Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cheers to beers!

"Beer is the drink of the moment", it was announced in The Guardian today. In fact, according to a survey by international marketing analysts AC Nielsen, beer is now officially "the most popular beverage on the planet"!

That English newspaper's article which caught this beer geek's eye goes on to discuss the state and status of that popular tipple in China (where there are some 850 different breweries); the Czech Republic (whose denizens drink more beer per head than their German neighbors); the U.S.A. (which now has more than 1,300 microbreweries); India (whose first commercial brewery was established in the 1820s); and South America (where Aztecs and Mayans made beer long before the arrival of the Europeans).

And it proceeded to cause me to raise at least one eyebrow when its British author, Roger Protz, who edits the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA)'s Good Beer Guide, went on and named the Goose Island IPA brewed by Chicago's Goose Island Beer Company as that which "just may be the best beer in the world."

Stepping back a bit for some perspective: The fact that American microbrews are capable of brewing some fine beers is not news to me. But the best beer in the whole wide world? And yes, it's true enough that I've not tasted the afore-nominated beer. Nonetheless, I would have expected that to be brewed in either one of the countries whose traditional beer styles I most admire, and have influenced the American microbrews I most like (e.g., the North Coast Old Rasputin Imperial Russian Stout or Celis White): i.e., Britain or Belgium.

Starting first with Belgium: This, after all, is a country whose national tourist authority trumpets the fact that it is home to "over 450 varieties of beer and "almost as many beer styles". And while I had the misfortune of having visited Belgium before I became a beer geek, I also was lucky enough to reside for some years in a city -- Philadelphia, the legendary City of Brotherly Shove -- which had a very good Belgian eatery in Monk's Cafe which prided itself on being a "beer emporium" as well as restaurant.

Consequently, I've been introduced to such beery delights as the agreeable white (or wheat) beers whose brewing tradition inspired Celis White, heavenly Trappist ales (e.g., those from Chimay like the 8 percent alcohol level Chimay Tripel) and those famously strong beers (e.g., the smooth and sweet but also dangerously alcoholic Duvel). And then there's -- but of course! -- those exotic as well as fruity lambics like Lindemans Frambroise Lambic that, at the risk of being accused of beer blasphemy, bring to mind champagne more than most other types of beers.

Still (and yes, you can chalk it down to my general Anglophilia!), I have to say that my own preference is for the beers of Britain. More specifically, my absolute tipples of choice would include such as the peculiarly named but flavorful Old Speckled Hen (that I've been ecstatic to find on draft in at least one British-style pub over here in Malaysia) or the dreamy Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout (which, alas, I haven't seen available anywhere in my home country).

Then there are those dark and full provincial English beers known as Milds; malty libations that, as their style's name implies, are low on alcoholic content despite being dark in color and, therefore, in the popular imagination, supposedly stronger in terms of alcoholic "kick". Unfortunately associated with "old men in flat caps" in some parts of Britain, they're virtually unknown in others and generally not to be found outside of that country.

In point of fact, I can recall more than one occasion when I asked the bartender at a London pub whether they served Mild, only to get a return query as to whether I was, in fact, asking for "light" beer. Should you be a beer geek (or even -- pun intended! -- mildly interested in trying out a different kind of beer) though, here's encouraging you -- should you find yourself in England at somewhere in the future -- to look out for and sample this tasty variety of beer that, after imbibing a pint or more of, you, too, might decide was worth seeking out after all. :)

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