Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Goose Island/Wilco

At first, Wilco mostly sounded like a Stones cover band dabbling in Gram Parsons (or the Byrds, or the Burrito Bros). Their first album, AM, was filled with honky-tonk romps and pseudo country laments with some real pedal steel, but with mostly what I think was electric guitar trying to sound like a pedal steel. Then Tweedy got all Dylan-y and weird and produced a steady stream of outstanding albums, culminating with one of the best of the last decade.

Which brings me to Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company, a great place to start when looking for a Wilco-appropriate brew (and probably where Obama should’ve turned when deciding what to sip on TV). They’re from the same city, which helps. But Goose and Wilco also share a common trajectory, in that they’ve successfully maintained a quality product despite partial corporate ownership and influence.

The Brewers Association refuses to classify Goose Island as a craft brewery. According to their rules a “craft” brewer can’t be more than 25% owned by a non-craft brewery, and, in 2007, several Goose shareholders sold out to Widmer Brothers Brewing of Oregon; Widmer supposedly now owns roughly 40% of Goose Island and are themselves nearly 40% owned by Anheiser, hence neither brewery qualifies as craft. It’s like SAT math for drunkards. But these classifications are ridiculous; if you make good beer you make good beer and Goose Island makes good beer. And so does Wilco. By which I mean they make good music, not beer. Both the band’s original record label, Reprise, as well as Nonesuch Records, who bought the rights to Yankee Hotel after Reprise passed on it, are imprints of the massive Warner Music Group. So like Goose, you’d be hard-pressed to qualify Wilco as “indie,” or “craft” anymore – they now fill amphitheaters and minor league ball parks - but again, doesn’t matter. On to the beer.

Really Wilco’s trajectory requires two Goose Island brews. AM through Yankee Hotel Foxtrot pair well with Matilda, Goose’s interpretation of the Belgian strong pale ale. Appropriately, strong pale ales are strong (between 7% and 12% ABV according to Beer Advocate), and pale. Despite varying degrees of fruit, hops, funk and spice, they tend to be refreshing and highly drinkable (just like Wilco); for reference sip a Duvel, the best-known Belgian strong pale ale. And what Wilco did for alt-country – that is build on an established style, progressing it in new directions – Matilda does for strong pales.

Matilda starts with modest Indian-food spice (clove, coriander, etc), followed by plenty of hops (not IPA territory, but a lot for the style). Aggressive fruit hits next - apricots and citrus come to mind - along with a sour mustiness. In Wilco terms, the modest malt background has the innocence of AM, the noticeable spice and ballsy fruit imply the ambition of Summerteeth, and the collective flavor recalls the brilliant-yet-digestible complexity of YHF; there’s also an earthy scrappiness that’s totally the drinkable doppelganger to the shambling drum intro in “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” Plus Matilda at once manages to be heavily sweet and sour creating a tension not unlike that between Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett (RIP). It’s the push/pull that creates a perfectly disjointed balance.

But then Wilco released those last three albums: A Ghost is Born, Sky Blue Sky and Wilco (The Album). They’re all perfectly acceptable, but really they’re kind of boring. So beer-wise we have to take it down a notch. Something simpler, yet assertive to match all these piercing Nils Kline guitar solos. We’ll go with Goose Island’s IPA. It’s straight forward, but still a solid beer. There’s a decent malt background and an incredibly hoppy bitterness (again, Nils) which is all pine and straw. And the Midwest is covered in straw and hay and stuff right, so that’s kind of Wilco-y too.

This is getting too long. So last thing: Matilda’s bottle indicates that the beer’s flavor will continue to develop over five years, so I’m setting one aside to age. If at that point I’m still writing this waste-of-time blog, we’ll do another Wilco comparison and see if they’ve ditched the IPA simplicity.

Goose Island Beer Company
Chicago, IL
Style: Belgian strong pale ale
ABV: 7.0

Goose Island India Pale Ale
Goose Island Beer Company
Chicago, IL
Style: India pale ale
ABV: 5.9

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Samuel Adams Boston Lager/U2

I could’ve gone the obvious route on this one: Guinness. Ireland’s biggest beer meets Ireland’s biggest band. But like most Irish beers, Guinness is humble and light hearted in taste and personality and would never wear yellow tinted goggles indoors as if completely acceptable eye-ware. Guinnnes is smooth like dessert and despite being massively corporate, laughs at life with funny ads featuring toucans balancing pints on their beaks. A better U2 pairing is a beer with an inflated sense of self-importance. Something with a bit more bite. But not that much bite; just enough to claim credibility while not scaring off mass-appeal. I’m thinking Sam Adams Boston Lager.

