Monday, June 27, 2011

Beer in China part 2, Tibetan Barleywine

As our travel in China continues, we find ourselves much farther West than Beijing, in the fiery province of Sichuan. Megan and I came here largely for the famous spicy cuisine, but also because it sits at the base of the Himalayas and offers some amazing hikes and even more spectacular views.
Last week while pursuing some of those views, we found ourselves in Northern Sichuan, an area called Juizhaigou. The pronounciation on this name varies depending on who you ask, but "joe's-hi-go," seemed to be more or less correct. Its a stunning national park on par with our Yellowstone and Yosemite. The park consists of 9 lakes, all with crystal clear blue fresh water, making them completely transparent and breathtaking. Unfortunately, like many tourist attractions in China, the park is strictly controlled with paths and expensive one day passes and ridiculously overcrowded with Chinese tourists. However, the scenery is so stunning that it's still worth making the arduous trip up there.
Rather than staying at one of Juizhaigou's many overpriced hotels, we decided to stay with a small family that lived near the park.  The villages in that area are all composed of native Tibetans and many of the women still wear a traditional dress. While staying with this Tibetan family, the grandmother showed me an area of the yard where she kept around 20 or so beehives. We had already tasted some of the honey with homeade bread and I was aware of how delicious fresh honey is, but this seemed like a tremendous amount of beehives for just a little honey and bread. It was then that the Grandmother showed me that she used it to make Barleywine. Amazing. It's unbelievable that I can travel halfway around the world, and bus out to the most remote Tibetan village in the mountains, and yet I still come across a new beer.
The Tibetan Barleywine, or Chiang in Tibetan, is a barleywine in name alone, and due to all the honey, is really much more like an Ethiopian T'ej.  Due to the language barrier it was difficult to get all the information a hungry beer deprived mind like mine was looking for, but I was able to gleen a few things about the process. Barleywine is the most popular Tibetan alcoholic drink and is considered to have healing qualities.  Before drinking, the Tibetans often dip the fourth finger of their right hand and flick three times to show respect for heaven, the earth, and ancestors.
Chiang is made from a barley base, which is washed, roasted, and then fermented along with the honey for anywhere from 3 to 12 months. It was difficult to find out what they used for yeast, but I read that it's usually yeast that's derived naturally from Tibetan wildflowers and medicinal plants. They said it's around 3% alcohol content, but it tasted closer to 5% when I tasted it. The flavor, as you might have guessed, was overwhelming sweet. Like T'ej, it had that sort of syrupy body bordering on boozy; it actually tasted a lot like an apple vodka.  But all that being said, it was still fun to drink and was a nice alternative to the watered down mass produced lagers and malt liquors that were otherwise available.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Beer in China, Tsingtao

For those that don't know, I'm currently traveling through China. In an effort to keep the unquenchable appetites of my readers fulfilled, I thought I'd try some mobile blogging.
So far while wandering around Beijing I've seen a few different mass industrial produced lagers.  Most of them resemble the malt liquor I drank out of 40s in college, and a few seem to match that unmistakable essence of Milwaukee Best.  However, when in China there is one name that dominates almost all beer, Tsintao, pronounced "chin-dao."
This staple of Chinese beer, widely available in the states, is something of a Budweiser of China, and in taste its not too far off the mark from that: watery malts, with no apparent hops presence, and massive carbonation.  In pairing with all the rich and often spicy foods we've been eating, the beer is often too thin to stand up to such bold flavors.  But even with all its faults, when served cold it does a remarkable job of cutting through the humidity and smog of the city.
Tsingtao comes from an area just Southeast of Beijing and nestled on the coast of the Yellow Sea called, Qingdao.  The area was claimed by Germany in 1898, which helped to begin its beer production in 1903, and thus Tsingtao was born, making it one of the few active breweries in the world over 100 years old. After a brief ownership under the Japanese occupation, as Dai Nippon Brewery starting in 1914, they returned to their namesake under communist China in 1949.  After that the beer flourished and is now owned by the giant InBev, I guess that explains the flavor similarities to Budweiser. 

While they started out with two styles: a light pilsner and dark munich, it's the pilsner that is found in most restaurants around the world.  The taste as I mentioned isnt really worth writing about, but under Anheiser-Busch leadership they do remain consistent.  Supposedly you can still get a version of their dark Munich if you go to the original brewery location in Qingdao, where the beers are served traditionally in bags rather than bottles.  As of yet I have no plans to make it out there, but things may change as the trip continues.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

BrewDog and Mikkeller, Devine Rebel

The collaboration is all the rage these days.  Hopefully, you've all at least had a chance to taste one of  Stone's many beers from their collaboration series, which includes breweries like Ballast Point, Nogne O, BrewDog, Dogfishead, Victory, Jolly Pumpkin, and many other notable brewers.  But it's not just brewers that collaborating these days.  Some of you were probably lucky enough to check out the ColLAboration event at Tony's this past weekend. ColLaboration is a series of pop-up mobile craft beer gardens where true beer enthusiasts can gather and enjoy the best in brews under the warm California sun.  It's led by some of the best beer bars in the city joining forces: Verdugo/Surly Goat, Blue Palms, 38 Degrees, and Tony's/Mohawk Bend.  You can check out their page here.  So it seems only fitting that tonight I'm drinking one of craft beer's biggest collaborators and extreme beer makers, Mikkeller and BrewDog.
For those that don't know, and there can't be many of you if you've even read my blog once, Mikkeller is a "gypsy brewer," originally hailing from Denmark with a love of American Style Ales.  The self-titled term, "gypsy brewer," comes from his lack of a home brewery, relying on the kindness and collaboration of other breweries to make his beer.  BrewDog is the Scottish brewery created by the young brewmeister rebels James Watt and Martin Dickie.  They are known for their eccentric and high gravity beers, including the famous Sink the Bizmark and Nuclear Penguin, weighing in at over 40% abv.  When these two get together, it only makes sense that they should chase after a style that is one of the grandest of all, the English Barleywine.
For the uninitiated, a barleywine is in fact a beer, not a wine.  The term wine is applied because it has a similar alcohol content to wine and is one of the strongest beer styles.  They tend to load up on every ingredient characterized by rich malt and fruit flavors and often bold hop bitterness.  The color can range anywhere from amber to brown and the body is usually very thick.  The only thing that separates the American Barleywine from the English is the use of hops.  American Barleywines tend to use more high alpha acid hops than their British cousins.
According to the bottle, this Devine Rebel is inspired by the experimental and rebellious nature of the two brewers who made it, using ale and champagne yeasts along with partially aging the beer in Speyside whiskey barrels.  The color is a beautiful rich ruby with very little head. Aromas are of malts with sweet raisins and toffee.  Despite having a failry boozy taste, it's still very drinkable.  There's a very strong malt and rich raisin flavor with a roasted essence that wasn't apparent in the aroma, but is quite strong in flavor.  True to the style, the hops are present, but certainly don't dominate.  It's not overly carbonated, but has just enough from the champagne yeast to have a nice balance against the otherwise creamy mouthfeel.  Unfortunately, I'm not tasting any of the whiskey barrels in this.  Still an enjoyable drink though.
Devine Rebel: ***1/2