Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Quack Open a Cold One.

Spotted this clock over the bar at the hotel Casa Canada on Big Corn Island. In case the lettering is tough to read on that postage stamp I call a photo, it says, "It's 5 o'clock somewhere. Quack open a cold one."

I like a good pun. But I love a bad one.

About the hotel: The Casa Canada has something you would really like, even besides the Corn Islands' only swimming pool. (In fact, the staff told me it was the only pool on Nicaragua's Caribbean side, which strains credulity and yet is somehow possible.) I'm talking about each cabin's mini-bar, which is not so much a mini-bar as a well-stocked fridge.

But listen: This fridge revolutionizes the mini-bar by actually offering reasonable prices. Usually at hotels we ignore the $5 beers and $6 swallows of booze in those cutesy little bottles. In your fridge at the Casa Canada, beers are $1.50 each. A 375 ml bottle of aged Flor de Caña rum, light or dark, for $12. Totally fair, and it turns the whole mini-bar thing from a scam into something actually useful.

Are you listening, hoteliers? Put some realistic prices on your mini-bars, and not only will we use them, but we will want to come back to your hotel again and again to use them some more.

While you're at it, put some decent beer in there.

About the clock: It's from a Canadian conservation group called Ducks Unlimited Canada. The organization still sells that clock, and other odds and ends, via an online auction. Looks like one was up for sale just a couple of weeks ago and went for $50. I'm not sure, but it may have sprouted from a 1997 collaboration between the group and Calgary's Big Rock brewery. Proceeds from the Canvasback Ale went toward conservation efforts. Doesn't look like they make that beer anymore.

I'm surprised the Canvasback was a golden ale. You'd think they'd go for something that makes better use of the Mallard reaction.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Brewpub. Pizzeria. What's Not to Like?

Much is made of beer pairings these days. Roast duck with your abbey dubbel? Escabeche with your oude geuze? OK. But how about pizza and beer, dude?

Beer and pizza. Pizza and beer. A few slices of pepperoni, liberally sprinkled with your hot sauce of choice, washed down with a large, cool glass of your favored hoppy pale ale. That is powerful, life-affirming stuff.

Sadly, we weren't able to investigate Wildlife Brewing & Pizza on last summer's cross coutry trek. We made the scenic drive from Jackson, Wyoming, to Victor, Idaho, in the late morning. We visited Grand Teton's pub and hoped to hit Wildlife for lunch, just a couple of blocks away. No luck there. Not open until 4 p.m., and we had to get back. So... all reports welcome.

How many brewpubs are out there offering the usual burgers? Fish and chips? Club sandwiches? I mean, I dig on all those things. Sure. But they're ubiquitous.

Brewpub-pizzeria. Shouldn't there be more of those?

OK, there are tons of brewpubs that sell pizza. Most of them also sell burgers and nachos and reubens and whatever the hell else they can think of.

Specialize. Put beer on one pedestal, pizza on another, and that's it.

Anyway. That's what I'd do.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Cocktails for Beer Lovers. Part One.

Back from the Corn Islands, where I found my cocktail. Or invented it through necessity.

A shot or so of dark rum. Smash or squeeze a lime or two and throw it in the glass. Fill with ice. Top with about 6 ounces of club soda. Done.

Dry from the soda. Tart from the limes. Refreshing, and you still get to taste the rum and its light, natural impression of sweetness. No cola. No sugar. Nothing to prevent you from drinking several. Nothing to rot your teeth, keep you up at night, or stand in the way of quenching your thirst on a hot day. And not too terribly strong, either.

A session cocktail?

I landed on this one after (1) quickly getting bored with Toña, Nicaragua's ubiquitous pale lager, (2) turning my attention to Flor de Caña Grand Reserva, Nicaragua's ubiquitous dark rum, and (3) having a couple sweet rum drinks and realizing it was not a road I wanted to follow.

It's so simple, surely it has a name. It's only rum, lime and club soda after all. I've been hunting but can't find it. Any of you mixologists know? Add some sugar and it would be a Rum Collins, more or less, but then it would miss the point. It's like a bastard half-uncle of the Collins family, whose members all have simple syrup, powdered sugar, or something like that for the children. Maybe it's too simple to have a name besides Rum and Soda, but in my glass the limes are more than garnish and afterthought. Think Caiprinha with rum and mashed up limes but sans sugar.

Somewhere out there is a serious bartender who can set me straight.

More to come.

Pictured: My friend Leo and his excellent Caiprinha. My drinks are not that pretty.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Rum, Coco Bread and Yo Ho Ho.

A great food-beer pairing for your home experiments. Guinness Foreign Extra Stout and a grilled bacon-blue-cheese burger with lime-zested cole slaw. Brush that bun with oil and toast on the grill until it just turns black.

