Sweet Beers, Sugar’d Sonnets #3+4

This past weekend my good friend Todd hosted a fellow beer lover who was visiting from my home state of Wisconsin, resulting in a truly epic series of bottle shares. As is often the case when visiting Todd’s garage, I not only got to try a staggering array of new brews, but also wound up bringing a couple treats home. Beer, at least when one has generous friends, has a way of procreating.

If only procreation were so simple for the fair youth of Shakespeare’s sonnets – perhaps then Shakespeare wouldn’t have needed to devote the first 17 poems in his sequence to the topic. As two of the beers I just received are essentially mirror twins, I decided to review them side-by-side and pair the pair with a pair of poems. The first of these, Sonnet 3, has imagery that is particularly well-suited to drinking such closely related beers:


Sonnet 3, 1609 Quarto

In modern spelling:

     Look in thy glass and tell the face thou viewest,
Now is the time that face should form another,
Whose fresh repair, if now thou not renewest,
Thou dost beguile the world, unbless some mother.
For where is she so fair whose uneared womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry?
Or who is he so fond will be the tomb
Of his self-love to stop posterity?
Thou art thy mother’s glass, and she in thee
Calls back the lovely April of her prime,
So that through windows of thine age shalt see
Despite of wrinkles this thy golden time.
But if thou live remembered not to be,
Die single and thine image dies with thee.

The “glass” Shakespeare refers to in the opening line refers to a mirror, of course, but let’s go ahead and look in my glass(es):


Central Waters Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Scotch Ale 2015 (L) and 2016 (R)

When you look in a mirror, you never precisely see yourself as others do. Most obviously the object and image are horizontally flipped, but beyond that are the more nuanced distancing effects of light, shadow, angle, and – perhaps most importantly – subjectivity. A mirror, thus, functions as an excellent metaphor for the passing on of familial traits. No parent and child ever look like twins in the moment, but because of the subjective filter through which we remember ourselves – the “windows of [our] age” – it’s hardly a stretch to imagine a father seeing himself in a strapping son, or – as Sonnet 3 demands we do, in a startling twist on expectations that sets in motion a theme that we’ll be seeing much more of in future sonnets – a mother seeing herself in a beautiful son.

The androgyny is made doubly disturbing, I think, due to the poem’s concurrent overtones of sexual narcissism – the opening image of looking at his own reflection immediately brings this Ovidian theme to mind, and the explicit reference to “self-love” keeps it going through the second quatrain. We’re asked to imagine a youth so in love with his own image that he holds discourse (intercourse?) with it in the mirror, but who is then asked to imagine this image as being effectively identical with both his mother and his son. The only person involved whose visage does not meet this standard of beauty is the functionally necessary wife – her attractiveness never enters into consideration: just her fertility, metaphorically described as a field ripe for “tillage.” Now that’s romantic!

If anything, Sonnet 4 is even less romantic, as the logic urging procreation exchanges mirrors and fields for money. The one clear link between the two is self-love, but in Sonnet 4 the mythological overtones of Narcissus are replaced with more explicitly masturbatory imagery, linked with the economic through the verb “spend”:


Sonnet 4, 1609 Quarto

     Unthrifty loveliness, why dost thou spend
Upon thyself thy beauty’s legacy?
Nature’s bequest gives nothing but doth lend,
And, being frank, she lends to those are free.
Then, beauteous niggard, why dost thou abuse
The bounteous largesse given thee to give?
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thy self thy sweet self doth deceive;
Then how, when nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave?
Thy unused beauty must be tombed with thee,
Which uséd lives th’exectutor to be.

Rich with wordplay but difficult at times for modern readers to decipher, Sonnet 4 casts the obligation to procreate as a financial obligation. Inspired largely by the conflation of property and family commonplace in Shakespeare’s day – e.g. the House of Tudor – the poem imagines the challenge of managing an estate’s finances as an analogue for fathering offspring.

While the extended monetary metaphors can be dense, I love this sonnet’s combination of concrete diction and occasional overabundance of almost-repetition: “sum of sums,” “beauteous/bounteous,” “unused/uséd,” and of course the line “Thou of thyself thy sweet self doth deceive.” This last line, clearly evoking “Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel” from Sonnet 1, emblematizes the sonnet’s recurring focus on verbal self-reflection that, in turn, evokes the mirror theme of Sonnet 3. It isn’t “sum of sum,” but “sums”; not “beauteous/beauteous” but “bounteous.” The reflection is always implied but never quite exact, just as the images in the mirror are never quite of the true self.

This slippage between seemingly identical objects brings me (finally!) to my twin libations: two Central Waters Brewer’s Reserve Bourbon Barrel Aged Scotch Ales, one from 2016 and the other from 2015. I’ve long been a fan of the various barrel aged offerings from this central Wisconsin brewery, and the BBA Scotch Ale is the only one of their seasonals that I had yet to taste.