Of course there’s the Boston Irish connection. And both walk the line between being pompous victims of their own over-exposure and being surprisingly relevant cultural forces that should definitely suck way more than they do. U2 deserves a nod for continually penning solid pop songs, as does The Boston Brewing Company, for – along with Anchor Steam – helping kick start the micro-brew trend in the 1980s.

But then there’s the self-righteousness. Like the “let’s unite the Middle East through the power of pop-rock” stance trademarked by Bono. And there’s something about BBC owner Jim Koch demanding “micro” or “craft” respect when he now runs the largest American-owned brewery in the country that on occasion makes me wish he’d get locked in a fermentation tank somewhere. Plus that’s not even Adams on the label (apparently he wasn’t the handsomest of dudes so they went with Paul Revere instead) and according to Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver’s passive-aggressive Sam-bashing, "[Samuel Adams] was a prominent maltster, though he was not a brewer as is often claimed.” I’m not sure what a “maltster” is but now that I think about it, Koch seems like a nice guy so I take back the thing about locking him in a fermentation tank.

All digs aside, both U2 and Sam are capable of striking indelible connections which secure respect no matter how embarrassing their future efforts or how much eye-liner they wear on the cover of Rolling Stone. Like when you spot Sam on draft at a mostly Anheuser airport bar (there’s nothing wrong with Budweiser but sometimes more flavor calls). Or when the intro to “One” creeps in from the soft-rock station at the supermarket and suddenly rows of breath mint variations, Soap Opera Digests and small mags with titles like “Crock Pot Sensations” seem way less depressing.

But the pairing relies heaviest on flavor. Boston Lager is dominated by toasty malts which give it extra body like Bono’s platform shoes. A slight syrupy quality calls to mind 50% of his lyrics - “I'm just trying to find a decent melody. A song that I can sing” – while the modest hoppy balance is crisp, jangly and lingering like an Edge guitar solo. And the steady nuttiness throughout? Larry Mullen of course, providing a constant beat linking the bitter, hoppy singer with the sweet, malty guitarist.

Beer info:

Samuel Adams Boston Lager
Boston Brewing Company
Boston, MA
Style: Vienna Lager
ABV: 4.75

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Pabst Blue Ribbon/The Hold Steady

If PBR were a movie, it would take place in 1975 and star Harvey Keitel. The same goes for The Hold Steady. These two Midwestern throwbacks are rife with blue collar imagery and subject to working-class fetishism, and both could replace your timing belt in less than a minute. But before we pair, a quick background on everyone’s favorite drinkable badge of low-brow authenticity:

In 1893, Pabst Blue Ribbon – then Pabst Select – was supposedly named America’s best beer at the Chicago World’s Fair. This point is contested, but regardless, at the turn of the 20th Century the Pabst Brewing Company’s signature beer was seriously popular. One prohibition and four major wars later, sales finally started falling and by the by the 1980s PBR was left in the cold-battered hands of a few hard-drinking fat guys in Wisconsin.

Then came the beer’s re-rise, which was far more calculated than it might seem: In 2000 Pabst hired Neal Stewart, a 27 year old marketing manager from Portland, OR who recognized that “alternative people” were beginning to drink PBR. (According to the irrefutably reputable site, Wikipedia, this may have been partly due to avant director David Lynch’s 1986 film Blue Velvet, which featured Dennis Hopper’s character Frank Booth proselytizing the superiority of PBR over Euro import Heineken). Throwing around brainstorms like - I'm speculating here - “Chuck Taylors,” “vintage T’s," and "did you see Ashton Kutcher in that John Deere hat?," Stewart realized that the best sales strategy was none at all, claiming these “alternative people” were averse to overt consumerism and big budget ad campaigns. Which was true - they preferred covertly supporting massive corporate breweries that didn’t spend money on ads. Before long PBR was the beer of choice among a certain scruffy, retro-chic set in boho enclaves like Brooklyn and Portland.

Like PBR, The Hold Steady evoke a hard-working, all-American honesty. And both have - in the last decade - made their way from places where I naively envision everyone in woolen plaid with pockets full of sausage – PBR from Milwaukee; most of THS from Minneapolis – to Brooklyn at the height of the borough’s disaffected appreciation of all things vintage. To the ear, The Hold Steady are PBR set to music; the band's raucous bar-band appeal, gratuitous drinking references and more than a little E Street influence sound best with a blue ribbon chaser. The hard drinking, the bars, the rusty geography. It’s all there.

