Streamlined now, I returned to action. My kit included nothing but a camera, a notepad, a pen, the tasting glass they loaned me, and the clothes I hoped to still be wearing by the time I reemerged. I made my way confidently back into Nepenthia.
Exotic, hand selected beers waited to be found all throughout the facilities at B. United International in Oxford, Conn. - spread across tables staffed by the men and women who made them. If Steve Inskeep's voice woke me from this dream I was going on a three state rampage.
I crossed the threshold into BU's loading bay and saw lines of colorful bottles adorned with the owl of Hitachino. Toshiyuki Kiuchi, owner and brewmaster of Kiuchi Brewery (makers of Hitachno beers) was gesticulating madly with a broad smile on his face, making himself clear, or at least somewhat understood, to a group of bottle shop reps.
"Never," said one of the Kiuchi workers who had come over from Japan, answering an unheard question. "First time." Well give me some of whatever that is, I thought.
"Whatever" turned out to be a few things. The first, Dai Dai, is a new IPA under the Hitachino name. The name means "citrus" in Japanese, but it also sounds like the word for "big." The IPA is made with mild tardif de bourgogne hops and a kind of Japanese orange whose name translates to "happy camp," the name for the area where they're grown. Dai Dai is very mild: the hop bitterness is quite low, and the citrus notes are subtle. This westernmost of IPAs is almost indistinguishable as a member of the style, but it's delicious.
I tried a sip of the Hitachino Commemorative ale and found prickly carbonation and heavy spices, especially cinnamon, although coriander, nutmeg and orange zest were also in the mix. Definitely a sipper, that one.
"Never," said the rep again. "Only time." I looked over, and he was pointing at what turned out to be the only keg of Kurashizuku sake in the United States. The aluminum cylinder was no bigger than a large watermelon, and the dram which found its way into my glass gave off a distinct anise aroma - hot with alcohol in smell and mouthfeel, but sweet and remarkably smooth in flavor. I don't know much about sake, but I know I like it. I just never know what to order when presented with the opportunity.
I'll have a better idea now after trying the above, as well as Asamurasaki, also from Kiuchi. This "morning purple rice sake" is made from an ancient style of red rice hardly cultivated anymore in Japan but used by Hitachino, as they are wont to do. Behind the gorgeous, almost psychedelic label is a naturally red sake with a more traditional sweet rice aroma, but with an astoundingly exotic taste: it was acidic, with caramel essence smoothing out sour grape notes. How did they do this? Just the rice, they said, and smiled. Toshiyuki Kiuchi's passion for brewing was readily apparent, and not just because he was practically levitating as he spoke, ten feet to my right. Next!
Scandinavians are not known for their effusive emoting. It was surprising, then, that Michael Smed Brogaard, owner and brewmaster of Dansk Mjød, had gone so far as to swipe bottles of Eibecker pils from BU's stocks and mix it, (20% mead to 80% pils) with his Vikingerness Mjød. He enthusiastically poured the concoction from a large pitcher, and explained:
"In Denmark we did not always have very much honey one thousand years ago, so we would mix the mead with beer to stretch it out. We call it the world's oldest cocktail." This name rings especially true since, intentionally or not, Brogaard had been using beer from one of the oldest operating breweries on the planet, Einbecker having been established in Germany some time circa 1370 A.D.
Vikingerness is a metheglin-style mead, which means it has flavors added to it through the use of natural additives; in this case, hops. Vikingerness is strongly sweet, but there is a strange peppery waft to the nose. Dansk Mjød had another metheglin-style on hand: Viking Blod. Just mentioning the name has been known to bleach hair blonde and cause spontaneous beard generation, but drink this amazing elixir and you'll experience not just soft citrus from the hops, but a floral aroma from the added hibiscus flowers which give Blod its pink hue. It's sweet, but less cloyingly so. There is real spice on the tongue from the hops and hibiscus, and each drink ends with a satisfying bite. I had to get moving before the urge to pillage Lindesfarne grew any stronger.
B. United's tanks had sailed to Japan and Denmark, and my next travel (by foot) brought me to the table of Thornbridge County Hall Brewery, from Bakewell, UK. Rob Lovett, head brewmaster, and Simon Webster, COO of Thornbridge we in attendance. I've mentioned Thornbridge's Kipling, which uses the unmistakable Nelson Sauvin hops from New Zealand, in this space before, so I went for their newest IPA, Jaipur. Lovett uses Warrior hops for bittering in this ale, but Cacades, Chinooks, Columbus and Simcoe hops all find their way in at some point in the process. The citrus nature of the hops is huge in the aroma, but there is surprisingly little bitterness to the taste. Beautifully aromatic, but gentle, this is a very pleasant, very accessible IPA. So: let's get weird, shall we?
