Overweening Generalist

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Drug Report: June, 2013: Beer, Glorious Beer, But Especially Hops

I realize I'm horribly delinquent on what was projected to be one-blog-per-month on something drug-related; I'm not sure if anyone noticed or cares. But maybe I'll chip away and "catch up" when my life gets a tad more..."normalized"?

Short Primer: Getting Up To Speed on Lousy Beer, Worldwide
Where to start? Hmmm...Okay, if you're reading this in some area of the world other than Unistat, and you're over, say, 35, you grew up knowing (and it was all-too-true) that Unistat beer was "yellow fizzy water." Beer aficionados in Unistat now often use the shorthand "BMC", meaning "Budweiser/Miller/Coors." Before the "progressive" idea of Prohibition, there were 1500 breweries in Unistat; the 18th Amendment (Jan.17, 1920, a day that will live in infamy) killed all of them overnight.

[Everything Hitler did was legal: you just pass a law.]

The 21st Amendment - getting rid of the 18th - was ratified Dec. 5th, 1933, a day that we celebrate...every day, come to think of it! But it was Depression times (gosh, I wonder what that was like?), and then after what's commonly called the "Second World War," only a few but large corporations had enough capital to brew for the thirsty masses. And they brewed really terrible stuff (I'm biased, I know, I know).

Perhaps the major brewer in Unistat was Anheuser-Busch, and I heartily recommend reading William Knoedelseder's recent Bitter Brew: Anheuser-Busch and the Rise and Fall of America's Kings of Beer. If you'd rather practice Bayard's art here, see Tom Dibblee's terrific review of the book, "Even Anheuser-Busch Hates Bud Light." Don't miss the very George W. Bush 43-ish personality of August Busch IV; the downfall of competitor Schlitz, which tried to speed up fermentation to produce more beer, but this caused a yucky mucous-like substance to accumulate once the beer got old enough; how the good ol' boys running Anheuser-Busch were dismayed - ironically so like me and my beer snob friends - when Bud Light outsold their beloved Budweiser, which to me is a horrible beer: they thought Bud Light had no soul, and I think everything Anheuser-Busch has brewed has no soul and aye: 'tis "yellow fizzy water." They began to lose market share (much of it via mismanagement) and tried all sorts of ridiculous gimmicks, one of which the reviewer Dibblee unashamedly loves: Bud Light With Lime. (And I admire his defense of it, by the way. See Dibblee's paragraph near the end that starts, "I wrote earlier about...")

A right-goodlie portion of Knoedelseder's book was a revelation to me; I have been a ruthless opponent of Unistatian Bad Beer for many years now (25?); and I love the new craft beers and micro- and nano-brewing experiments, and I'm a confessed huge Hop Head, but I'll get to that in a bit.

The most poignant part of the book, which informs what I call The Big Divide, is how Anheuser-Busch was taken over, hostile-fashion, by Belgium-based InBev. Like all giant sociopathic corporations, it laid off thousands of workers and cut benefits. It also cheapened their production processes to make even shittier beer (hard to imagine!), and the upper brass and CEOs gave themselves humongous bonuses. But the worst: they feel a threat from actual BEER: craft beers, innovators, the little guys who actually care about beer. So they buy up as many of the other larger worldwide breweries and distributors, spend enormously on marketing, and take up the precious "eye-level" space in markets. And they have enforced laws that basically only allow their own beer to be shipped across state lines. It's complex, chock-full of mendacity, galling stuff.

In late January of 2013, driven by the New America Foundation, the "Justice" Department in Unistat actually began antitrust (!) proceedings against Anheuser-Busch/InBev (ABI), because ABI had announced they wanted to buy Grupo Modelo, the largest beer distributor based in Mexico. ABI saw Corona beer as a threat.

Oh, wow: I realize I've gone on far too long on the lousy beer stuff, and I could write off the top of my head another 5000 words on this shit, but suffice: ABI, together with another monster crap-beer conglomerate, SABMiller (So. African Brewers who bought Miller in 2002, then later Coors and Foster's, blah blah blah) control at least 80% of the market in Unistat. ABI's buying of Grupo Modelo would make this even worse; hence, the antitrust stuff going on now. They say they have their eyes on the world beer market and mean no artistes any harm, but make no mistake: they want to crush the craft beer industry - the only beer worth drinking, something that makes my life immeasurably more worth living - in Unistat.

