The Curiograph - Art, Politics, Craft Beer - A Compendium of Worldly Facts

Art, Film, Literature. Politics and History. And most Importantly: Beer. Paul Deines informs and opines on Marvel and Pasolini, Obama and Edmund Burke, Coors Light and Westvleteren 12. A top to bottom exploration of all that is necessary in life. A Compendium of Worldly Facts

IMBIBLIOGRAPHY - Two Bad Beers

Two Bad Beers - Banner.JPG

by Paul Deines

I’m going to take the long way around here.

The last couple weeks have been replete (and rightly so) with remembrances of too-soon-late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and what is amazing is the collective realization that the man did not have a bad performance. He was in bad movies, yes, but in them he always did good work. And always peripheral to the discussion of Hoffman the actor is the discussion of his theatrical work. Critics and commentators have praised his Broadway turns in True West, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Death of a Salesman, but no one is talking about his 2009 performance as Iago in the Public Theater’s Othello. It was not good, and it was the performance of his I saw.

Playing opposite John Ortiz and Jessica Chastain, Hoffman was marooned in a directionless four-hour, high-concept production. It was a mess, addressing none of the mysteries[1] in Shakespeare’s haunting tragedy. The only illumination this Othello offered was the root of Iago’s rage. Hoffman embodied not a psychopath or a virulent racist but a man coming to terms with his failure. His Iago idolized Othello and wants to be his partner, but circumstances left him carrying Desdemona’s luggage. The performance was not great, though. Hoffman ignored every moment of levity, of treacherous glee, of deviousness. What replaced them were unprompted fits of moping and uncontrolled rage, making me wonder why anyone would believe his lies.

Still, I’m happy I saw this performance, which has to rank among Hoffman’s worst. It was incomplete and off-key, but it retained the best components of his work. Like a mineral broken down to its components in a crucible[2], the wonder of Hoffman’s gift shone through in this inferno of misguided conceptual choices.

What does this have to do with beer, though?

I’ll admit the intense desire to say something about this great actor, but there is a connection. See, my first post on The Curiograph was about the much-beloved Trappist quad Westvleteren 12, and I stated then that the way we decide something is the best says more about our culture than about the object itself. Well, the same can be said of the worst.

I love reading the worst of the year lists movie critics put out at the end of the year. I’m easily distracted by stories about singular failure, like the worst kicker in NFL history. In 2009, I definitely followed the near-universal pan of Hoffman’s Iago. I’m captivated when everyone collectively retches at some creative work like Kanye West’s atrocious “Bound 2” video[3]. The reason is that – call me a misanthrope – I think our culture, American culture, has pretty bad taste. We’re easily duped by charlatans and hucksters. So when something is below our collective sensibilities … well, that must be something, right?

[1] Director Peter Sellars neutralized the racial dynamic by casting actors of difference races in various roles, the idea being to create a post-Obama Othello. It left me confused as to why a white man who is married to a black woman would spew anti-black invective against a Hispanic man. Sellars also tossed in some pointless plot contrivances (ie: Emilia is sleeping with Othello) to further muddy the thematic waters.

 

[2] Christ, how good would Hoffman’s Proctor have been?

 

[3] Which bordered on crazy-making for me. “Bound 2” is a killer song from a massive album, and reason enough to approve of Kanye's marriage to Kim. That ridiculous video capped (or maybe knee-capped) several weeks of increasingly awesome live performances of that song by West. Check the best one here.

So, I want to discuss two craft beers today, and I don’t want to be unfair to them, their brewers, or the talented people who put hard work into them. In general, I don’t write about what I dislike on this site. Mind you, I feel okay about swiping against the product of a massive film studio, more so than I do pissing on a small, independent brewery. Still, I was drawn to these beers because of the level of vitriol lobbed against them in the community. These beers are not good; no doubt about it. But the reaction craft consumers had to them says something about what people who value their good taste will and will not tolerate. And what the breaking point for our patience is.


I was in Vienna, VA, just outside of Washington, DC, to meet my new niece and spend the weekend with the Deines clan. Even for short trips, I have acute travel anxiety, so rather than take Amtrak I tend to drive a rental down from Brooklyn. Assert control over the process. So, I had a trunk, and my inclination when I have one of those is to fill it with beer I can’t get in New York. For Washington trips, I mostly stock up on DC Brau and Bell's[4], but at a Total Wine on my way out of town, I saw a display case packed with gaudy pink bombers. I shudder to think of the excellent options I bypassed to grab one of these Pepto-Bismol-looking bastards. I’d heard tell of this ill-considered concoction from Oregon’s Rogue Ales: it was the Voodoo Doughnut Bacon Maple Ale, a smoked ale brewed with – that’s right – bacon and maple flavoring[5]. Word around the campfire was that it is borderline undrinkable, and that seemed reason enough to grab one.