Comparing different vintages of the same beer in a vertical tasting is, I think, a lot like the idea Shakespeare describes of seeing a family member in a looking glass. So much about these beers is the same, and yet each has a distinct individual personality that throws their resemblance into ever sharper relief. I’ve been most pleased to find that these two particular beers provide a wonderful example of how illustrative vertical tastings can be: both are delightful, both are built on a common core of central flavors, and yet the difference between them is notable on every step of the sensory process. One of the frustrating but fascinating things about verticals is trying to figure out where these differences come from. Did the recipe change? Did the extra year of cellaring cause the older one to mature into something new? Were they stored differently, in barrel and/or bottle? It’s impossible to tell for sure, but, like when interpreting literature, endlessly enjoyable to develop hypotheses.

My reviews, with scores for the 2015 preceding the 2016:

A: As soon as begin pouring the bottles simultaneously into identically shaped tulip glasses, I notice that the 2015 is clearly a shade or two darker than the 2016. The former is a deep mahogany color that appears nearly black unless held up to light. The latter is a clear chestnut hue and glows with garnet highlights when illuminated. The 2016, as you can see in the picture above, has considerably more carbonation (again, the pours were identical), developing a nice inch of frothy tan head. Both demonstrate good head retention for their strength, and I’d call both decidedly attractive. 4.0/4.25

S: The difference here is more noticeable still, with the 2015 delivering a much sweeter, more barrel-forward aroma of caramel, vanilla, bourbon, smoke, and chocolate-covered raisins. The 2016 is both more restrained and more complex, with the oak and caramel notes taking a backseat to an array of dark fruits and spices: plum, raisin, anise, and – as it warms – a fascinating black cherry undertone. The 2015 is much more what I was expecting, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily better. I love them both. 4.5/4.5

T: The 2015 is rich, sweet, and lightly smoky. Lots of caramel and chocolate up front, followed by vanilla, raisins, and oak on the mid-palate. The finish is fruitier and ultimately a bit dryer as the oak continues to assert itself on the long, bourbon-tinged aftertaste. Fairly simple and thoroughly delicious. The 2016, as the nose suggested, displays a much fruitier array of flavors – almost to the extent of reminding me of a Belgian Quadrupel. Bourbon is the first flavor out of the gate, but quickly gives way to prune, plum, raisin, and cherry. Some dark chocolate and spice show up toward the finish, which ushers in a wave of dry, almost bitter oakiness. Mild alcohol and sawdust on the finish. Fascinating but not as satisfying as the 2015. 4.5/3. 75

M: Very similar here, with both exhibiting smooth medium bodies with very low carbonation. A bit more heft and liveliness would help both of them, particularly the 2016. 3.25/3.25

O: Both are great beers, and splendid examples of the Scotch Ale style and its complex, malt-forward character. I definitely preferred the older bottle, although I really don’t think that the 2016 with a year on it will be remotely the same as the 2015 is now. Barrel character typically fades with age, and the 2015 surprisingly showed far more of it tonight.What was a real treat was the cuvée I made blending the last couple ounces of each, which managed to imbue the caramelized richness of the older beer with some of the fruity complexity of the younger one. Perhaps that’s what the 2017 release will taste like, and I just hope I get the chance to find out! 4.25/4.0

Thanks again to my friends for supplying these beers, and thanks to everyone who read this far. Cheers!



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The Year of Old Beer

Last month I decided to embark on a personal challenge: to go an entire year without buying a single beer to bring home. My cellar has gotten big enough, and my current cashflow small enough, that it made sense to turn my attention to what I already have. This means, of course, that I’ll be foregoing many of my favorite things: no replenishing my stock of beloved Lambics whenever a new batch of Tilquin hits local shelves, no continuing my verticals of Bigfoot and Old Stock Ale, no standing in line to buy full allotments of the latest brewery-only releases, no picking up a sixpack of fresh hoppy pale ale, no experimenting on breweries that enter my local distribution area, no more taking my friends up on their generous offers to mule beer back from their peregrinations, no more checking a bag full of cans and bottles when returning from my own trips.

The more I list what I’ll be missing out on, the more daunted I am by the challenge that faces me for the next 11 months. It’s not all bad, though. Over the past few years I’ve built up a stockpile of approximately 500 bottles of beer, and as I rarely have more than 1 per night (and often none) I’m not about to go thirsty. What’s a cellar for if not for drinking?

Also, I’m letting myself enjoy draft beer from time to time (in fact I’m typing this in Lexington’s newest brewery, Mirror Twin, and enjoying a pint of their delightful For Freedom Scottish Ale), and of course there are bottle shares with my excellent group of beer-loving friends. I just hope my trading partners will be interested in some of the stuff in my cellar so I can obtain the occasional fresh out-of-market IPA.

Finally, and most pertinently for this forum, my decision was made easier by the realization that the bulk of my cellar fits into one of the two most prominent categories of blog posts I write: Lambic Pentameter and Sweet Beers, Sugared Sonnets. It’s a happy coincidence that the two styles of beer I feel benefit most from extended aging (i.e. Lambic and Barleywine) are also those that allow for the greatest depth of contemplation alongside great literature.

Here’s to a year full of new experiences of old things. Cheers!