There's a lot of Good News on this front, and maybe if anyone asks me in the comments I'll go into it, but right now I need to go into hops.

Finally:Get a load of this world beer map of brews made by just "Two Giant Brewers, 210 Brands." (If you personally like any one of these, good for you! I want people to enjoy what they enjoy. But know who's controlling what you're drinking. It may give you pause...)

Oh, there's so much of surpassing fascination to say, talk, write and talk again about: malts, malting processes, and the miracle of yeast. To say the least. But I'd like to talk hops, which are very closely related to Cannabis. (Full disclosure: as I write this blogspewage, I'm languidly lavishing in a bomber of Coronado Brewing's Idiot IPA: an India Pale Ale, "Imperial"- style, which means it's hopped-up big-time, basically a double IPA: very bitter and delicious.)

The story goes that extra hops were used in beer shipped to British troops maintaining the Empire in India: hops act as a preservative in addition to adding a fine bitter taste to ale. When Unistat made homebrewing legal in 1979, those garage-scientist-brewing-tinkerers were influenced by the good beer they'd had on their trips to Europe, and especially England and Scotland, but also: Germany, Ireland, Czechoslovakia...(Now many brewers in those countries are being inspired by Unistatian craft-brews. Do you see what I mean by the The Big Divide?)

What else do hops do? Well, they're linked to controlling respiratory infections in children. Maybe isolates of humulone will one day fight pneumonia and bronchitis in kids? (This reminds me of Pliny the Elder, the Roman naturalist, 23-79CE, who died after inhaling smoke and ash after the Mt. Vesuvius eruption: a craft brew from near-to-me Santa Rosa, a hop bomb called Pliny the Elder, has won multiple awards and is much celebrated and sought-after among hop-heads in Unistat. It's maybe my favorite beer right now...)

So hops are anti-viral and related intimately to Cannabis and their oily terpenoids contribute overwhelmingly to the character of a particular beer, "So fucking what?," as the Anti-Nowhere League once said. (Check out Metallica's cover - NSFW! probably? - of that very Libertarian song HERE. There are many sources for the lyrics, one of which HERE. But clearly: when Hetfield of Metallica sings it, instead of "I've sucked sweets/I've sucked rock," he's singing "I've fucked the Queen/I fucked Bach..." This needed to be cleared up.)

I like very bitter, hoppy beer. That's what. "Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do," as Ruth Brown and B.B. King once sang, in a very Libertarian song. (You know this one, but in case not, it's HERE. Great Mother of All Hops!: I love BB's vibrato! It's like a trill, it's so even and quick. Inimitable! And I've tried to imitate it. And I dig how he just decided, long ago, to not play chords, and just...sing with his "Lucille" and Lucille's interlopers. The only vibrato that made a deeper impression on me is Eric Clapton's, 1967-74, but clearly, that's for some other time.)

Am I addicted? I don't think so. Although "addiction" has become far better understood and hence much more complicated over the past six years. Russian River Brewing's Vinnie Cilurzo and another brewer named Matt Brynildson coined the phrase, in 2005, "lupulin threshold shift," which means "when a double IPA just isn't enough." Vinnie brews Pliny the Elder, and I once wrote him a fan letter because of it. Yea, I got it bad. I consider Vinnie an Artist.

Briefly, I have gained some insight into why I push the envelope for hoppiness (some people can't stand the bitterness of some "hoppy" beer that to me, is only a jump, step and hop from Budweiser), and it's from the literature of addiction. Briefly: there's adaptation to a stimulus, when the perception, in this case taste/smell, dissipates over the course of an exposure. I try a hop-bomb beer and go wow! You try it and think whatever, you like it or not or something in between, you've got your own complex neurochemistry-set that's unique based on your DNA, experience, aesthetics, etc.

