Home-brewed Beer

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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…

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Vodka with Milk, Vegetable Soup, and Watermelon Juice

Guardian comment V vodka

…so quoth a commenter when the Guardian books first introduced our frivolous little endeavour to the world. And I know of course one shouldn’t read the comments and less still feed the trolls, but I have been looking forward to this post ever since.

Pynchon in Public PodcastAs any true Pynchonite should realise, Pynchondom abounds with dedicated souls who wouldn’t blink at slurping down a vodka and milk for the cause. Two of the most dedicated of all must be the hosts of the marvellous Pynchon in Public Podcast, Chris and Bo. I had the great honour of appearing on their latest episode, where we drank this on air. Chris took the milk, Bo the vegetable soup, and I the watermelon juice. Get yourself over there now and listen, they’ve edited out all my drunken slurping noises, it’s a fun time. Here’s the iTunes. Very excitingly, they’re about to start a season on Gravity’s Rainbow — never a better time to jump aboard there if you haven’t already.

The vodka with milk/soup/watermelon is, as AbsurdistGeographer helpfully explained, drank at the tail end of a party near the beginning of V. It’s a pretty sombre party though. Here’s the passage (p. 18):

They would sit around a table in Teflon’s kitchen: Pig Bodine and Dewey Gland facing them [Paola and Benny] one each like partners at bridge, a vodka bottle in the middle. Nobody would talk except to argue about what they would mix the vodka with next when what they had ran out. That week they tried milk, canned vegetable soup, finally the juice from a dried up piece of watermelon which was all Teflon had left in the refrigerator. Try to squeeze a watermelon into a small tumbler sometime when your reflexes are not so good. It is next to impossible. Picking the seeds out of the vodka proved also to be a problem, and resulted in a growing, mutual ill-will.

We split the drinks up on the podcast, but I couldn’t let the two I didn’t take pass me by entirely. So let’s go, round two, I’m tackling them all again.

Disclaimer: I drank these on seperate evenings. Attempting to drink all three at once may lead to profound unhappiness.

First up: vodka with milk. 

Pynchon Vodka with Milk

I got home from work ready for a beer and instead dropped a shot of vodka in a tall glass of cold milk (just in case my dedication is still in question). It didn’t really taste too horrible, which seemed wrong, so I added more vodka. This did amp up the grossness considerably. It somehow seemed far creamier than just ordinary milk, which combined with the vegetal/metallic vodka edge and slight alcohol burn just got really weird, particularly as you get more than a few sips in. I guess it wasn’t totally awful. A big milk fan could probably dig it. I struggled.

Next: vodka with vegetable soup. 

Vodka with Vegetable Soup Pynchon

Well doesn’t this one just make the other two look like strawberry daiquiris. It’s shudderingly gross. Bo elected out of his own free will to drink it on the podcast (his version is pictured below). I still have lingering guilt over suggesting this particular trio. Thinking that Pig Bodine and co wouldn’t bother with heating, Bo left it cold. I’ve done the same. Cold vegetable soup out of a glass is gross enough to begin with; vodka takes it to a new level of spewiness. As I think Bo found on the podcast, much of the vodka seems to float to the top, being less dense than soup. That means it starts horrible but gets milder and milder. By the time I was eating the last celery and corn out of the glass with a spoon, it was almost enjoyable. Almost.

Bo Pynchon Soup

Last up: vodka with watermelon juice. 
Rotten Watermelon PynchonI drank this one on the podcast, mashing the juice straight out of a fresh watermelon. That wasn’t really fair, seeing as V clearly specifies a “dried up” piece of watermelon, and the hosts were drinking the nastier mixes above. I kept the rest of the watermelon in the fridge though, ready for a crustier reprise here. Probably because I sealed it in tupperware though, it didn’t dry up at all — it turned to soggy mouldy pulp. Yum. Luckily I had one chunk in the freezer, and that defrosted into a flaccid but (crucially) mould-free source of juice. If this fails to follow the letter of the drink as set down in V, it is at least loyal to the spirit of just using whatever you’ve got, whatever particular grossness that might entail.

The result was drinkable, but not wonderful. Just stale watermelon. It looked pretty! Pynchon’s not wrong though, picking the seeds out sure was irritating.

Pynchon Watermelon Vodka

What are you still doing here? Go listen to Pynchon in Public!

