Italian Beer

DSC_7588.jpgOn page 724 of Against the Day, we find sinister (likely orange-faced tiny-handed) plutocrat Scarsdale Vibe touring northern Italy with his faithful manservant Foley Walker hunting bargains in Renaissance art. The hunt involves regular humiliation for Foley, not a day going by that he doesn’t “find himself carrying out some chore better left to a performing monkey.”

Page 726, though, has Scarsdale doing some of the heavy lifting himself:

At the moment they were out in the lagoon among the Lost Lands, Scarsdale underwater and Foley up in a little steam caorlina fitted for diving. The millionaire, rigged out in rubber hoses and brass helmet, was down inspecting a mural, preserved for centuries beneath the waves by a varnishing technique now lost to history, attributed (dubiously) to Marco Zoppo, and known informally as The Sack of Rome.

This circumstance provides Foley’s subconscious a chance to entertain its urges towards murderous retribution, his hands creeping unbidden towards the nozzles of the air-supply hoses…

DSC_7581Meanwhile, Vibe is having an underwater moment of art-appreciation:

Seen through the brilliant noontide illumination, approached with the dreamy smoothness of a marine predator, the depiction seemed almost three-dimensional, as with Mantegna at his most persuasive. It was of course not just Rome, it was the World, and the World’s end. … Scarsdale was no aesthete, the Cassily Adams rendition of Little Big Horn was fine enough art for him, but he could see right away without the help of hired expertise that this was what you’d call a true masterpiece, and he’d be very surprised indeed if somebody hadn’t already sold reproductions of it to some Italian beer company to use in local saloons over here.

The Little Big Horn painting referred to is the inspiration for a print distributed by Budweiser to bars across America, discussed in fascinating detail here. It seems every people must have their national equivalent to this great saloon mural of mythic foundational violence. Back on page 395, the narrator describes the cantina where Frank kills Sloat thus:

adobe walls, perpetual 4:00 A.M. gloom, abiding fumes of pulque in the room, no Budweiser Little Big Horn panoramas here, instead some crumbling mural of the ancient Aztec foundation story of the eagle and the serpent, here perversely showing the snake coiled around the eagle and just about to dispatch it

So Mexican beer (or pulque) gets snakes eating eagles, Budweiser gets Custer killing Native Americans, and the Italians (Vibe presumes) get the sack of Rome.

DSC_7568.jpgHow is that Italian beer anyway? I have gathered a highly representative and nineteenth century-relevant sample of two mass-produced lagers (Moretti and Menabrea) and two modern craft things (Birra Del Borgo My Antonia and LoverBeer BeerBrugna). None of them feature any sack of rome imagery unfortunately, although the LoverBeer label doesn’t look completely unlike it was copied from an underwater mural.

The Moretti is very pale and very clear, and starts out as a pleasant enough crisp euro lager. But it falls off a muddy cliff on the back palate and as it warms up a bit becomes just a nasty puddle on the floor of a suburban pub. The Menabrea is much nicer, with a pronounced sweet bready nose and a pleasant light biscuity body.

LoverBeer are the only brewery on our lineup from the northern region of Italy that Foley and Vibe are plundering–they’re just outside of Turin, not too far from the French border. Their BeerBrugna is a wild sour ale aged on plums. It’s tart, with a full plummy body, but just isn’t super exciting to me.

Birra del Borgo’s My Antonia blows them all out of the water. It’s a “continually hopped” imperial pilsner, originally made in collaboration with Dogfish Head. Hazy golden with a beautiful fluffy white head. Smells like peaches, and has this incredible soft pillowy mouthfeel. It’s smooth sweet hops throughout — a mix of spicy noble Saaz and fruity American Simcoe, among others. It’s got the inexplicable magic touch that Vibe perceives as genius in his underwater mural.

Coconut Ale

dsc_7353In Chapter Three of Mason & Dixon, the Reverend Cherrycoke narrates the first excursion of our title characters in London. As Mason (“coming the Old London Hand”) inducts Dixon into the cheerful violence and mystery of the city, they encounter a group of sailors in charge of the vessel the pair are to sail on. Under the enthusiastic captaincy of Fender-Belly Bodine, the sailors are plotting to kidnap one Léarned English Dog (LED). Page 21:

“Now,— our plan, is to snatch this Critter, and for you Gents to then keep it in with your own highly guarded Cargo, out of sight of the Master-at-Arms, until we reach a likely Island,—

“Island…” “Snatch…” both Surveyors a bit in a daze.