If there's an obvious critique of The Hold Steady, it's singer Craig Finn’s speak-scream delivery and literary verbosity which annoys the hell out of a significant percentage of my friends and, at times, might seem too complex and grating for PBR. But I'm a fan, and find Finn's one-trick singing style PBR-perfect. Like the singer, the beer has a steady taste throughout: carbonated bread water. But carbonated bread water tied to immigrant achievement, honest laboring and counter culture trend, which is more than most full-flavored beers can claim.

It's embarrassingly cliched, but that first aluminum tingle has me dodging potholes in a brown Ford Pinto, Separation Sunday blaring from an 8-track, trying to find the closest minor league hockey game.

Beer Info:

Pabst Blue Ribbon
Pabst Brewing Company/G. Heileman Brewing Company
Woodbrige Illinois (current headquarters)
Style: American Adjunct Lager
ABV: 4.74%

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rolling Rock Green Light/Taylor Swift

Two Pennsylvanians have never been so light and inoffensive. Take an already light discipline - that is, female country pop - and make it lighter. Not far off from taking one of the lightest, thinnest, measly beers ever produced and making it even measlier (It's technically called Rock Green Light and I'm not ever sure it's still being made, but I recently found a dusty six-pack at my local beer distributor). That’s not to say our subjects are inherently “bad,” or irrelevant. Swift’s sound may have as much country in it as a Kraftwerk snyth line but she – along with Green Light – are far more culturally significant and influential than a self-indulgent blog that compares beer with musicians; they’re just completely innocuous. Like Folgers. Or Tom Brokaw.

Still, Swift and Rolling Rock each deserve a certain amount of respect. The original Rolling Rock beer – that is, the “Pale Lager” - was for most of its life brewed by the Latrobe Brewing Company in Latrobe, PA, smack in the heart of mining country; and therefore – like PBR – has always enjoyed an honest blue-collar credibility. Green Light might be the dilute descendent of the lager but it shares the lineage all the same. Similarly, Swift actually plays guitar, writes the occasional song and – personal taste aside – is pretty good at what she does (Full disclosure: I think I’m developing a spot for that Romeo song), all of which are rarities in her line of work.

But then there’s the downside. Latrobe Brewing Company has been through a dizzying series of corporate transactions, which I imagine is not unlike a long-lived career in Nashville. Without getting too bogged down in details, here’s a summary: Latrobe was started in 1893 in – where else? – Latrobe, Pennsylvania. In 1987 it was purchased by the Canadian Labatt Brewing Company, which itself was purchased in 1995 by the Belgian Interbrew, or, InBev. In May 2006, InBev sold the Rolling Rock brands to Anheuser-Busch and moved production to an AB location in Newark (the original Latrobe facility itself became a corporate hot potato and, oddly, now produces Sam Adams (?)). In July, 2008 InBev bought Anheuser-Busch, thus re-acquiring the Rolling Rock line of beer. I realize this is getting exhausting - but what I’m getting at is that like Rolling Rock, and so many other over-produced pop songstresses, Swift’s career is controlled by dudes in suits. And now on to flavor.

If InBev gave this beer the green light to be painfully boring, it succeeded. I was starting to warm up to Green Light while citing all that blue stuff earlier - but then I tried it again. I’m thinking a chemical analysis would come up “Aquafina with hints of carbon dioxide and piss-toned food dye.” Green Light is low in carbs and alcohol like a pop star’s diet and with only 83 calories offers a similar experience to nibbling on half a Wheat Thin chased by one of those tiny carrots. But I realize this is the point. So again, I’ll set aside personal taste and admit that like Swift’s three-chord candy pop, Green Light does have an endearing – if unchallenging – lightness about it.

And the mysterious number 33 printed on the back of Rolling Rock bottles? Some think it refers to the repeal of prohibition in 1933. Former Latrobe CEO James L. Tito offers another explanation, at one point claiming it refers to the 33 words in the beer's slogan: "Rolling Rock - From the glass lined tanks of Old Latrobe, we tender this premium beer for your enjoyment as a tribute to your good taste. It comes from the mountain springs to you." But this is unbelievably weird and lame so I'm hoping he was lying and the prohibition thing is true. And when applied to Taylor Swift, I suppose 33 could represent three times the age of her average fan, excluding the creepy old dudes of course. And I was just kidding about the Romeo song. I swear.

Beer Info:

Rock Green Light
Latrobe Brewing Company
St. Louis, MO
Style: Light Lager
ABV: 3.7%

Monday, April 6, 2009

Stone Arrogant Bastard Ale/Kanye West

'Nuff said.

Beer info:

Arrogant Bastard Ale
Stone Brewing Company
Escondido, CA
Style: American Strong Ale
ABV: 7.2%