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Lambic Pentameter: Dylan, Shakespeare, and Cherries

Earlier today my favorite living poet, Bob Dylan, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an event that has prompted me to write briefly about his connection to my favorite dead one. I’ve long wanted to take a sustained look at Shakespeare’s influence on Dylan, but for now I’ve decided to focus on a single allusive stanza of Dylan’s that I can easily connect both to Shakespeare and a tasty, celebratory, beer.

Even before the Nobel, commentators have made the audacious but logical case for Dylan being a modern-day analogue to Shakespeare. Both arguably transformed their chosen genres, the play and the pop song, from seemingly frivolous entertainment into respected – even revered – literature. While some critics remain dismissive of Dylan’s status as poet, and therefore skeptical of his worthiness for the literature Nobel, it’s equally true that not all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries appreciated the playwright’s genius. Haters gonna hate.

For my part, I’ve been in love with Dylan since my aunt gave me his self-titled debut album. I assembled the bulk of his discography on CD, and he was the first musician I ever saw in concert. My youthful fascination with Dylan’s verbal pyrotechnics and emotional intensity remains, and has been augmented by an ever-deepening appreciation for the songwriter’s genuinely Shakespearean capacity for creating unique, original art out of the kaleidoscopic synthesis of influences. At times, in both authors, this process takes place out of sight of all but the most knowledgable and attentive audience members. At other times, though, this process of creative fusion takes center stage through the device of allusion, demanding that we listeners engage our memories and imaginations to interpret the ongoing conversation within and between works.

One such allusive moment takes place in “Po’ Boy,” a wistfully comic song about ironic disappointment off of the blues-drenched 2001 album Love and Theft. The song begins by introducing its speaker as a cuckold, casually directing another man to his wife’s side. The tone is fragmented from the outset, with the first line’s overly formal, rhythmically regular “For whom are you looking?” rhymed with the same speaker’s highly colloquial and metrically rushed “She’s busy in the kitchen cookin'” (on the official website, it’s telling that the “g” is present in “looking” but dropped from “cookin'”). This juxtaposition of high and low, formal and informal, pathos and bathos, forms the core dramatic structure of the song. The titular poor boy seems to triumph (e.g. when he is described as riding a train first class), only to have that moment of success revealed as an illusion (he’s outside looking in, trying not to fall between the train cars, entirely cut off from their interior luxury).

This rhetorical strategy of ironic juxtapositions is perhaps at its most jarring when the focus shifts from the Po’ Boy of the title to two of the most august tragic figures in literary history:

Othello told Desdemona, “I’m cold, cover me with a blanket
By the way, what happened to that poison wine?”
She says, “I gave it to you, you drank it”
Poor boy, layin’ ’em straight—pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.

Just as the earlier stanzas of the song achieved their humor by creating and disrupting expectations, this stanza entirely reimagines one of the most famous stories ever told, inverting everything we know about Shakespeare’s doomed lovers. Othello pleads to be tucked in with love and a blanket rather than smothering Desdemona with anger and, at least in the famous Orson Welles film, a sheet.


Still from Othello, dir. Welles (1951)

This initial change reveals a second one, as we learn that Desdemona has usurped his role as the murderous spouse. (As a side note, I’ve long been in awe of Dylan’s mastery of rhyme; here, “blanket/drank it” does a spectacular job of linking the presumed and revealed methods of murder, and does so in a witty feminine ending that further emphasizes Desdemona’s newfound agency – just in case anyone was still unsure whether the self-described “song and dance man” deserved the Nobel for literature.) Shakespeare enters a song when he’s least expected, and what we find in the allusion is precisely the opposite of what the names in the stanza’s opening line prepared us for.

The Shakespearean influence on the stanza does not end there, however. By changing the murder weapon to poisoned wine, Dylan conflates Othello with at least two other tragedies: the poison-laced liebestod of Romeo & Juliet and the overwhelmingly violent climax of Hamlet. Both of these analogues involve the near-simultaneous deaths of a husband and wife, with the former anticipating Othello in its romantic and sexual intensity and the latter adumbrating Dylan’s song with its literal employment of poisoned wine that the husband is aware of and ends up drinking unwillingly. In three brief lines, Dylan links his song’s character not just to Othello, but to Romeo, Claudius, Desdemona, Gertrude, Juliet, and Hamlet as well. Entirely particular and yet aligned with so many tragic figures in one way or another, the figure Dylan creates at the center of this song is both one and many, both original and imitative, both victim and villain.

So much comes out of the first three lines of the stanza, lines that name and quote Othello and Desdemona. But what of the stanza’s closing line, where the Po’ Boy enters this scene to pick up the symbolic pieces? It goes, “Poor boy, layin’ ’em straight—pickin’ up the cherries fallin’ off the plate.” The ambiguity is even more daunting here than before, as the pronoun “’em” maddeningly (and, I think, delightfully) lacks a precise noun to modify. Does it look back to Othello and Desdemona, being laid out straight in their graves? Does it look forward to the cherries that have fallen off the plate? And what exactly are the cherries doing here, as neither cherry nor plate has previously been mentioned? I would suggest that Dylan organizes the stanza’s imagery in a symbolic chiasmus: blanket, wine, cherries, plate. The first and last images are both flat, clean, and presumably white; the second and third images are intensely colorful impositions on the sterility that surrounds them. The wine, thanks to its poison and its disappearance into Othello, clearly symbolizes death. But the cherries? As potential nourishment they could symbolize life, but they are picked up uneaten.