Barcelona Beer (Estrella / Moritz)

Pynchon Estrella VIn the epilogue of V., Stencil’s headed off to lunch or something with Maijstral when he’s intercepted by someone who seems to be “a Greek Pope or parish priest.” They abandon Maijstral and proceed down an alley, and the priest pulls off his beard and skull cap, revealing himself as Demivolt, one of Stencil’s spy compadres from Whitehall. Page 469/470 (with a couple paragraphs skipped in the middle):

Demivolt removed the soutane and rolled his paraphernalia in it. Underneath he wore a suit of English tweed. After quickly recombing his hair and twirling his moustache, he looked no different from the Demivolt Stencil had last seen in ’99. Except for more gray in the hair, a few more lines in the face. They took seats at the Cafe Phoenicia, Stencil with his back to the street. Briefly, over Barcelona beer each filled the other in on the two decades between the Vheissu affair and here, voices monotone against the measured frenzy of the street.

V Barcelona Beer PynchonBarcelona beer most likely means Estrella, which has been brewed there since the establishment of the S. A. Damm brewing company in 1876. Estrella is Catalan for star, and is it grasping too desperately at straws if I point out that a star is made up of five little Vs? Yes okay bit over keen maybe. It’s brewed with pearl rice in the mix, a bit like Budweiser. Tastes like Budweiser too, if I’m remembering Bud right. Crisp, bright, sweet, clean. Not real interesting, but pretty good as far as cheap lagers go. If I were a spy sitting in the sun at a Maltese cafe catching up on spy gossip, I’d happily quaff a few Estrella’s.

Pynchon alcohol Moritz SpainUPDATE: Someone conscientiously pointed out to me on twitter that Moritz was another possible Barcelona beer, so I’ve returned to do the responsible thing and sample that too. Moritz is a bit more interesting than Estrella, with a hoppier pilsner flavour and a stronger sweet malt finish. But for a thirst-quenching pleasant cheapish lager, I’d probably prefer the Estrella. Oh and the typographical symbolism plot thickens! That Moritz M sure does resemble two Vs, doesn’t it?

Guinness Stout

Pynchon V GuinnessV. reaches its apex in Chapter 16, in Valetta, Malta, where the crew of the USS Scaffold are “getting liberty.” Stencil and Profane show up later in the chapter, but it starts out with Pappy Hod and Fat Clyde heading ashore amid sun-showers and “even a rainbow.”

They made their way through the dockyard. Around them straggled most of the Scaffold’s liberty section in files and bunches. Submarines too were under wraps: perhaps for secrecy, perhaps for the rain. The quitting time whistle blew and Pappy and Clyde were caught all at once in a torrent of yardbirds: disgorged from earth, vessels and pissoirs, all heading for the gate.

After some assorted drama, they find a pub called the Four Aces.

It was early yet and no-one but a few low-tolerance drunks like Leman were causing any commotion. They sat at a table. “Guinness Stout,” said Pappy and the words fell on Clyde like a nostalgic sandbag. He wanted to say, Pappy it is not the old days and why didn’t you stay on board the Scaffold boat because a boring liberty is better for me than one that hurts, and this hurts more all the time.

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Pappy’s depressed about his wife Paola leaving him. Clyde wants to party and Pappy’s dragging him down. Why Guinness Stout signifies the old days for them isn’t totally clear to me. I guess Clyde would rather be slamming tequila shots or mixing vodka with soup. I can’t say Guinness Stout exactly drops any nostalgia sandbags on me; I’m more familiar with the more typical Guinness Draught. I’ve assumed it’s the Extra Stout Pappy wants, not the Draught. Guinness seems to make a big family of slightly and not so slightly different varieties, almost all of which are stouts. Even the Extra Stout varies widely depending on where in the world you buy it. Mine was 6% alcohol, but Wikipedia says it’s only 4.2 or 4.3% in Ireland and 5% in the US. My guess for Pappy’s choice seems pretty good though, because it says here that Guinness Draught was only introduced in 1959–and Chapter 16 takes place in the early stages of the Suez Crisis in 1956. The Extra Stout is the closest relative of the original.

It’s bitter and dark-roast tasting, more intense than the Draught, but without its characteristic creaminess. Tastes very much like the Cooper’s Best Extra Stout from my part of the world, which I suppose is probably an imitator. Not spectacular, though it is actually the kind of thing I could happily kick off a liberty night of bar crawling with, particularly in the higher alcohol Australian version–but I can understand how Clyde might see it as a grim and dour party-pooper.