Normally I wouldn't toast a bun nearly to the point of burning. But we're talking about the Foreign Extra.

We're off to investigate a quiet corner of the Caribbean. I might be able to file a post from there, or I might not.

Splitting for the airport this very moment, but remind me to get you that slaw recipe.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Mexico's Craft Beer, Latin America, and Context.

It's a familiar story: a handful of small brewing outfits struggle for exposure in a market dominated by giants. The LA Times has this feature on craft brewers in Mexico.

Mexico is in the second tier of Latin American national beer scenes. Argentina and Brazil are well ahead of the pack, thanks to sheer quantity of small breweries. Then you've got the second tier of countries like Chile, Colombia and Mexico with a handful. Finally you've got everyone else, which like Costa Rica or Panama is lucky to have a one or maybe even two micros or brewpubs.

If you want, we can even make a fourth tier with those countries that have absolutely nada in the way of independent brewing--like Nicaragua, where I'll be later this week.

Just to further beat a dead horse, that is type of context that gives meaning to the phrase "craft beer." Remember that next time someone is struggling to define it or arguing that it's meaningless.

This context also leads to a certain amount of hero worship of brewers and entrepreneurs, the ones brave or foolish enough to have a go at it. But is that sort of appreciation really misplaced?

If you live where the diversity of breweries allows you to debate quality instead of merely wanting something different... If you're in a place where the guy running your town's small brewing outfit is just another businessman... Well, lucky you. Count your blessings.

Friday, April 15, 2011

An English Goblin in Cuidad de Panamá.

It's not an American werewolf, although the pub is called the Londoner.

Other names on the Londoner's chalkboard: Boddingtons and Wexford, Bass and Newcastle, Duvel and Chimay. Unimpressive in the U.K. or U.S. Very impressive in Central America.

Owner Piers Edgar was born in Gambia but spent plenty of time in London. He wanted to make a place where expats could feel at home, and everyone else could get a version of the British pub experience. Bar towels and soccer jerseys on the red-painted walls. Pool tables and darts. You get the idea. Cozy.

Edgar said he has to hand-import the more interesting beers himself. In other words, that bottle of Hobgoblin might have arrived in his luggage.

If want to find the Londoner: It's on Calle Uruguay, No. 1A-57. Opens at 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closed Sunday.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Beer of Art.

For you art lovers who know how to appreciate beer, or you beer lovers who drink a lot of art: a few goodies today. We might even find something to hang above your fireplace. Or kegerator.

First: With an emphatic hip-hop head nod to Jay Brooks for his Art & Beer posts, meet Johann Georg Hinz. A German still-life painter who lived most of his life in Hamburg. Glasses or steins of beer often found their way into his work. The one you see here is untitled, best I can tell.

With all the mythology around Pilsner, first brewed in 1842 before it took over the world, it's common to think of it as the first truly pale, clear beer. It's also lazy and wrong. While Pilsner did take advantage of paler malts, bottom fermentation and cheaper glassware to show off its light color, it was obviously not the first bright, golden beer. Hinz was painting in the 1600s. The enlightenment of beer happened long before the Enlightenment of man.

Have you ever read about some historical beer and thought, "Damn, if only they had cameras back then, and someone snapped a photo..." Well, maybe somebody like Hinz snapped a still life. The old-school version of the geek (ahem) who snaps photos of every plate of food and frothy glass of beer.

Second: Not everyone these days uses a camera. Check out these original works out of Bend, Oregon. Some are for sale. If you have an idea or a favorite beer, you can commission it. Strange, nerdy and cool.

Third: Here's the sort of art we see nearly every day--the sort we see on the packaging that holds our beer and prevents it from spilling all over the place. So it's not just functional, but also attractive. Oh Beautiful Beer is as much for graphic design nerds as the beery sort.

Finally: Cartoon!

Friday, April 8, 2011

British Inferiority Complex?

My old friend in geekery Phil Lowry ponders whether the UK has "one of the best beer scenes in the world."

Is this really still in question?

Sigh. OK, Brits, listen up: Yes. You do have one of the best beer scenes in the world. Local strengths can be difficult to appreciate when you're used to them, so take it from one who's been lucky enough to enjoy some of the UK scene while also watching it from the outside: Yes. You have one of the best beer scenes in the world. Enjoy it.

And guess what? This is not a new development. The recent availability of (and inspiration from) international craft beers is interesting enough, I guess. But your greatest strength lies in those brewers who put ale into casks and those landlords who take good care of it. They've been around a long time, although I understand things were iffy there for a while.

These days, some veteran "real ale" types bristle at the burgeoning "craft beer" scene in the UK (because it's snobby/fizzy/alcoholic/undrinkable/American). But cask ale has long been an example of craft beer at its best.* In my view, which is sadly from pretty far away at the moment, cask ale is the heart and soul of the British craft beer scene. It's the principal reason why the UK does have one of the best beer scenes in the world. Only Belgium and the U.S. are in the same class.