Within an hour, your sensorium is back to "normal." Me? Habituation has taken place. What's going on is that, for a long time after the initial exposure to some overweeningly bitter hopped-up beer, my sensitivity remains diminished. In other words, the impression of the hops on my nervous system was pleasurable, and I sorta...want more. Hence, we hop-heads push the hop-envelope and now there are Triple IPAs. At this point the way we measure this - so far, in IBUs, or International Bitterness Units - is off the charts. There's no "official line" for what makes an IPA a single, double, or even triple. (I recently had a quadruple IPA called Moylan's Hop Craic - pronounced "crack" and Gaelic for "conversation" but the brewer knows what the pun's about, I assure you.)

A Novel Hypothesis?

Now, I don't know if the following observation has been made, but here goes:

Experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk has done studies and noted that about 25% of the population are "non-tasters." About 50% are "tasters" and 25% are "supertasters." This has to do with administering a chemical, which interacts with the either very low, medium, or high number of fungiform papillae on your tongue. This chemical, yoked to your overall sensoria, will have you reacting (or not or to some degree) that it's very bitter and unpleasant, or maybe you barely notice it at all. Supertasters taste this chemical and it's horribly bitter to them; they find cruciferous vegetables very strong and unpleasant, so they may get more cancers because they can't handle, say, broccoli. It's far more complex than I will make it out, so look into this stuff for yourself. [See links HERE, HERE, and HERE, for example.] Ya gots yer fungiform papillae, ya gots yer reactions to foods or drinks, ya gots yer olfactory bulb and genes and all that stuff. Supertasters may be thinner: less to eat, everything's really intense for them. The wine expert Robert Parker is probably one of these people. The late Aaron Swartz described himself as a supertaster.

"Non-tasters" like their coffee black. (Supertasters often can't drink coffee at all, or if they do, they cut it with all kinds of gawdawful stuff like cream or milk or sugar.) Non-tasters dig really hot peppers. They generally eat anything. Many of them are overweight, because they can eat anything, and they like everything, and especially extreme tastes. Because of what I'll call my genetic profile, I am not overweight, but I am a non-taster. Give me the hottest salsa you can find. Make my coffee black, no cream or sugar, and so thick you can stand a fork in it. I'll eat anything and I generally like it, even if I think it's not exactly the best version of taco/cheese/tomato/yogurt/pickles/chocolate/steak/turnips, whatever. Throw just about anything at me and I'll like it. Hey gals? I'm EASY!

Okay, so this is my best explanation so far for my extreme hop-love: the more bitter and extreme the hops, the more stimulating the experience, then the habituation, followed by escalation. The evolutionary psychology explanation: the supertasters could tell the rest of the wandering-through-the-forest tribe which plants might be dangerous, extreme bitterness and strong tastes in general being suspected poisons. My people were the ones who maybe died because they ate something anyway, never getting the verbal memo. But I'm here, my lineage remains. They got the memo, and maybe even said "the hell with it: I want something interesting..." I have survived. (I'll spare the Donna Summer link.)

And you know what? The bulk of non-tasters are caucasian, white, and male.

Where are the most gargantuanly hoppy beers being quaffed? In California, Oregon, Washington, in areas that are crammed with slightly overweight, educated, caucasian males. Interesting. They're often the hop-bomb brewers, too.

Now: the old statistical saw: Correlation Does Not Imply Causation. I'm merely suggesting it.

So, an article by a self-described beer writer and admitted hop-head (and female), Adrienne So (sounds non-caucasian), was published by Slate recently. She says enough with the over-the-top hops, craft beer freaks! I like 'em too, but we're alienating the people who are willing to jump from the Dark Side of The Great Divide's ABI/SABMiller beers to the Good Stuff, and you're clobbering them with extremes! I see her point. The commenters seem sorta unfair to her. But I think Adrienne So is not paying attention to 1.) the market will say who wants extremely hoppy beer; 2.) there is no end of really delicious non-extreme hoppy craft beer out there, and 3.) her friend from Tennessee is a weasel.