“I’ve been out more than once to the Indies,— there’s a million islands out there, each more likely than the last, and I tell you a handful of Sailors with their wits about them, and that talking Dog to keep the Savages amused, why, we could be kings.”

“Long life to Kings!” cry several sailors.

“Aye and to Cooch Girls!”

“— and Coconut-Ale!”

“Hold,” cautions Mason. “I’ve heard they eat dogs out there.”

“Wrap ’em in palm leaves,” Dixon solemnly, “and bake ’em on the beach…?”

Happily, the Léarned D. foils the sailors in their kidnapping plot with the help of his present “exhibitors,” and all retire to the Pearl of Sumatra for a drink on Bodine’s tab.

dsc_7372But back to that Coconut Ale, apparently a delight of the Indies! I can’t find much of any information on Indigenous coconut beer in those regions. The sailors may be referring to a type of Palm Wine made from the sap of a coconut tree. But I will take them at their word and stick with a coconut ale.

This Coconut Hiwa is a porter brewed in Hawaii by Maui Brewing Company. It’s made with hand-toasted coconut, and plenty of that comes through. Were I an English sailor encountering such a thing on a sojourn in the East Indies, I would certainly find it a memorable twist on the original style from back home, and a drink well befitting an island king.


Home-brewed Beer

Pynchon fans can get a bit of a bad wrap—all pretentious weirdo dudes with neck-beards. Homebrewers have something of a similar reputation. In both cases of course, reality is far more capacious than the stereotypes. But you might expect some overlap between the two communities. Any other homebrewing Pynchonites out there?

DSC_6501Pynchon’s characters lean towards the grape when it comes to DIY-fermentation. Homemade wine of various kinds shows up in V., Lot 49, Slow Learner, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day. But a little beer does get made too.

When Against the Day‘s Frank Traverse arrives in the hellish Telluride (in the chapter beginning around page 281), well-connected general store proprietor Ellmore Disco takes him lunching at the very popular Lupita’s, a Mexican place where “the menudo can’t be beat” and the homebrew probably ain’t bad either. Page 287:

Clerks and cashiers, birds of the night but newly risen, stockmen down from the valley, Mexican laborers streaked with brickdust, skinners waiting for the train sat alongside Negro newsboys and wives in their best hats, all indiscriminately filling the benches, grabbing and gobbling like miners in a mess hall, or standing waiting either for a seat or for one of the kids working in the kitchen to fill their lunch pails or paper sacks with chicken tortas, venison tamales, Lupita’s widely known brain tacos, bottles of home-brewed beer, sixty-degree wedges of peach pie, so forth, to take along with them.

Add Lupita’s to my list of Top Ten Pynchonian Bars & Restaurants to Visit Before You Die.DSC_6614 (1).jpg

Lupita isn’t the only brewing Against the Dayer either. On page 308, we learn that the tommyknockers also produce some DIY suds. I confess I had no recollection of who or what the tommyknockers were, AtD being swarmed with more forms of life and humanity than I can hold between my ears, but the internet reminds me (here and here) that they are the “little people of the mines,” the “underground spirits who guard the earth’s ores.” Of course. They’re hanging out down a Little Hellkite mineshaft—Page 308:

Not only had the tommyknockers found this sector of the Little Hellkite congenial—in the years since its abandonment they had converted it into a regular damn full-scale Tommyknockers Social Hall. … Those duendes were playing poker and pool here, drinking red whiskey and home-brewed beer, eating food stolen out of miners’ lunch pails as well as the pantries of the unmarrieds’ eating hall, getting into fights, telling tasteless jokes, just as you might find in any recreational club aboveground, any night of the week.

DSC_6587The only other homebrew in Pynchon’s books is way back in V., where a Willem van Wijk “waved a bottle of homemade beer” at Kurt Mondaugen, future Gravity’s Rainbow cast-member. Van Wijk has the right idea—in my experience, homebrew is often better for gesticulating with than drinking. For about the last year, Drunk Pynchonette and I have been fumbling out way towards brewing something halfway palatable. Results have been mixed. We’ve attempted four IPAs, three stouts, a brown ale, and a pale ale, with recipes derived variously from Mikkeller’s Book of Beer, Brew Better Beer, and Brewdog. The best, reassuringly, have been our most recent: two single-hop Ella IPAs. Before those, everything tasted mostly like pond sludge. But drinkable or not, the whole process is a lot of fun.