Gallo wine with ice

Gallo wine Pynchon V.

After a couple of moody European spirits (oude jenever and absinthe), it seems about time we have something more frivolous. This one definitely fits that bill. It’s pink and light and sweet and totally without bite.

At the start of Chapter Six of V., Profane’s just finished his first day (or actually, night) of alligator hunting in the sewers of New York. Angel and Geronimo and he return to street level at about 5 a.m., and the two of them shove him into a too-small suit to go out celebrating. Fina has sick leave coming up, so she tags along too, and Angel and Geronimo call up Dolores and Pilar, two girls they know.

The six of them started at an after-hours club up near 125th Street, drinking Gallo wine with ice in it. A small group, vibes and rhythm, played listlessly in one corner. These musicians had been to school with Angel, Fina and Geronimo. During the breaks they came over and sat at the table. They were drunk and threw pieces of ice at each other. Everybody talked in Spanish and Profane responded in what Italo-American he’d heard around the house as a kid. There was about 10 per cent communication but nobody cared: Profane was only guest of honor.

EGallo wine pynchon ice cubesarly morning in an after-hours jazz club isn’t the first environment I’d choose for cheap sweet wine with ice. I was thinking more like summer afternoon by the pool. But Pynchon is a wise man, and I think I could actually drink this very happily at a sleepless 6 a.m. (Am I right in assuming jazz club, by the way? I’ve never come across ‘vibes and rhythm’ music before, but I’m imagining this might be an example of the form?) It just goes down so easy.

Gallo are apparently the largest family-owned wine producer in the US, but they don’t export much to Australia. This bottle of White Zinfandel rosé was the only thing of theirs I could find here. I guess we’re already pretty well equipped with cheap drinkable wines. The bottle says it tastes like cherry and watermelon with hints of raspberry; I get plenty of the latter two, no cherry. It’d benefit in my books from a bit of body or bite, but as it is it’s totally pleasant. I’ll recommend it to my mum, and maybe even reach for it again myself should I need something one 5 a.m.

Absinthe with water

From Hemingway’s Papa Doble, on to another drink with a great literary/artistic pedigree: absinthe. We’re all familiar with its green fairy aura of inspired madness and creative self-annihilation. The stuff’s been put away by Baudelaire, Emile Zola, Oscar Wilde, Picasso, Modigliani, etc etc etc. Even more impressively, it gets mentioned in both V. and Gravity’s Rainbow. In V., a not exactly gallant sounding bloke called Ferrante is described as “a drinker of absinthe and destroyer of virginity,” and Signor Mantissa remembers a “blond seamstress in Lyons” who “would drink absinthe at night and torture herself for it in the afternoons.” 

Absinthe Pynchon Gravity's Rainbow

Well and then in GR absinthe gets some even better peripheral press, aboard the fun-filled Anubis

Slothrop looks around and finds Miklos Thanatz, full beard, eyebrows feathering out like trailing edges of hawks’ wings, drinking absinthe out of a souvenir stein on which, in colors made ghastly by the carnivals lights on deck, bony and giggling Death is about the surprise the two lovers in bed. 

And what a Gravity’s Rainbow sentence is that. Crazy looking dude with a whole stein of absinthe, reflecting the wider scene in the lights of the boat while also telling a (highly relevant) inset narrative of Death gleefully interrupting love. Plus then one stein of 70% alcohol isn’t enough:

Thanatz is holding out his stein for a refill. The waiter, deadpan, dribbles water down a spoon to turn the absinthe milky green while Thanatz caresses his buttocks, then moves away.

I went hunting for some milky green of my own at Canvas in Brisbane (highly recommended, if not quite such a temple of hedonism as the Anubis). They had an absinthe/pastis tasting flight on offer (pastis being an anise liqueur with a similar flavour to absinthe). Thanks to another generous benefactor, I sampled a bit (not quite a stein-full) of each of:

  • Ricard Pastis 45%
  • Henri Bardonuin Pastis 45%
  • Koruna Bohemian Absinth 73%
  • Mansinthe 66.6%

This is admittedly a bit of a weird list for an “absinthe” tasting, not actually including any French absinthe. The pastis are French but wormwoodless. The Koruna is Czech–hence the lack of an “e” on “absinth.” Only the Mansinthe is actually absinthe with an “e”, and it’s made by Marilyn Manson. Which explains the inauspicious 66.6% alcohol concentration. Manson’s stuff does seem to be pretty legit though, distilled from the proper herbs in Switzerland with no added sugar. Anyway, those other three are close enough to count too. The waiter warned me that the last two contained wormwood, but “not the crazy cut-your-ear-off van Gogh kind.”