It can be hard to choose a time to drink a supposedly great beer. You want the company, the setting, the state of mind to match the potentially sublime experience. A fine ale can sit in my closet or my fridge for months before I get the gumption to crack it. The same was true of this bright fuchsia bomber, that’s reputation was far from great. I couldn’t bring myself to open it around either other beer people (who knew better) or the uninitiated (fearing it would turn them off craft brews). I pulled this particular band-aid in August, in the company only of my girlfriend, who gives precisely no fucks about the beer I drink (but loves that it makes me happy). As with your Cantillons, your Zombie Dusts, or your Westvleterens, I was nervous it wouldn’t live up to its rep.

 

 

 

[4]No longer, though, will I have to hoard Bell's on these trips. Two-Hearted has come to the 212!

 

[5] The Voodoo part refers to Portland’s famous Voodoo Doughnut, which has a famous Bacon Maple Bar and a creepy mascot that adorns the bottle.

Voodoo Doughnut - Paul Deines.JPG

Voodoo Doughnut pours ruby amber with a thick rocky head. There’s a nice clarity to it: it’s a fine-looking beer. I wasn’t looking at some tepid, murky concoction. The nose was hickory-wood smoky (to be expected) and a level of maple so sweet it stung the nostril. I’ve read comparisons to an old grill covered in syrup. That is probably too harsh, but things were looking less bright after a whiff.

Then I drank it.

I’m not going to say this was a PTSD-inducing experience (though many have). More than anything, it’s just weird. My tasting notes begin with the words “maple, caramel, brown sugar…” then I give up. It’s just really sugary, like a cream soda, followed by abrasive beechwood smokiness. There’s a slight tang for hops, but they seem incidental. This doesn’t taste like a beer, even a sweet experiment beer. It doesn’t taste like a doughnut, either. Or bacon. It tastes a little like maple syrup, but really it seems like what a maple-flavored child’s cough medicine would taste like.

But let’s back up a second. Rogue Voodoo Doughnut is gimmicky and poorly calibrated. It’s not a human rights violation, though; no one needs to be taken to The Hague over it. Yet, beginning with a Willamette Week pan and expanding from there, this ale became a “furry”-level internet whipping boy. People just straight glee-hated this shit.

See, there was something cathartic about the beer-drinking community’s reaction to Voodoo Doughnut. It reminds me of something Stephen Bach says in the documentary Final Cut, discussing the cinematic boondoggle Heaven’s Gate. He says that critics felt they had been too nice to director Michael Cimino after his Oscar-winning second feature The Deer Hunter. The slow death of his follow-up, Heaven’s Gate, was their chance to even things out.

In the late nineties and early aughts, Rogue was a oft-times contender and luminary in the creative craft beer movement. Take a trip in the Way Back Machine to 2002 and you’ll see Rogue’s very tasty Shakespeare Stout in the Beer Advocate Top 10. Today, that would be unimaginable. I doubt any craft brewery has suffered such a precipitous fall in public estimation. In the last ten years, the web’s been rife with bad press, from allegations of anti-union intimidation to a much-mocked job posting. The company has a penchant for man-the-barricades propagandizing that resembles nothing so much as a high school junior who just read his first Howard Zinn[5], which seems at odds with its Starbuckian franchising and acquisitions. None of this would matter to the beer-drinking community, though, if Rogue was still producing a product people want.

In 2011, the release of Voodoo Maple Bacon Doughnut was a confluence of all this aggravation. Massively hyped by the company, which initially instituted a mystifying edict that the beer could only be purchased by the case[6], the ale never stood a chance. The release seems today like the breaking point for many beer geeks, and Rogue Ales has become totally marginalized while its erstwhile contemporaries – Dogfish Head, Stone – took up their market share. In 2005, I was working at a regional theatre in central Florida and just getting into craft with some fellow interns. We used to save up to split a Rogue bomber at the local beer bar; today, I couldn’t tell you the last Rogue offering I had. Except – oh, wait – the infamous Maple Bacon Ale.

 

 

 

[5] Or, given the anti-union reputation of the company, maybe that should be Ayn Rand. Incidentally, by contrast, Jeff Kimmich of The Alchemist, just spoke before the Vermont state legislature in favor of universal paid sick leave.

[6] The cost per case still worked out to $13/bottle. Obviously, following the backlash, this policy evaporated. Even today, I can tell you a few spots in Brooklyn with leftover bombers.


Frangelic Mountain Brown from Founders Brewing was not released to a populace primed to hate it. It was the fourth release in Founders’ always-hyped Backstage Series, one-off bottlings of innovative ales popular at the Grand Rapids Taproom. Prior to Frangelic’s Summer 2011 drop, the brewery had bottled an imperialized raspberry ale and a barrel-aged old ale.

Oh, and they’d also released a stout that many consider to be the best American beer ever produced. That would be CBS (Canadian Breakfast Stout) a viscous black coffee-chocolate brew aged in bourbon barrels that were previously used to age maple syrup. CBS is a monstrous baroque excursion. The bottle I enjoyed was something like falling asleep in a humidor flooded with chocolate. It was incredibly sweet, but not cloying. Smoky and oaky, singed but not burnt. It warms you from the belly to the crown.

So that’s the standard by which all subsequent Backstage offerings have been judged, and this becomes problematic for the public. It’s not fair to compare every beer to its brewer’s best product, but these limited edition Backstage bombers are not cheap. More than that, the series is not as innovative as, say, Lips of Faith from New Belgium. There’s a lot of barrel-aging and gimmicky ingredients, and the result can be, literally, weak sauce. Still, Frangelic Mountain Brown was a particular letdown.