It’s also excellent preparation for an eventual batch of banana mead, perhaps the true grail (or Slothrop rocket) lurking in the background of this whole endeavour…




Cactus Beer

DSC_5507Around page 82 of Against the Day, we learn a little backstory on Viekko, Webb Traverse’s potato-spirit bootlegging buddy. He and some comrades at one point had been rounded up for miners union activities and dumped in the southern San Juans deep in the middle of the night. They half expect to be executed, but are just left to walk bootless, warned to stay out of Colorado. Page 83:

It turned out they were near an Apache reservation, and the Indians were kind enough to take Veikko and a few others in for a while, not to mention share a bottomless supply of cactus beer. They thought it was funny that white men should act quite so disagreeably toward other whites, treating them indeed almost as if they were Indians, some of them already believing that Colorado, because of its shape, had actually been created as a reservation for whites.

The narrator goes on to mention that Webb has never seen patriotic Veikko raise a glass “that wasn’t dedicated to the fall of the Russian Tsar and his evil viceroy General Bobrikoff.” I’m much enjoying the image of him raising such a toast over a mug of cactus beer on the reservation, tumbleweeds passing.

DSC_5551 (2).jpgMy cactus beer is Otra Vez, a new addition to Sierra Nevada’s core range. It’s a gose with grapefruit and prickly pear cactus fruits. They seem to intend it as a hot-weather smasher, except with character. Gose’s have a bit of salt in the brew, so it’s practically exercise electrolite drink.

It’s a nice pale straw colour. Smells intriguing–sweet and grapefruity with some chewy vegetal thing that I’m telling myself is the cactus. The taste is slightly tart, lots of fruit juice, zero bitterness. Complex though. It tastes like some strange fruit you’re trying for the first time on holidays in a tropical country, proffered by a laughing stranger. I guess perhaps like a prickly pear fruit.

Gose is a traditional German style, so this very likely bears no resemblance to the brew Veikko shares with the Apache tribe. Actually, I think they’re drinking pulque, a beer fermented from the sap of the agave cactus. Pulque comes up several more times in AtD, and you can still get it in Mexico today. In a book with the tremendously AtD-relevant title of Alcohol and Opium in the Old West, the author describes how the Apache and Zuni tribes created the stuff and also introduced it to the Aztecs. So that’s almost certainly the cactus beer they’re getting stuck into. But I shall return to pulque in a future post! For now, this makes a very appropriate fusion of German tradition and the American frontier.

Lambic Beer

I’d hazard a guess Pynchon’s a wine man. The books are littered with specific vintages and vineyards, many of them challenging for the budget of this blog.  (On the other hand, he could just be using a wine-guide like he does those Baedekers.) As something of a beer nerd, I do now and then pine for more hops and grains around here.

In Against the Day, though, we find ourselves in Belgium, and the geeky beers can’t help but break through.

DSC_4414.jpgAfter Kit’s cruise ship, the Stupendica, mysteriously refracts into the SMS Emperor Maximillian, he pauses in Morocco before hopping onto the trawler Fomalhaut, which dumps him in Ostend, Belgium. He’s barely had time to find his land legs before he’s sitting in a café with a beer. No telling whether that one’s a lambic or not, but then a troupe of “unkempt, even seedy” mathematicians tumble in and recognise Kit as a fellow Quaternionist. From page 525:

“Hey there, Kellner! a demi of Lambic for that bloke over there with the seaweed on his suit,” called a cheerfully insane party in a battered skimmer that looked like he’d found it on the beach.

Kit made what he hoped was the universal sign for short funds by pulling out an imaginary pair of trouser pockets and shrugging in apology.

“Not to worry, this week it’s all on the Trinity maths department, they’re wizards at solving biquaternion equations, but show them an expense account and lucky for us their minds go blank.” He introduced himself as Barry Nebulay, from the University of Dublin, space was made, and Kit joined the polyglot gang.

As so often in Pynchon, an isolated character wanders into a bar and finds their isolation quickly dissolved in warm, drunken company.

In this case, the particular solvent is uniquely Belgian. Lambic is a highly unusual type of beer fermented slowly in barrels by a combination of naturally-occurring wild yeasts and bacteria. Complex sour, funky flavours result, with common descriptions including “horse-blanket,” “hay,” and “goaty.” Lambic can be blended to make gueuze, usually a mix of 1-, 2-, and 3-year old batches. Or, by adding cherries to the barrel, you can make a Kriek (Flemish for cherry) lambic. Sometimes it’s also served straight unblended from the barrel. has barrelsful of interesting info on the style if you want to know more.

demi is a half-litre glass in Belgian cafés. But I’m too excited about this one for just a single demi. Instead, I’ve got:

  • Lindemans Gueuze
  • Boon Kriek
  • 3 Fonteinen “Golden Blend” Gueze
  • Boatrocker “Brambic” unblended psuedo-lambic

The top three are real Belgian lambics, while the Boatrocker is an Australian take on the style.