An uneaten cherry, like the strawberries on Desdemona’s handkerchief in Othello, also functions as a symbol of virginity. When Desdemona loses the handkerchief, the loss functions as confirmation of Othello’s paranoia that she has lost her virginity (or at least chastity; critics dispute whether or not their marriage was ever consummated) – owed to him as her husband. The red-spotted handkerchief is a clear analogue to the blood-spotted sheets of the marriage bed, sheets whose continued whiteness Othello highlights in his decision to smother his wife rather than shed her blood by penetrating her with his (actual) sword. By having the Po’ Boy pick up uneaten cherries following the poisoning of Othello, is Dylan providing an oblique commentary on the destruction that accompanied Othello’s assertion of ownership of Desdemona’s sexuality? Does the final image of the cherries on the plate, with no one left alive to eat them, provide a new way of viewing the unfaithful wife’s cooking in the song’s opening stanza? These cherries demand no lesser questions than these: What is life? What is death? What is love?

Cherries needn’t be symbolic conduits to deep thoughts, though. They can also be delicious beer ingredients! In deciding which beer to pair with tonight’s close reading (and celebration!), I didn’t have to think too hard. Once I saw cherries mentioned in one of Dylan’s relatively rare overtly Shakespearean passages, I knew I had to have a Kriek. And what better Kriek with which to consider the poetic intensity of a Dylan/Shakespeare convergence than Intense Red from my favorite Lambic producer, Drie Fonteinen? intense-redThe first bottle I pulled from my collection happened to be from the original batch from 2012, bottled a decade after my first Dylan concert. Like the explosion of interpretive possibilities created by Dylan’s allusive engagement with Shakespeare, Lambic beer is known for its spontaneity. While undoubtedly the product of long tradition, practiced skill, and thoughtful planning, this style of beer achieves its eventual brilliance only through the magic of spontaneous fermentation, the creative genius of nature.

This particular bottle, despite being 4 years old, is still an absolute fruit bomb. Intense Red uses a higher proportion of cherries to the base beer than Drie Fonteinen’s other Krieks, and this difference is noticeable both in its eponymous depth of color and its thoroughly fruity flavor. More tart than sweet, but never funky like other Lambics can (delightfully) be, this beer delivers wave upon wave of simple, straightforward cherry goodness. Bright and juicy in the aroma, deep and pulpy on the tongue, and ultimately tartly dry on the finish, this beer does one thing and does it very well. Its directness is a pleasant counterpoint to the complexity of the song and its place in the tragic tradition, and a fitting tribute to depth and intensity of pleasure that I, and we, have been lucky enough to derive from a living artist.

Congratulations to Bob Dylan on the Nobel, and here’s to further exploration of his art.




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Sweet Beers, Sugared Sonnets – #2

Before fleshing out some new features, I felt like getting back to a series that I only just began before taking a hiatus from the blog. If you haven’t already, you may want to see the first entry before continuing here, as I took some time explaining the sonnet form and the inspiration for pairing each of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets with a sweet(ish) beer from my collection.

Without further ado, then, here’s the next poem as it appeared in the 1609 Quarto:vol2sonnet2website

And in modernized spelling/typography:

When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held.

Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame, and thriftless praise.

How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer, “This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count, and make my old excuse,”
Proving his beauty by succession thine.

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Another in the opening series of sonnets urging the fair youth to procreate, Sonnet 2 makes the same core argument as its lone predecessor, but in doing so introduces a host of new images and tonal features that immediately lend emotional complexity to Shakespeare’s larger project. Rather than a witty appeal to narcissistic self-love, this poem is an attempt to scare its subject into sex through a litany of dark, cold, violent reminders of existential vulnerability.

And if that doesn’t make you want to drink a nice comforting beer, I don’t know what will!

As a companion to my musings about Sonnet 2, I’ve chosen to analyze Imperial Stout Trooper from the good folks at New England Brewing Company. This particular bottle is from 2012, the first year they switch from 750ml to more manageable 500ml ones, and the third year in a row they continued getting away with disguising the Star Wars storm trooper helmet with funny nose glasses – a disguise first prompted by a cease and desist letter from George Lucas’s lawyers. But I digress.