Gravity's Rainbow Absinthe Pynchon

All four of them were very aniseedy, of course. The Ricard Pastis tasted like sweet liquoriche. All the flavours seemed to be arranged really differently in your mouth compared to other spirits I’m more used to. Watery on the front, then getting all syrupy and rich. The Henri Boudin was less sweet, with stronger herbal notes. The Bohemian absinth really upped the ante, in taste as well as alcohol—a sharp rich spike of peppermint up front, plenty of burn filling it out. Complex and kind of invigorating. The Mansinthe was a bit of a mellower take on the same, with some fruity nutty notes too I thought. But less interesting than the Koruna. 

That’s all before the water. After dripping some water from a pretty little jug into each, their flavours changed pretty dramatically. Most acquired smokier notes; the Czech one even had a dark chocolate thing going on. Mansinthe seemed to get more vegetabley. And of course, just as Pynchon writes, their appearance changes too. Each drop of water sends a little smoky mist spiralling through the liquid, and they do turn totally milky with enough water. I forgot to take a photo–which forgetfulness is by the way about the strongest absinthe symptom I experienced. No hallucinations here. 

That milky mist shows up again late in GR, in the Counterforce, when Roger Mexico (one of my favourite GR characters) makes his glorious statistician’s reappearance, raging into Mossmoon’s office trying to rescue Slothrop from Their machine:  

He’s looking into a room of incandescent lemon-lime subdued drastically, almost to the milky point of absinthe-and-water, a room warmer than this tableful of faces really deserves, but perhaps it’s Roger’s entrance that deepens the color a bit now as he runs and jumps up on the polished table, over the polished head of a director of a steel company, skidding 20 feet down the waxed surface to confront the man at the end, who sits with a debonair (well, snotty) smile on his face. “Mossmoon, I’m on to you.” 

Then he relieves himself, of both urine and rage, all over everything. A good note to end on. 

Boilermaker

20140613_211934Whiskey and Alement hides its vast whisky stores and careful beer selection behind a curtained door in a dead pocket of the Melbourne CBD. It’s a Pynchonesque place, in its way. Hardly lit, full of insiders to its secret and outsiders to the surrounding world. Stocked with mysteriously titled–or just numbered–bottles (“Sing along with Julie Andrews”, “Glamping in a yurt”) from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, an organisation that I just get an odd whiff of W.A.S.T.E. about. A perfect room for conspiracy hatching. The perfect place for me to emulate V.’s Roony drinking boilermakers.

Except I’m not actually emulating all that well–Roony’s sitting “at the bar of a neighborhood tavern on Second Avenue,” where “in the corner an Irishman and a Hungarian were yelling at each other over the bowling game.” Sounds like a perhaps less conspiratorial drinking establishment than Whisky and Alement. Anyway, he’s drinking boilermakers, to Rachel’s disapproval:

He ordered another boilermaker.

“Roony, you drink too much,” she said. “I worry about you.”

“Nag, nag, nag.” He smiled.

Despite a less naggy partner in bar crawling, I only had one boilermaker. But a great one it was.

20140613_202616 The menu actually had a selection of boilermakers, and the one I chose was titled “Peat & Pine Needles.” The whisky was the Bunnahabhain 8 year old peated. Google informs me that this is an independent bottling by Gordon & Macphail. The beer was Brooklyn Brewery’s East India Pale Ale.

Now, if you’ve read my Chivas Regal post, you know I don’t reallllly know anything about whisky. I can say I enjoyed this one, and thought it tasted plenty interesting, especially on the aftertaste. But did it have underripe bananas on the nose? Melon and apricot flavours? A milk chocolate edge? No idea. It did seem very nicely spicy to me. And then following a sip with a sip of the beer is just so good. My scribbled notes from the bar say something about how it’s like the whisky spiciness settles back into a cool embrace or a comfy couch or something. It’s a really delicious beer too. Unusually smooth for something so hoppy.

I’ll definitely be heading back to Whisky and Alement for more boilermakers. Next time I’ll follow Roony more closely and have a couple.

 

Update: Boilermakers also get a mention in Inherent Vice, where Doc’s maritime lawyer Sauncho sarcastically offers him one to go with his sob story.