So let me reiterate my (?) hypothesis: the genes that migrated to the Left Coast contained a lot of non-tasters, folks who like extreme tastes and will try anything, as long as it's interesting. While there are tremendously hopped-up hyper-bitter beers brewed in areas not on the Left Coast, this is where it's really hot. (I love Avery Maharaja Double IPA out of Boulder, Colorado and the day I tasted Three Floyd's Dreadnaught Imperial IPA out of Munster, Indiana was a very good day indeed!) Adrienne So has not taken into account non-tasters and their genetic drift to the Left Coast of Unistat.

I'll be paying attention to see how my Hypothesis falls apart upon further evidence. Until then: Cheers!

Some Beers I Regret I Didn't Get To Mention That Have Taken Me To Hop Heaven:

  • Green Flash Imperial IPA
  • Pliny The Younger 
  • Moylan's Hopsickle
  • Marin Brewing White Knuckle
  • Stone Ruination 10th Anniversary
  • Lagunitas Hop Stoopid
  • your massively hopped beer here
uber-wonkiness on hops:
Dr. Charles Bamforth - the Pope of Foam - on hops and bitterness.


Unknown said...

Finally a post I can understand!!! I think, at least in my beer exploring ways, that when I try to introduce something hoppy to someone, even what I call "tame hops", some just won't like it. If someone says "oh that is good" to a beer like, Stone Pale Ale, Oskar Blues Dales Pale, etc then the chances they may grow into a double IPA fan are good. Others, such as my wife, I don't see ever growing a palate for them as she also doesn't like anything NEARLY as spicy as I do.

Written from- San Diego county- where all you do is turn the water on and some of the worlds greatest IPA flows forth.

Eric Wagner said...

Terrific piece. An article on Guinness and the Pookha in Finnegans Wake might have the title "Harvey's Hops."

This year's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction included a nice lesson by John Meyer on the history of string bending, from T-Bone Walker to B. B. King to Albert King. Coincidentally, Donna Summer also got inducted.

michael said...

@Unknown Charlie: you're in the best craft beer area in Unistat, as you know. The micro and nano-brew kulch there is jumpin'. (I was going to write "hoppin'" but that would've been hackneyed.)

One point I hope was inferred was that: there is no standard for what's "really" good, if only because inherited DNA-RNA (fungiform papillae) and early cultural experience shapes what is experienced as "good," or "what I like." So if someone dislikes hoppy beer - maybe because they're a supertaster? - it's just one of those things.

If you're a female, with parental genes that emanated closer to the equator, you're more likely to enjoy lighter and less-bitter beer, and indeed: check back at the map of beers made worldwide by ABI and SABMiller: even though a lot of them are made in No. Europe, there's a ton of it in hot, tropical or Mediterranean climates. (Has anyone reading ever had a "good" Italian beer?)

ABI/SABMiller have 90% of the market locked-upworldwide and they're all boring and watery TO ME, and they have irrational "label loyalty" going for them and huge advertising budgets, unparalleled distribution and lower costs. Still: there are people who drink those beers and truly enjoy them; from that end of the equation I can't find any fault. I don't like that those makers are cutthroat and could care less about quality vs. their bottom line and massive bonuses. But beer in general can serve an almost spiritual sacrament in someone's lives. Even Budweiser Light With Lime, as the reviewer of the history of Anheuser-Busch reveals, charmingly.

michael said...

@Eric: RAW could've written a "Harvey's Hops" article. And he sorta got close a few times. I've been told many times that the Guinness in Ireland is far better than what we get here in the States, and I like the version here well enough. I'd love to have a few in the ambience of a pub in Dublin.

Guinness has been an enormous inspiration for craft brewers doing coffee and chocolate stouts on the Left Coast. If you ever get a chance, try North Coast Brewing's Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout: like Guinness all souped-up with hops and other flavors. I think it's tremendous.

I missed the John Mayer bit. Maybe I'll catch it on YT? I'm reading Light and Shade: Conversations With Jimmy Page, which came out last year. Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, and Page all grew up around Surrey within about 12 miles of each other. The "Surrey Delta" was the joke: they LOVED the way old black American bluesmen bent notes. An astounding influence, of course, on almost all future rock guitarists. Page and Beck were like child musicologists, studying the subtle nuances of each player, and categorizing how they phrased, bent notes, and other aspects.