Besides being an old favorite beer of mine from one of my very favorite breweries, several specific details in Sonnet 2 inspired me to pull this bottle from the cellar:

  1. The opening line counts time in the telling unit of winters, and this beer is always a winter seasonal providing some small, but reliable, consolation for the loss of warmth and daylight that accompanies its release.
  2. Those winters in the opening line are imagined to “besiege” the youth’s future face, introducing a martial metaphor that continues explicitly through the rest of the quatrain and implicitly through to the couplet’s ambiguous bloodshed. The first war-themed beer that came to mind was the Trooper, which I now call on to besiege my tastebuds.
  3. The image that concludes the first quatrain, “Thy youths proud livery, so gazed on now, / Will be a tattered weed of small worth held” reminds me of the fickleness of beer geeks and they hype that drives them. Today’s sought-after whale is tomorrow’s shelf turd (to use the parlance of our times), and very often the mania is oriented as much toward the external trappings of desirability (either literal, like a fancy wax job, or figurative, like a boatload of adjuncts) rather than the true core contents. Shakespeare points out how the obvious ephemerality of clothing (i.e. livery, weeds) is shared by our bodily existence itself. Just as a clean shirt can get torn and muddy, so too our youth and health will give way to age and disease, and a beer’s trade value will diminish as memory of its one-time glory fades.
  4. Finally, the wrenching pathos of an old man admitting his former glory lives only in his “deep sunken eyes” made me think of the double layer of helmet and glasses separating us from the storm trooper within – if anyone is in there at all. With a four year old stout, you never really know.

I’m not the biggest proponent of cellaring stouts, but am certainly guilty of doing so with frustrating regularity. All too often I find that these beers’ richness gives way to incongruous oxidized flavors like cardboard and paper, and the roasted malts’ bold bitterness turns to astringency. Whatever greatness was once there can recede into the deep eye sockets of memory.

Happily, this bottle has largely defied the potential disaster that can befall aged stouts, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable dose of liquid reminiscence. Here’s a full review:

A: A nice easy pour produces a thick, viscous black body under two fingers of frothy brown head that recedes slowly and leaves a bit of sticky lacing. It’s always a good sign when a vintage beer has perfect carbonation, and I’m especially struck by the rich mocha hue of the head. I didn’t expect this beer to look so rich.2012-ist

S: It does show its age a bit here, as there is some light sherry-like oxidation present, but the dominant notes are precisely what I remember from drinking this beer fresh at the brewery: semi-sweet chocolate, licorice, dark roast coffee, burnt toast, and a solid dose of spicy herbal hop character. Highly complex and engaging.

T: Everything from the nose comes through, plus the notable addition of a peppery, almost cinnamon spiciness that makes it remarkably lively for such an old beer. The dark chocolate really asserts itself on the long, bittersweet, oily finish. As it warms, a sweeter brownie batter flavor jumps out early on, accentuating the semblance of melted chocolate chips on the aftertaste. The oxidation from the nose is very much left in the background, with the bittersweet roasted malts enjoying a near monopoly over the flavor. Really excellent.

M: Oily and slick; full-bodied without being sticky. The carbonation seems to have gone largely into the beautiful head, as the body of this beer is largely undisturbed by effervescence.

O: I’ve always been a big fan of this beer, and even after a couple years since last revisiting it it impresses me as much as ever. It’s bold without being boozy, bitter without being astringent, sweet without being cloying, and complex without sacrificing a clear sense of identity. It’s a pure, beautiful example of what the RIS style can and should be, free of the copious adjuncts that seem to weigh down most hyped-up examples of the style these days. Terrific beer.

Final thoughts: As the craft beer movement matures, it can be easy to look back on the iconic beers of 5 or 10 years ago as obsolete. “Pssh,” this thinking goes,”did people really get excited about that? It doesn’t even have vanilla! And it’s not even barrel aged! Why did we even care?” While many may see today’s double barrel aged cacao-vanilla-coffee-chai-cinnamon-cardamom as a vibrant new generation, youthfully rejecting the staid simplicity of their progenitors, perhaps it’s worth thinking instead about these beers as being of the same essential substance as their forbears, just with new wrinkles and livery obscuring what makes the whole bloodline special: “When forty adjuncts shall besiege thy brew….”

As I finish this splendid beer, and think about Shakespeare’s splendid language, I feel older and colder than ever by seeing just how far removed my own time and my own words are from the youthful purity that was brewing 4 years ago and writing 400. I’m not convinced that Sonnet 2’s couplet is as hopeful as it might seem at first: “This were to be new made when thou art old, / And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.” The antitheses of new/old and warm/cold are both structured so as to bury the positive element within the line while the negatives old and cold receive the emphasis of rhyme; additionally, “new” is given further distance thanks to the subjunctive “were,” and there’s certainly something macabre about seeing one’s own blood before feeling it turn cold. The supposed joy of seeing oneself reborn and living on after death is contingent upon, and here sensibly identical with, facing death. That’s…that’s a bummer, dude.

No wonder Shakespeare didn’t end his attempts at poetic persuasion here – and thankfully I have many more promising beers aging away, just waiting to die upon my lips.




Posted in Beer Reviews, ShakesBeer, Sugared Sonnets, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Mar’s hot minion is returned again”

I’m back! It’s been over four years since I last updated the blog, and it’s been an exciting period of time to say the least. Many things have changed, a few have stayed the same, and I finally have both the time and inclination to return to this type of personal, informal writing. Here’s a rundown of momentous occurrences I might have blogged about in the past few years, and that may occasionally inspire posts to come:


A beer from 2012 seemed appropriate for the resurrection of a blog dormant since then. Cuvée Delphine from De Struise Brouwers: an American-style interpretation of a traditional British style called Russian Imperial Stout from one of Belgium’s most daring breweries, aged in Four Roses Bourbon barrels from just a few miles from me. Big beer, small world.

