better-than-double-digit advantage over wine. "

Statistics? Polls? Gallup? Pshaw. The wine vs. beer narrative has been fairly consistent in post-Atkins America, with the gentle dignitary of the good life gaining ever-so-righteously on its bloaty, vomit and violence-inducing malted nemesis. How far the noble barley spritzer has fallen since "Beer Street and Gin Lane", the best publicity it ever had.

But now, if we believe the statistic, the trend wanes. We do believe the statistic. Even with all the rocks one can throw at Gallup's methodology (right, President Kerry?), it's going to take more than a fad diet and Sideways for wine to knock beer to the mat in this country. And with hard times already squeezing us, $11.99 is probably better spent on a reliably delicious and relatively long-lasting 6 of Dogfish Head than a reedy Corbieres or a sticky Jumilla.

I can live with this. Beer is nearly as interesting as wine, and so long as the 42% of drinkers who prefer beer are preferring good beer, whiny oenofascists can suck a cork. What a good time it is to love beer in America, sea to shining sea dotted with craft breweries turning out big, rich pilsners, lagers, stouts, etc. that can square off with anything trickling out of Europe.

Though I cut my teeth (literally, one time) on gut-rotting bullet 40s, early encounters with the locally abundant Brooklyn Lager etched a love for dark, bold, bitter flavors into my palate. I recall eleventh grade, clandestinely double-fisting Brooklyn IPA's at a Christmas party full of indecipherable grown-ups. So floral and sticky and cold, I wanted to cram a stent down my gullet and let the hoppy cataract cascade down forever. As evil French archaeologists might say, I grew up with this.

Now technically grown up, beer is a primary source of pleasure and fascination for me and remains the preferred aperitif at potentially overlong dinners. Despite promoting neither the fizzy/acidic appetite stimulation of Champagne nor the drunk munchies of martinis, a gently overflowing pint glass with a 1.5" foamy head perfectly bridges the gap between cocktails and dinner rolls. Or maybe it satisfies The Preppy Handbook's purpose for social drinking (giving your hands something to do) better than a fleeting glass of wine.

Or maybe it's time to get to the damn point, which is: I have now tasted Utopias--the most elusive, legendary, mystical, brew of all save a cultish outlier or two.

What is there to blurt about a "beer" that has double the alcohol of a strong wine, costs as much as Lynch-Bages and is illegal in twelve states? How about. . .O M G. Nothing, not Warre's 1963, not Delamain Tres Venerable, nothing could have prepared me for the warm, flat, viscous, and mind-explodingly delicious sensations of Jim Koch's apotheosis. What's that flavor? Maple syrup. They brew it with maple syrup. And so much else is intertwined in its cereally ether that I make no excuses for confusing almonds and apricots or conflating vanilla and violets. Or for breaking out a stopwatch and timing the 73-second finish. Pancakes are unworthy.

If beer's continued supremacy in the American liver means more brewers aspiring to the standard of Utopias, botrytis on anyone who complains about wine playing Martin Prince to beer's Jimbo Jones. I will always come out swinging when haters impugn American viticulture, but I embrace the fact that hops and barley own a big wedge of our fermented future.

Recent notables:
  • Domino de Eguren "Codice" VDLT Castilla 2006 - Medium-bodied not-too-oaky Tempranillo has few assertive flavors and good structure, making it a solid choice for pairing with leftovers (or for Sangria). I'm also a fan of this domaine's dirt-cheap "Protocolo".
  • Urban "Uco" Torrontes 2006 - Crisp but round, this typical (in a good way) wine from Salta, Argentina matches food-friendly acidity with notes of pear and white flowers. Holds up well after being open for a day, an increasing plus as the economy swirls down the commode.
  • Louis Jadot Moulin à Vent Château des Jacques "Clos de Rochegres" 2005 - It's hard not to feel like a sucker dropping $40 on a Beaujolais, but this Pommard-esque colossus pulverizes such reservations with the first whiff of its dark cherry, rosepetal, and vanilla cologne. Substantial tannins have no trouble handling red meat, and probably provide the stuffing for 10 years of cellaring. Had me wondering how Pinot would behave in Beaujolais terroir.
  • Duvel Belgian Ale - The glass matters. I hate to admit it, but this outstanding beer loses its fruity, bready nuance in a pint glass. The hoppy spine and velvety mouthfeel are still there, but the aromas have already dispersed too much by the time the glass reaches your face. Invest in something bowl-shaped if you're going to drink this.

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