DSC_4469.jpgThe Lindemans Gueuze smells like lemons squeezed over hay, with a bit of basil. Less of the barnyard shows up in the taste — it’s mostly like a lemon drop. Very sweet, not enough funk for my tastes, but still pretty enjoyable. It’s a dessert wine kind of lambic. Lindemans adds stevia as sweetener. They can’t use sugar because the beer is unpasteurised, and the surviving yeast would eat it up and potentially burst the bottle. This sweetening is non-traditional, but overtook much gueuze production in the ’70s and ’80s. Lambic snobs look down on the practice, and the traditional unsweeted style has seen a resurgence in recent years. Nothing else on the menu for today has any sweetening.

DSC_4479.jpgGet a look at the colour on that Boon Oude Kriek. Even the head’s rose-coloured. Gorgeous stuff. Big sour cherry aroma, taste mainly of the same, plus some green apples and hay. None of the sweetness of the Lindemans, just dry and delicious. The acidity’s pretty close to what you’d expect in a white wine, which it could almost pass for if you wanted to trick/convert a beer-hater. I loved it.

Now for the big gun: the 3 Fonteinen Oude Gueuze Golden Blend, apparently one of the best gueuzes there is. I might lack the expertise to properly appreciate this one, but here goes…

DSC_4526.jpgPoured with a BUNCH of head, but that’s settled right down now. The aroma’s apricots, grass, oak, aniseed, and pepper, and pretty much all the other smells as well. Or none of those things. It’s beguiling, indefinable.

It’s occurring to me that the challenge of describing what this tastes like is akin to the challenge of describing what Against the Day (or really any Pynchon book) is like. Weird, complex, a little grass, a hint of booziness, challenging, pretty fruity, confuses the hell out of you and keeps you wanting more, seems to contain within it most of the mysteries of the universe, and is just a big pile of fun.

Gueuze is the Pynchon of beer.

Perhaps like Pynchon and other writing, I could see this stuff ruining me for other beers. Just give me more of that mouth-filling tart apricot funk.


Last up: Australian upstarts Boatrocker with their “Brambic,” in the unenviable position of following the 3 Fonteinen. This one’s unblended, uncarbonated, two years old straight from the barrel. It was a birthday present—thanks Drunk Pynchonette! The aroma is spicy lemon with a little wet-blanket funk. Tastes very dry, citrus and stone-fruit, a bit astringent, with more sourness and more prominent barnyard-type notes than the previous three beers. Difficult, surprising, but somehow entirely elegant—not so much a Pynchon novel as one of his best sentences.

Accept my sincerest apologies if we’ve descended too far into pretentious self-indulgent geekery this time.

Lambic comes up again a bit later in Against the Day, when Kit runs into the mysterious (but who isn’t) Pléiade Lafrisé (page 544):

She was in pale violet peau de soie, and a hat so beguiling that Kit was only momentarily surprised to find himself with an erection. It was still early in the study of these matters, only a few brave pioneers like the Baron von Krafft-Ebing had dared peep into the strange and weirdly twilit country of hat-fetishism—not that Kit noticed stuff like that ordinarily, but it happened actually to be a gray toque of draped velvet, trimmed with antique guipure, and a tall ostrich plume dyed the same shade of violet as her dress. . . .

“This? One finds them in every other midinette’s haunt, literally for sous.”

“Oh. I must’ve been staring. What happened to you the other night?”

“Come. You can buy me a Lambic.”

They head to a “museum of mayonnaise,” and later that night she tries to kill him. Maybe he didn’t buy her a nice enough lambic.

Small Beer

Pynchon Small BeerAmong the many pieces of historical, gustatory, and alcoholic miscellanea we can gather from the pages of Mason & Dixon, the early birth and long-life of the mutual incomprehension customary between British and American beer drinkers is one I particularly enjoy. Yanks find British beer dank and warm, Poms find the US stuff fizzy and insipid, and apparently it has ever been thus. Here’s Dixon offering to buy a round on page 569:

“Eeh, lo, thy Jack’s empty…? Can’t have thah’, allow me, all who’re dry, no problem, Mr. McClean shall enter each into his Ledger, and in the fullness of Time will all be repaid,— aye then, here they come! how canny, with those greeaht Foahm Tops on ’em, what do tha call thah’?”

“That is a ‘Head,'” Blackie quizzickal. “They don’t have that, back wherever you’re from? What kind o’ Ale-drinker are you then, Sir?”