  • I finished my dissertation and got my Ph.D. from Yale!
  • IPAs are more popular than ever, but somehow have traded their characteristic bitterness for ridiculous turbidity.
  • I got a wonderful, but sadly temporary, job teaching early modern literature and interdisciplinary humanities at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. For two spectacular years I got to teach some of the smartest, most earnest, and most fascinating students all of my favorite texts.
  • Moving to Kentucky has allowed me to relive some of the heady exuberance of the craft beer revolution that swept Connecticut (and most of the country) back in 2009-11. Mark Twain famously wrote that Kentucky is always 20 years behind, but I’ve been happy to find it’s more like just 5 – and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • I founded and coached a college Rugby team, which was awesome.
  • AB-InBev has, since their 2011 acquisition of Goose Island, kept inhaling craft* breweries left, right, and center. Beer nerds only got crazier about Bourbon County and its variants, though – at least until the corporate beast managed to infect the bulk of last year’s release. I’m not sure whether my schadenfreude is most fully directed at the conglomerate, the brewery that sold out, or the hypocritical beer nerds who would both inveigh against corporate creep whilst lining up in the cold on Black Friday to buy as much sour InBev sugar water as possible.
  • I secured my first (and second, and third) major scholarly publications, with articles appearing in top-tier international journals and one winning a major prize from the Renaissance Society of America. Proof that I haven’t drunk too much beer to be a good scholar. 😀
  • I presented papers at major conferences in several countries, including a couple in Europe that let me visit Belgium two more times.
  • My wife finished her Masters of Library Science and promptly flew up the employment ladder to be a full-time children’s librarian at the Lexington Public Library. Her storytimes draw bigger crowds than most academic paper presentations, by far.
  • WE GOT A DOG!!!!!

That’s 10 bullet points, which seems like quite enough for now. I’ve got ideas for several new recurring features for the blog, so for the next couple weeks I’ll be updating fairly regularly with brand new stuff as well as some new entries in old series like Lambic Pentameter and Sweet Beers, Sugared Sonnets. I know I’ll enjoy writing (and drinking ;), and hope you’ll enjoy reading.


Posted in General, ShakesBeer, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Style Showdown: Kristalweizen

Sorry for the embarrassingly long gap between posts. I’ll try not to let it happen again.

I’m watching the MLB All-Star game as I type this, and in the spirit of fun but mostly pointless competition I thought it would be interesting to try out a new blog feature – a head-to-head face-off between the two top-rated examples of a beer style. Additionally, I’ll take a brief look at two stylistically similar literary passages, one by Shakespeare and one by one of his contemporaries. Without identifying the respective authors, I’ll end with a poll asking which passage you, dear readers, consider superior. Just promise not to Google the passages before you vote.

For tonight’s beers, I’ve chosen the top-ranked examples of a rather obscure style: Kristalweizen. A wheat beer of German origin, Kristalweizens are essentially just Hefeweizens with the yeast filtered out, yielding an appropriately crystal-clear body instead of the cloudiness characteristic of the more famous style. Since a huge portion of a Weizen’s flavor (banana, clove, and bubblegum are standard notes) comes from the distinctive yeast strain, removing said yeast tends to result in a somewhat more restrained, grain-forward beer. It’s no coincidence that the top-rated Hefeweizen on BeerAdvocate, Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, has a solid place in the overall Top 100 list and an impressive weighted score of 4.4/5, while the current #1 Kristalweizen (not too coincidentally from the same brewery) has a rather mediocre weighted rank of 3.99. As luke-warm as my fellow beer nerds are about this style, I happen to love it – especially for a refreshing tipple on a warm summer evening like this one. Let’s open up some beers the way the National League opened up the scoring in the top of the first.

The reigning champion for this style, as previously mentioned, is Weihenstephaner Kristalweissbier. Brauerie Weihenstephan is about as venerable as you can get, being, as it is, the oldest brewery in the world. After nearly a millenium of brewing, Weihenstephan stands as the undisputed master of wheat beers. Who would dare to challenge the master?

A plucky, upstart American craft brewery, of course. Sixpoint, out of Brooklyn, has been making waves in the northeast over their short 8 years of existence. Apollo, their new summer seasonal, has been well-received – especially for its style – and currently sits in a virtual tie with its veteren opponent on the BeerAdvocate style list. It actually has a slightly higher raw score, and only enjoys the #2 slot due to its relative paucity of reviews. Let’s see how it compares to the classic paragon of the style.

Appearance is always the first thing to note about a beer, but sadly the photo above hardly does justice to the shocking difference between these two: the Apollo looks like a mediocre Hefeweizen, with a hazy orange body and a thin tan head that disappears almost immediately. The Weihenstephaner, on the other hand, displays the gorgeous clarity that gives this style its name, and accentuates it with a tremendous head of dense, persistent, bright white foam. Sixpoint might have named their beer after the sun god, but it’s the German brew that truly shines.