When someone asks me about bending and vibrato I trot out a guitarist that mostly only guitarists talk about: Michael Schenker, who had a long solo career after UFO. He started in The Scorpions at age 15 and was hugely influenced by Beck and Page and Clapton and Mountain's Leslie West.

I remember trying to copy Edward Van Halen's solo in "Mean Streets": it starts out with an insane bend of the D note at the 7th fret...to a G: 2 and a half steps! If you practice it, you wear out your G string pretty quickly, and go out of tune a lot. EVH not only bends that, but he does all sorts of hair-raising things with that note before it returns to pitch. Wow.

Anonymous said...

I resent that OG recognizes San Diego as the best craft beer area in Unistat, I write this from Montana which has the second most amount of microbreweries out of any state in the Union. I'd like to say that I live in the craft beer area in MT but I tend to like dark, sweet and malty brews more than hoppy ones (which I enjoy too, just not as much) and the local brewmasters seem to agree. Perhaps MT and San Diego have engaged in bittersweet (pun intended) beer competition.

I highly recommend Kettle House's Cold Smoke scotch-style ale to those of you who appreciate a sweet brew with high alcohol content. Bayern's Doppelbock kicks ass too but in terms doppelbocks, Spaten's Optimator remains my fave. For hopfiends crusin' through the MT area, I recommend tryin' the Double Haul IPA from Kettle House and the Big Sky IPA from Big Sky Breweries.

I really wish my older brother and Uncle would read this blogspew and offer up their comments. Uncle Dave has brewed his own for decades now and leans strongly toward the IPA side of the beer spectrum. My older brother brews too (I think he has made the best beer in the world) and appreciates IPAs as much as he loves the dark stuff.

I wonder why Montanans prefer dark brews and if the rocky mountaineers of CO and peoples of other cold, mountainous regions the world 'round tend to have the same preference. Perhaps the cold winters and high altitude lends itself to this kind of beer or something along those lines. I suspect the well read OG would know better than I.

Eric Wagner said...

I don't like beer, but thanks for the recommendation.

I've read that Eddie Van Halen learned Clapton's solos for "Crossroads" and "Spoonful" note for note as a teen. I remember feeling blown away by "Wheels of Fire" when I bought it the summer before tenth grade. I listened to "Crossroads" over and over again to learn the bass part, but I sort of absorbed the guitar solo - still one of my favorites. From 2000 - 2005 I listened to tons of Grateful Dead (including some terrific stuff Mike Gathers sent me). These days I don't get summoned for Jerry duty as much as I used to, but I still love his playing.

michael said...

@Anon in MT: One of the big problems with microbrews vs. the Giant Conglomerates: you have to own your own trucks and pay some sort of "transfer-across-state-lines" fee. That's easy for ABI and SABMiller brews; it's rough or impossible for small, xlnt microbrews all over the country. Also: each state has particular regulations about alcohols coming in.

I don't doubt there are all kinds of great Montana brews; but unless distribution laws are eased up, I probably won't get a chance to try them. At Ledger's Liquor Store in Berkeley, "Ed" seems to know EVERYTHING about this, and I've asked him Qs and he's just really impressive. He told me about the Conglomerates trying to buy up the hop market to hurt craft beer a couple years ago when there was a hop shortage due to weather. I had no idea. Some small-market beer from way out of state can make it into a far-flung market if the microbrewer makes a deal with a Big Distributor, but it's usually a one-off thing.

Smaller breweries that have become more successful over the years have gotten their own trucks. Sierra Nevada (whose quality has gotten even better though they've gotten bigger) is one; Samuel Adams (in my opinion, the opposite) is another.

I go through periods where I crave Scottish ales like I had when I was in Edinburgh - fantastic malt! But they're almost impossible to find here. The craft brewers who try to imitate the style have been pretty damned good at it, though. There's one brewed here in Novato called Moylan's Kilt Lifter that reminded me of Edinburgh.

I didn't mean to slag Montana, friend. I just wish I could try Montana microbrews.