Thornbridge has taken it on themselves to revive Bracia, and Iron Age Celtic beverage made with cereals and honey, and referred to in an inscription in 11th-century Haddon Hall. Chestnut honey is sourced from Italy to make this brew, which is further made with several dark roasted malts, and even peated barley. It's black in a glass, with a toasty nose, and weighty in mouthfeel, but not overly heavy. There is an odd funk, almost a slight sourness, to the coffee notes which are predominant in this not-quite-beer. Sipping on my portion, I couldn't help wondering if Boudica drank this with her troops before leading them against the conquering Romans.
Speaking of Italians, they were very well represented at Nepenthia. Full disclosure: until recently, I abhorred beer from the country of the boot. I would still rather have an Amstel Light than a Peroni or Moretti. Recently though, the scales have dropped from my eyes.
It began, I think, with My Antonia: a collaboration between Birra Del Borgo and Dogfish Head. Then, at Nepenthia, I spent over half an hour with Valter Loverier, owner and brewmaster of Loverbeer, or Marentino, Italy, near Turin.
Countach! As they say.
Valter is in love with Flemish sours. Fully, deeply, in love - and amore, people, is blessedly infectious. A few examples to illustrate my point:
D'uva Beer is ale brewed with grapes - Valter describes it as having three souls. Grape juice is added to the wort, but the yeast used dies at around 8% alcohol, which leaves some sugar after fermentation. D'uva pours with a riotous fizz, and the sour notes of spontaneous fermentation balance the fruits in the flavor. The process takes a long time to complete, and is partially responsible for the eyebrow-arching price: expect to pay about $15 for a 330mL bottle. Expect, also, to be tremendously upset with yourself for not buying an entire case. [More on how and where to buy all of these later.]
Beer Brugna is Valter's tribute to kriek lambic, but is made with Damascene plums, also known as Damsons (named for the variety's ancestral homelands around Damascus), in place of the cherries in Belgian kriek. Ripe only when fallen, the beer's label depicts a monk looking to the plum tree while a wise farmer gathers the purple fruit from the ground.
Brugna undergoes spontaneous fermentation using wild yeasts, then matured in oak barrels for nine months. The results, say my notes, are goddamn amazing.
Dama Brun-A means "brown lady" in Piedmontese, and Valter said he was inspired to make this brown ale by Shakespeare's Dark Lady sonnet sequence. This young lady matures to nobility entirely in oak: first fermented in vats (slowly, slowly) into which Valter adds caramel and lactobacillus to create a sharp tartness. The resultant beer is then aged in oak barrels, which add a brandy scent to the aroma, to my nose. Smooth and sharp, yet somehow chocolatey, I adored this one.
Darker still is Loverbeer March L'Re, "the sign of ther king." The inspiration for this one came from the seniors of Marentino, Italy, who like to sit at tables in the open air, playing cards and drinking coffee with fernet. March L'Re contains Caffe Vergnano and spices like saffron and gentian. This one is non-carbonated, because Valter wanted to keep the yeast strains pure in this one during the year long period of barrel-aging. Not to thick, not too heavy, with rhubarb adding enticing sour notes to the amazing sweet/sour profile, it is absolutely mind bending to drink a sour imperial stout.
Good god: what else are the Italians doing? Paolo Fontana, a brewmaster at Birreria Le Baladin, was on hand to answer that question. Sort of.
"You start with something good, then you make it easy," is how he described his brewing process to me.
Baladin started with a brewpub in Piozzo, northern Italy, in 1996. They've since moved production to a farm, and currently produce a great many styles, most with Belgian (or Flemish) roots.
Wayan is a Belgian-style saison made with barley, wheat, spelt, rye, hops and nine different spices. It's citrusy with a hint of chamomile to the nose, and predictably makes a great thirst-quencher. There is also a Wayan Sour, in which acid producing lactobacillus had slowly eaten up the sugars and left a biting tartness behind.
Baladin Nora is named for Teo Baladin's wife, who is partially Algerian. Some leap of Italian logic dictated that her beer was to be made in an ancient Egyptian style, more or less, and uses kamut as a grain, with ginger and orange peel in the recipe, along with a very small amount of hops, but for their preservative powers. Any bitterness in the brew is the result of another ingredient, get this:myrrh. There is a strong, almost peppery ginger nose, with lots of cloudy sediment in the glass. The beer is very smooth and slightly spicy, but with a good, malty base.
Downstairs in the zymatore room, I had sampled what they called Piedmont Nora Sour, which had been aged in California zinfandel barrels. The experience was revelatory. There was a brilliant, sparkly nose, redolent with oak tannins, and the beer was quite sour from lactobacillus. Champagne-like, but deeper, this was easily my favorite beer I had all day.
It is my sincere hope the best day I've had in a long time will lead to you having some of the best beers of your life. I asked Jie Yu for help locating these beers are retail, and she told me if anyone has trouble locating any of the above products they can contact her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and she can put you directly in touch with a retailer. In the mean time, here is a preliminary list, per Jie, to help you out.