The radical differences between these beers aren’t limited to the appearance, but distinguishing the superior brew in terms of aroma and flavor is much less clear-cut. I had my wife take a whiff of each, and, as she is most assuredly into the whole brevity thing, she distilled each scent into a single word: “banana” for the Sixpoint, and “beer” for the Weihenstephaner. I would be a bit more descriptive, of course, but her assessment is dead on: one is powerfully fruity, the other much more subtle and complex. If you like banana, vanilla, and flowers, check out Apollo. If you prefer wheat, minerality, and delicate spice, then opt for the other. I find them both extremely enjoyable, with perhaps a slight preference for the more restrained, lighter aroma.

The differences adumbrated by the aromas carry through even more prominently in the flavors of the two combatants, with the Sixpoint boiling down so purely to its fruity essence that I was genuinely tempted to limit the “flavor” segment of my review to my wife’s assessment of its aroma. Seriously, there’s nothing here but banana. The Weihenstephaner, on the other hand, displays flavors ranging from, yes, banana, through to grainy wheat, clove, ginger, and crisp minerality. It’s complex enough to keep anyone interested in picking out flavors busy, and yet coherent enough to be truly refreshing. Apollo, tasty as it is, really can’t be described as delivering any real refreshment – it’s just too heavy and insistent.

As much as I enjoyed Sixpoint’s new beer, it didn’t pose much of a challenge to the reigning champion; Weihenstephaner Kristalweissbier was superior in every way possible, except container – I do love a craft beer in a can. Somehow, though, I don’t expect to see the tradition-bound Bavarians offering their world-class Weizens in widemouths any time soon. Pity.

Let’s hope, for the sake of a future discussion, that the comparison of dramatic verse isn’t as lop-sidedly obvious. I’ll save in-depth analysis for a follow-up post, and for now just introduce and quote two passages that are stylistically similar.

The early years of Shakespeare’s career were characterized by a frequent employment of a distinctive style of powerful (many would say bombastic) blank verse popularized by Christopher Marlowe. Metrically, this heroic style tended to be heavily end-stopped (i.e., most thoughts are contained in a single line, rather than spilling over to another via enjambment) and highly regular, following the 5-foot, unstressed-stressed pattern of iambic pentameter very closely, with few examples of trochaic substitutions, feminine endings, and other variations to the rhythm. This style, with its percussive regularity of both tempo and sentence length, naturally leant itself to a declamatory, rather than conversational, subject – perfect for the high-flown rhetoric of heroes (like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), kings (like Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard III), and villains alike. It is from the villains that I’d like to draw two similar, closely-related passages: one from Shakespeare’s Aaron, the evil Moor in Titus Andronicus, and the other from Barabas, the evil Jew in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

Passage 1:

As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells,
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ’em go pinion’d along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian; 
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells.
Then after that I was an usurer,
Ad with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill’d the gaols with bankrouts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals,
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.

Passage 2:

—. Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
—. Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day – and yet I think
Few come within the compass of my curse – 
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends, 
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks,
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
“Let not your sorrow die though I am dead.”
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

So, two gleeful confessions of complete and utter wickedness, both written in highly regular, rhetorically ornate blank verse. Which do you prefer?

If you don’t mind taking an extra moment, please leave a comment explaining your vote. A future post will examine the results, and assess the strengths and weakness of each passage. Reader feedback would be a great addition to that discussion.

Thanks for reading, thanks for voting, and cheers!

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Lambic Pentameter: Experimental Beginnings

Now that I’ve provided introductions to both Lambics and pentameter, it’s finally time to put the two components together. Beginning is always the most difficult part of a project (for me at least), and in my anxiety over getting this recurring blog feature off to a strong start I mulled over almost endless possibilities.

Armand’4 Lente at the brewery. This was the single most amazing glass of beer I’ve ever had.

Should I start with an old favorite beer, one that I know incredibly well and can describe in precise detail – something like Cantillon Classic Gueuze? Should I revisit the very first Lambic I ever tasted, Girardin 1882 Black Label Gueuze? Or perhaps my all-time favorite, Drie Fonteinen Armand’4 Oude Geuze Lente?

Eventually I decided that an experimental new undertaking called for something daring, something I’d never had before. Once I decided on reviewing a new-to-me Lambic, though, I ran into a problem: there just aren’t that many well-regarded Lambics out there that a) I haven’t already reviewed and b) are readily accessible. As fate would have it, while browsing a local store I stumbled upon the perfect option: Hanssens Experimental Raspberry.

375ml bottle in a traditional Lambic basket.

Hanssens is a polarizing Lambic brewery, as pretty much everything they produce is going to be incredibly sour, incredibly funky, and generally offensive to 99% of well-adjusted sensibilities. I’ve loved every single one of their beers I’ve had (draw your own inferences about my sensibilities), so to find something from them that I’ve yet to experience was just too inviting to ignore. Never mind that this beer gets a remarkably low 3.34 overall rating on BeerAdvocate; I have a good feeling about it.