“Shall we quarrel, after all?”

“Innocent question,” Blackie looking about for support.

“Very well, as tha did ask,— I’m a faithful and traditional Ale-Drinker, sir, who does thee a courtesy in even swallowing this pale, hopp’d-up, water’d down imitation of Small Beer.”

“Far preferable,” replies Blackie, “— even if sladerously and vilely untrue,— to that black, sluggish, treacly substitute for Naval Tar, Sir, no offense meant, that they swill down over in England?” with a look that would have been meaningful, could it get much beyond a common Glower.

After which point, unexpectedly, both find the forgiveness in their hearts and the broadness in their palates to appreciate each other’s ales after all. They pull back from the precipice of this argument and join in another comradely American Pint.

As an aside, when I first read Mason & Dixon the 18th century-ish language seemed forbidding at first but quickly came to feel familiar and comfortable. But transcribing bits of it really dispels the illusion that this kind of writing could ever come easily–the effort that must have gone into making such strange sentences read so easily must have been phenomenal. And they don’t just read easily, they spark incredibly into life. The layers of phonetic accents and mock (?) 18th century weirdness somehow result not in abstract postmodern textual artefact or overblown monstrosity but in a Jeremiah Dixon so real and human you can just about smell the beer on his breath.

Small Beer Mason & DixonSmall Beer, the particular British style Jeremiah denigrates the American specimen in relation to, was a lower-alcohol beer that was often brewed from the second runnings of wort when making a stronger beer. Workers would drink it through the day, children at festivals. The beer I have here is quite literally a “hopp’d-up imitation” of such a style. It’s the Small Ale from Colonial Brewing Co in Margaret River, Western Australia, a pale ale with grassy and citrusy hops, suprisingly flavourful for its 3.5% abv. The Foahm Top is decent if perhaps not greeaht. I don’t love it, would rather go straight to something stronger. But if Mr Dixon happened around, I guess this wouldn’t be the worst representation of Australian beer he could try. No doubt we could have a most convivial time over a few pints of it.

Spruce Beer

Long time no post! I’ve well and truly finished Against the Day (gaze upon the list and tremble), but this one’s actually from Mason & Dixon. It’s just been sitting in my fridge too long.

Spruce Beer Pynchon

Spruce beer is a not-always-alcoholic beverage brewed with buds or needles from spruce trees. Wikipedia reckons it was first drank by Indigenous groups in North America, who put European sailors onto the stuff. It appears in the 1796 edition of American Cookerywhere it’s made from spruce, hops, and mollasses fermented with the “emptins” or leftover yeasty sediment of a previous brew.

In M&D, it’s a local specialty of the Maryland/Chesapeake area. Reverend Cherrycoke’s travelling to Philadelphia (to act as chaplain for Mason and Dixon’s expedition) in a TARDIS-like coach with a small assortment of strangers. They don’t stay strangers long, and one woman relates the wonderful story of how her husband almost drowned in a hop kiln (p. 358: “they could only see his hand above the cones, releasing their dust and terrible fumes as his struggling broke them”) and found it a transformative spiritual experience. They get into a heated discussion of Maryland property laws, which not everyone appreciates. From page 360:

“Why,” Mrs. Edgewise demands to know, “must this subject rouse quite so much Passion?”

The Purveyor of Delusion confers upon his wife a certain expression or twist of Phiz I daresay as old as Holy Scripture,— a lengthy range of Sentiment, all comprest into a single melancholick swing of the eyes. From some personal stowage he produces another Flask, containing, not the Spruce Beer ubiquitous in these parts, but that favor’d stupefacient of the jump’d-up tradesman, French claret,— and without offering it to anyone else, including his Wife, begins to drink.

Spruce Beer Mason & DixonThe French claret will have to wait for another day; I’ve got Spruce beer. Drunk Pynchonette noticed it in a bottle shop when we weren’t even looking. And in honour of Dixon, this one’s not from Maryland but Scotland. It’s the Alba Scots Pine Ale.

The nose is bready and yeasty with fruity barleywine notes. HEAPS of sediment hanging in suspension. Tastes like a barleywine, alcohol and raisins and berries, with a chewy stickiness and some yeasty notes softening it out. There’s no real bitterness, but it is kind of spicy on the back. I can’t personally say where exactly the spruce sits in that mix. There’s a lot going on. I’m getting some what I want to call sap-like flavours as I get further in, but that could be entirely down to my increasingly drunk imagination. Weird beer. Fascinating beer. Thanks Pynchon.