To begin with, the Nut Brown Ale is not a particularly adored style in the beer-drinking world. Not as flavorful as a stout or a porter, it nonetheless is supposed to hew toward the roasty and rich. I’ve had a couple of tasty ones: the one that leaps to mind is Hill Farmstead’s George, which was astonishingly rich and creamy while still easy drinkable. Alesmith also makes a fine one. Newcastle’s is probably the most famous one out there. Anyway, it’s sort of a squishy style, and not really anyone’s favorite.

Then there’s the dubious proposition of hazelnut coffee, which Founders used in Frangelic Mountain. The craft brewing movement sits adjacent to the natural foods movement, and there is nothing natural about flavored coffees. Most times, a flavored blend is simply a low-quality bean coated with abrasive artificial flavoring after its ground[7]. If you’ve ever spilled a bottle of hazelnut syrup, you know how long it takes to get rid of the smell. My junior-year college apartment probably still smells like old Nutella after a broken syrup bottle from 2003. So any beer brewed with hazelnut coffee is introducing a dicey chemical element. Still, people love Founders. Everyone wanted Frangelic Mountain Brown to succeed.

I found my bottle a few months after its release in neighborhood bodega-turned-secret-bottle-shop. The enterprising young gentlemen who run the place charge a premium for rarity[8], but I was curious, so …

 

 

[7] In fact, many Whole Foods locations refused to stock the beer on account of the inclusion of artificial flavoring.

 

[8] You’d be disgusted to learn what they ask for a bottle of KBS.

Photo by Robert Caputo (I might have forgotten to photograph this beer)

Photo by Robert Caputo (I might have forgotten to photograph this beer)

The ale settled into the snifter a glacine ruby-rimmed brown with a rocky, airy head. Before I even put my nose to the rim I could smell the hazelnut. A bold smell is not always bad (the smoke and chocolate of CBS smacked you in the face) but it didn’t bode well here, considering I knew there were no real hazelnuts used in the the mash, the boil, or the fermentation. A little closer to the glass, I got some toasted marshmallow, cocoa, and buttered popcorn. The sweetness of this beer was off-putting, edging into sourness. That first sip further sank my heart. A watery light mouthfeel paired with a sort of loose bundle of flavors: malted milk, toffee, and light coffee like an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts. Heaven knows where the purported 9% ABV was in all this. Is that an asparagus note?

Hold on a moment. I’m being pretty hard on this beer. I need to take a step back and mention that we finished Frangelic Mountain. Drank the whole bottle. This definitely did not happen with Voodoo Doughnut. Every element of Founders’ Brown Ale was underwhelming, but nothing was repulsive. That’s probably faint praise, but it’s important. The brewer put out a less-than-spellbinding beer, but it’s drinkable. I just compared it to an iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts, but guess what: I enjoy the occasional iced coffee from Dunkin Donuts. Health-wise, it’s fucking awful for me, and there’s nothing excellent about it, but the combination of watery coffee, skim milk, ice and caramel sauce is delightful. In the right setting, Frangelic Mountain Brown might be a delicious accompaniment[10].

Of course, internet criticism is never measured. Frangelic Mountain Brown began the thrice-yearly onslaught of Backstage-hate that meets each release, but the reaction against it – like the resounding “meh” that met last year’s Mango Magnifico – is a bit sadder than the bile for Voodoo Doughnut. Those who posted negative reviews and carped on the message boards wanted to like it. Like me, they leap on any Backstage release, hopeful for another CBS.

[10] Okay, let me think about it … pork buns. I think that would be a good pairing, with the Brown Ale substituting for a Vietnamese bubble tea. Someone out there send me another bottle of Frangelic Mountain so I can test this theory.

But, you know what – I’ve got respect for Frangelic Mountain Brown. It’s an unloved style, incorporating a dubious ingredient, and it doesn’t totally work. Yet it has its charms. Drinkers can’t demand that brewers just add an extra stage of dry-hopping to their Double IPA or toss their stouts in a bourbon barrel. Every limited release beer can’t be coffee-chocolaty or juicy bitter. We should expect quality, yes, and that our good taste be respected, but there’s a difference between demanding quality and demanding that we love every beer.

Really, the problem here is demand. These limited releases[11] always spur a frenzy to stock up before they disappear from shelves; so, you’re forced to snag a couple bombers fast and hope you like what’s inside. Or alternately, you could just drop out and hope you’re not missing something great. The Public Theater’s Othello sold out months before the first abysmal reviews. My recommendation is to sign on and be happy for the experience, even if it’s a bad one. A bad Hoffman performance and a subpar Founders beer are both still things of beauty.


[11] Incidentally, Founders has more than great limited releases.CBS and  KBS are delicious, yes, but some of my favorite year-round and seasonal beers come from Founders: All Day IPA, Centennial IPA, Rubaeus, Breakfast Stout, Dirty Bastard, Backwoods Bastard, and their Porter. Get them all. Now.