In keeping with the experimental theme exemplified by the beer’s name and this post’s nature, I’ve opted to do a close reading of a stanza from Venus & Adonis, Shakespeare’s first experiment in narrative poetry. In the self-deprecating dedication to this 1593 work, Shakespeare apologizes for the “unpolisht lines” that characterize the “first heir of [his] invention” – i.e., the first imaginative poetic endeavor he ever undertook. Not unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s rookie effort was decidedly impressive: a delightful, rhetorically ornate reimagining of a tale from Ovid’s MetamorphosesVenus & Adonis became a breakthrough hit of its era, running through edition after edition during Shakespeare’s lifetime and beyond. Learned yet playful, erotic yet philosophical, it as a masterpiece in all senses of the word.

Rather than attempt any holistic reading of the poem (I’ve got an entire dissertation chapter in the works devoted to that endeavor), I’d like to enhance my enjoyment of this ridiculously sour beer by doing a brief close reading of a single stanza:

Venus & Adonis, lines 523-8.

For those who prefer to read it without Elizabethan orthography and typography (I know those long s’s can be tricky):

Fair Queen (quoth he), if any love you own me,                                        Measure my strangeness with my unripe years;                                       Before I know my self, seek not to know me.                                                      No fisher but the ungrown fry forbears,                                                                The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast –                                           Or being early plucked, is sour to taste.

This passage comes after the goddess of love has been trying (hilariously unsuccessfully) to seduce the chaste young hunter, Adonis. Finally able to get a word in edgewise, the reluctant youth offers this fittingly obsequious and elegantly metaphorical rebuttal to her desperately insistant entreaties that he relent and have sex with her. The crux of the argument comes in the middle of the stanza: “Before I know myself, seek not to know me.” The verb “to know” has multiple meanings, if you know what I mean: at least in the second instance it clearly calls for an implied adverb, “sexually.” If we apply this innuendo to the first “know,” then we see that perhaps Adonis’ reluctance is not purely moral, but also physical: if he hasn’t yet managed to have his first auto-erotic experience, then he is surely not cut out to please a partner  – much less one as experienced as lusty Venus. The metaphorical images that support Adonis’s request tend to lend credence to this reading, for what could be less phallic than “ungrown fry”? It is perhaps overly zealous to pursue this line of interpretation further, but is it really so difficult to see the plum’s transition from green and stuck to mellow and fallen as emblematic of pubescent maturation?

My favorite thing about choosing to read the tiny fish as penises and the plums as (un)descended testes is that a purely physical explanation for Adonis’s sexual reluctance makes the already comically expansive rhetorical arguments both for and against fornication not just hyperbolic, but entirely pointless. Since the outcome of the argument is predetermined, the lavish language becomes its own end – which is always, of course, the nature of an imaginative poem. Rather than worry about what is being said, we can be free to luxuriate in how it’s being expressed. There’s just so much mellifluous beauty to the phrase “the mellow plum doth fall,” and it’s brilliantly fitting how much the rhythm of the line slows down upon the consonant-drenched “greene sticks fast.” No matter how minutely one chooses to apply the metaphors, the music of the language remains not sour, but sweet to taste.

I chose this stanza simply because it’s one of few where Shakespeare talks about sourness as a flavor – he typically uses it as a generically negative modifier, e.g. “sour affliction” – and I thought it would make a natural accompaniment to an incredibly sour beer. As it turns out, though, I think the sweetness of the poetry more than outweighs the delightful sourness of the beer; as good as the Hanssens is, I can’t claim that it’s a masterpiece of any kind.

In any case, here’s my review:

375ml bottle into a Drie Fonteinen wine-style glass.

A: The cork comes out without the slightest sound, and hence I’m unsurprised when the beer pours completely flat. The lightly hazy orange body would be nice enough for an unblended Lambic, but when there’s fruit involved I expect some carbonation. Disappointing. 2.0

S: Hugely acidic: tart raspberry, lemon, peach, vinegar, acetone (yes, solvent – I like it), oak. The various types of acids are all so powerful that there isn’t much room for yeasty funk, but it’s so complexly sour and fruity that I don’t really mind. Some might legitimately fault it for the acetic acid and acetone, but I consider those part of the Hanssens charm. Beautifully offensive. 4.5

T: A little less crazy here, with deliciously puckering citric acid causing my mouth to pucker and my entire body to shiver. The raspberry is only faintly present, with lemon and unripe pear being the more prominent fruit flavors. A bit of acetic oak shows up on the finish, with the oak lending a bit of vanilla sweetness that offsets (slightly) the vinegary and fruity tartness. Long, dry, almost numbingly sour aftertaste. My mouth feels physically assaulted, like I just put one too many warheads in there at once on a dare. Wow. 4.5

M: Totally still, slightly oily, and medium-bodied. A bit of life would go a long way. 2.5

O: While this one was a bit more straightforward in its outrageous sourness than, say, Oudbeitje, and decidedly less fruit-forward than Scarenbecca Kriek, I liked it just as much as those. I’m not sure I’ll be buying any more (it’s more expensive than the regular Hanssens Oude Gueuze, and I like that beer every bit as much), but I’m certainly glad I decided to make the experiment. 4.0

Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to share any questions, complaints, or ideas in the comments. Cheers!

Posted in Beer Reviews, Lambic Pentameter | 1 Comment