Friday Froth: The Ground Beneath Our Feet

James Gribbon

The swings in temperature lately set me back thinking about the equally wild temperamental capriciousness of the Greek gods. Just as it's not too difficult to convince me to go out for a beer, it only takes a slight hint for my mind to go in a Hellenistic direction, and springtime seems to always provide the nudge. It's a happy accident, then, that I've recently had a few beers fit to tell a tale. 

The Greeks made their gods powerful, but they didn't need them to be infallible. The Olympians were more like people; they had pride which could be swelled or injured, love, hatred, jealousy, sexual appetites, creative instincts and, every once in a while, they'd strike a deal.

One of the most famous of these deals (well, if you're a classical mythology geek) is the story of Hades falling in love with Persephone and opening the Earth to swallow her so she could be his queen in the underworld. Persephone's mother was Demeter, goddess of ripe grain and agriculture, and her grief caused all the plants in the world to die. With no plants the humans and the animals started dying. No one was making sacrifice to the gods, and anyway there was nothing to sacrifice, so Demeter was punishing everyone: robbing the gods of their privilege and humans of their lives. 

Zeus made his brother give up Persephone, but not before Hades tricked her into eating a fruit from the Earth, a pomegranate seed, while she was still in the underworld. This tied her to the place where she would rule at his side for a half the year (making Demeter sad and letting all the plants die) and returning both her and her mother's joy to the world for the half of the year, at which point plants would begin to grow again. And that, class, is why we have the seasons. 

A popular American story of being dragged to hell is that of legendary blues player Robert Johnson, who would have been 102 years old this year, had he stayed this side of Erebus. The idea is that Johnson had gone down to a Mississippi crossroads and done a deal with the devil: his soul in exchange for skill with the guitar and fame as a bluesman. His song "Hellhound On My Tail" helped that mythology to grow, along with "Cross Road Blues," and Johnson's early death at 27 years of age - reportedly from drinking a poisoned bottle of whiskey. Dogfish Head Hellhound On My Ale is an homage to Johnson with a nod to his mentor, Blind Lemon Jefferson. 

Hellhound is a golden, semi-filtered ale with a thick, white head. Dogfish used a huge amount of Centennial hops when making this beer, and the aroma is thick with citrus. Cerberus, the original hellhound, rears his three heads on first sip. First, there is a huge hit of heat from the brew's potent 10%abv., followed by a a super bitter bipartite of hops and lemon zest. Yes, they used actual lemons and zest. The lemon flesh itself shows up as part of a tiny, malty sweetness to the aftertaste, but that sweetness is almost a guilty pittance at this stage - the equivalent of kneeling at the five yard line when you're already up by fifty.

Hellhound has an ultimately dry and (dare I say it) scorching bitterness... we're talking 100 IBUs with this beer. That's more than Green Flash West Coast IPA. Americans stood at the crossroads demanding more IBUs and, in a puff of smoke, Sam Calgione appeared and handed us this. Wish granted and all, we happily quaff, to find our tongues dry. Drink more, and dryness still pervades. Tantalus, buddy: I feel your pain. Dogfish Head provides a handy 'fish finder, if you want to feel it, too.

Crocus, narcissus and other plants are popping now, though, aren't they? Lengthening days and yes, real, live green things are the heralds of spring. Sixpoint brewing has another world for that: Harbinger, the name of their new spring seasonal. Fittingly, with the return of agriculture, Harbinger is a saison - a Belgian-style farmhouse ale - pale gold in color, with tight streams of tiny bubbles. Spring flowers stretch their sunny necks out of this beer and give off the perfume of Belgian yeast, but it's only a shade in the flavor. There's a lot of grain to the mouth to remind you of nature's bounty returning. Amber grain waves with Demeter's smile. Pints come and go like the fluttering pages of the calendar.

Oude Gueuze Tilquin ("A l'ancienne"), from Gueuzerie Tilquin in Rebeqc, Belgium pours a pale, slightly murky amber, with big, white, champagne-like bubbles. The aroma isn't too far off a French bubbly, either - sharp notes from the fermentation shred a mild, fruity sweetness. 

That "Oude" in the name means "old," shorthand for a traditional lambic made by combining a new lambic a year or so old and previous brews from the year before and the year before that. Lambics are made with aged hops to avoid any discernible flavor from them, and wild yeasts: local air is allowed to blow through the brewery and "infect" the wort for fermentation. The result of this mostly uncontrolled Belgian witchcraft are beers that are dry and incredibly tart. The style fell out of favor for, oh sixty years or so, and has been reintroduced by gueuzeries who added sugar substitutes like aspertame to the mix so as not to offend the palates of people who prefer their beer to be less "beer" and more "KoolAid." Reboot ideas that bad usually spring from the calcified mind of George Lucas. Thankfully there are more examples of Oude lambics available now, so pucker up, buttercup.

This Tilquin is immediately sour the instant it washes over the tongue. The tartness is followed by a wave of cider and grapes before washing down cleanly and very dry - the whole operation permeated by the oddest funk from the wild yeasts. Taste and smell are so closely linked, and that taste is almost like a clean horse smells - if that's not too esoteric - but the melange is somehow delicious. The previous sentence may be one of the oddest I've ever typed in this space, but it's absolutely true. 

Oude Gueuze Tilquin is an outstanding chance of pace from both beers and whites or sparkling wines alike, and would probably pair very well with buttery foods, seafood, or an evening's unwelcome sobriety. It's not overly alcoholic at 6.4%, but it should keep - alive, and happily churning away - inside its 375- or 750mL champagne bottle for about a year with no ill effects whatsoever. I found mine at 99 Bottles in Norwalk. 

Thanks for reading.