Aside from San Diego, Northern California has some AMAZING craft beer, incl. nano breweries that are very experimental, specializing in one style for awhile: like sour beers. Those are hot here right now.

There's a liquor store run by beer mavens in Glendora, CA called Lone Hill Liquor, and they make deals with small brewers across the country and trade, like, a case of really good stuff. My brother obtained Three Floyd's Dreadnaught out of Indiana that way. Oh my GAWD that was a great hoppy beer!

Thanks for weighing in, and remember what Ben Franklin said: Beer is God's way of telling us He loves us.

michael said...

@Eric: I seemed to remember you weren't a beer guy. Wine?

Eddie copied almost EVERY solo from that Bluesbreakers album that has Clapton sitting on a curb, reading a Beano comic book. And if you look at EVH's note selection, you can see how heavily clapton influenced him. Most of my students have thought I was crazy when I told them EVH was heavily infl by Clapton: all they hear is the shred. But it's true.

Also, when Zep came to LA in 1976 or '77, Eddie went, and when Page did his a capella "Heartbreaker" there's a huge bend at the beginning, from C up to E. EVH said he thought he could do the same thing, but use his right hand index finger to obtain wider intervals on one string. And thus: "Eruption."

I love Cream. All of it. One of my favorite bands. Love Ginger and Jack, love Jack's surreal lyrics. Clapton's solos - both of them, but especially the 2nd one - on "Crossroads" was THE " show us how good you are" solo for every aspiring rock guitarist until "Eruption" sorta took over. "Stairway To Heaven"'s solo was taken as a "wow" if you note-for-note it, but it's really nowheres near the degree of difficulty that "Crossroads" was.

I have tried to "get" The Dead and have failed. I like that others love them so much there's a famous cultish following. I like the spirit of the Dead; I just don't understand the music the way people who love them do. Take this as a confession.

Eric Wagner said...

Naw, I don't like alcohol.

I don't play guitar very well, but I did learn the solo to "Running with the Devil" in tenth grade. I don't remember it, though.

It took me a long time to "get" the Dead. I grew up in the Bay Area, so some of it rubbed off on me. I remember going to see "The Grateful Dead Movie" with my best friend the day before we started tenth grade. I didn't become a Deadhead until after Jerry died. I moved to Southern California in 1997. I worked for Blockbuster and drove all over to different stores. Occasionally I would catch this Grateful Dead show, and I really enjoyed the host, Barry Smolin. Whenever I found myself in the car on Friday night I would listen to his show.

Now, I owned one Dead CD, "One from the Vault", which I'd bought the day Jerry died in 1995. (All over the country stores ran out of Cherry Garcia Ice Cream that night.) I had never liked the CD that much. Well, listening to the Dead radio show got me to listen to it a bit more closely, especially "Big River" and "U.S. Blues"; then I made a tape of the CD and listened to it in the car, and then I got another CD, and another & another & caught the fever.

Barry Smolin also got me into a lot other music. He has written a couple of books, and his new radio show "Head Room" doesn't focus as much on the Dead: http://archive.kpfk.org/ .

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I know little about beer, so I was hoping you would address Pabst fandom. Do you agree with its rep for being a relatively good American corporate beer?

michael said...

@Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson): If you like it, cool. It has had a resurgence largely due to "hipsters" who think it's "retro" and cool. Personally, I find it undrinkable. But as I tried to convey in my post, I'm a nontaster, so I perhaps need more goin' on with a beer if I'm drinking for taste and not to get blotto. (I don't get blotto. Not anymore.)

The price just went up for Pabst, for no discernible "market" pressure reasons. But I agree with the guess that some are making:


This would, it seems qualify the price increase for Pabst as a Veblen Good:


But I think they run the risk of alienating some hipsters, as there's some indicators that the rest of us know their standard is Pabst, so they might be moving on to something like Miller High Life? We'll see.

Public Policy Poll: Unistatians don't like hipsters, and don't think Pabst is very good (!):

The hipster Pabst drinkers seem to want a lot of beer for the money; I'd rather drink a lot less, but make mine an interesting craft beer.

The Pabst fandom, as I see it, has very little to do with brewing and taste and more with fashion and subculture, identity, personal "style."