I know. Sometimes it helps to hear stuff like this from outsiders. If it makes you feel any better, you are all correct about England's national team. It's highly overrated and has been for years.

*If you want to argue that "craft beer" is an American term, that's fine, but remember which country and which types of beers most inspired the movement which it identifies. Hint: It wasn't Belgium.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Craft Beer, By Any Other Name.

Maybe we've used up the phrase and worn it out. Or maybe it's come to mean something else. Some associate it with snobbery or elitism, while others would just prefer to talk about plain old beer. Fine. I can understand all those views.

But in the U.S. it evolved as a reaction to something immense, powerful, mass-marketed and industrial. The term has a negative definition in that it is not supposed to be any of those things, even if we are never quite sure what it actually is. The context is specific but not unique: In most countries around the world, it helps to differentiate a small-batch, locally made product from the national and international ones that all bear an eerie resemblance.

We might get tired of the name. But at least it has a purpose.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When to Bury the Hatchet.

What is this about, anyway?

Inside a German-style kneipe in Panama City, there is a hacked-up table with a hatchet on it. Various nails and other scraps of metal banged in there, too.

The Panamanian waitress told me she thought it was some traditional German thing. We both shrugged and shook our heads. The owner was gone at that point, so I couldn't ask him.

After a bunch of tricky googling, here's my best guess.

I've been in my share of German bars and have never seen this. Maybe I've been hanging out in the wrong places. Or the right ones. Not sure I like the idea of a bunch of punters playing with hatchets and lager.

Fridays, by the way, it's cerveza del barril from 5 to 8 p.m. Toda la que tomes. All you can drink for $10. Warsteiner. Not my favorite, but I mean... ten bucks, right?

Seems like Friday might be a good day to quietly hide that hatchet behind the bar.

Monday, April 4, 2011

How the Rest of the World Drinks: Panama.

National beers. That's what the menus say, and it's a correct name for something omnipresent nationwide. They're also cheaper than imports--best defined as someone else's national beers. In Panama, as in Costa Rica, the most common imports are Corona, Heineken, Bud and Miller. Same old story, right?

In Costa Rica, there is one big quasi-monopoly on national beer. It's worth noting that the Cervecería Costa Rica is not yet controlled by a transnational, although Heineken owns a stake. In Panama, there are two big beer companies--one's run by Heineken, the other by SABMiller. Their products are more or less indistinguishable, adjuct-laden pale lagers. Again: same old story. They're drinkable, refreshing, and that's about the most you can say. If they're so cold you can't taste them, so much the better.

In Panama City there are a few haunts with something more, beer-wise. I'll tell you more about them later. But for now, how about drinking with the locals?

When the gringos built the Panama Canal, they dredged up literally tons of rocks and lined them along the sides. On the Pacific side, they built a road on those and connected a couple of islands. It's called the Causeway--the Amador. The Americans built fortifications there, but these day's it's a thriving shopping-and-restaurant district, built around the city's poshest marina.

Amid the names of chain restaurants that would be familiar to anyone in the U.S., a friend brings us to a smaller place called K-YU-CO, on the last island. It's a play on cayuco, or dugout canoe. It's packed. We're the only tourists. The locals are here to enjoy the warm night while watching the yachts come and go. They eat ceviche, whole fried fish and patacones, drizzled in lime juice and Caribbean-style hot sauce. And they suck down iced buckets of national beers with friends.

The sports bar in my hotel, which looks just like any hotel sports bar in America, has a couple of decent Belgian and German imports. Tonight, I'll take the national beers, pescado frito, and atmosphere.

Panama for a buck-and-a-half a bottle, by the way. Mine for the night.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Availability. Quality. Mood. Price.

"What makes you buy someone's beer?"

Which beer is nearest my person? Is it any good? Am I in the mood for it? What's it cost?

When I saw Alan's topic for this month's Session--the 50th--I wanted to provide an appropriately simple one-word answer. Instead I came up with no less than four words, which in reality comprise a sort of complicated mechanism for making a decision. It all seems very pragmatic for something that's so close to my heart.

However: Alan's theme may lead to more interesting navel-gazing among most of you. I'm referring to those of who have access to amply supplied bottle shops in the world's developed countries. Maybe you are trying to decide between some new American-made farmhouse ale and the latest Mikkeller collaboration imperial stout.


At the moment I'm at a mostly-inclusive resort in Panama. There is one beer, and it's called Balboa. I understand that it's owned by a national brewery which is owned by a Colombian company which is owned by SABMiller.

It's available. It's piss. But I'm in the mood. And the price is right.

What makes you buy someone's beer?

First of all: lack of choice. Secondly: It's not "someone's" beer. It's mine.