As far as I can make out Hungarian social culture is much like Russian social culture. It may also be a pan-European thing that when you socialize you should be prepared to devote a lot of time. I still remember visiting with one family at their place in the Buda Hills. She spoke some English. He spoke some French. She did a lot more of the actual hosting and food preparation. Of course, like most things Hungarian, it was dawn to dusk. They insisted that we arrive as early as possible. They would pick us up at the bus depot at 8 am. We started drinking early at a restaurant along the way to their house. When we arrived at the house itself, there was Pálinka (which is a sort of brandy). There were promises of food, and a series of snacks were offered while we waited and drank and blathered. The main dishes though kept getting put off. There was a kind of stew that usually simmers in a cauldron (bogrács) on a fire in the yard. It was of wild boar. Finally around 10 pm we suggested that we had to get home amid protestations. I think the main supper courses were still in the preparation stages. It took forever to get home. We had been drunk all day.
There is a passage in a biographical piece in a recent New Yorker about a writer named Frayn (who is British) who had a long and somewhat ambivalent relationship with Russian culture and Russian writing. And I have to say that there is a lot of similarity in what he describes of Russian social life and what I've experienced of the Hungarian equivalent. Anyway, there's a section in in this piece about the aspects of Russian culture that this guy Frayn found were at odds with his own personality:
Russians are maximalists. Russian friendship has always been a very demanding concept, particularly in Soviet times. If you were admitted to someone's circle as a friend, you were expected to give up anything, really, as the Russians did for each other. If you had some money and your friend wanted to borrow it, you gave it to him. You had to be prepared to devote whole days to seeing people. Well, there are some English people who can cope with that, some who like it, but I can't say I ever have. I take a view of friendship as something that doesn't make those kinds of demands on you.(New Yorker, Oct. 25, 2004 at p. 64.)There are aspects of Hungarian social life that are like this. And, like Frayn, I just don't have the time to devote to this kind of life. Maybe if I were single and a had a nine to five job and no kids, but not with two kids etc. etc. there's really no way. So we have to beg off a lot on the social thing. On the other hand, in a way it's easier to observe when you're not totally immersed in the culture. Here are some photos of various wine beer and hard liquor emporiums (taken from the outside) to give you a more concrete idea of the drinking communities here. Please click on each photo for a much larger view.
The first picture, above left, is of a little hole in the wall basement 'borozo' or wine bar. It's pretty skanky as most of these places are and the wine is not brilliant. However, these kinds of bars are everywhere. This particular bar is near our place on a street called 'forget-me-not.' Easy to remember. So if you're prone to binge drinking in neighborhoods not your own and happen to leave your keys on the counter maybe the name could come in handy. Or it could just be one of life's little ironies that you left your wallet, your soul and passport in a bar on forget-me-not street. The next shot, above right, is of forget-me-not street itself.
Above left is a bar at the end of the same block. You can see the street name on the side of the bar under the 'Eszpresszo' sign (Nefelejcs utca - utca being street). Above right is the Piroska restaurant (pronounced Pee Roshka, "vendéglő" being restaurant or diner). Piroska (Rosy) is also the name used for Little Red Riding Hood. So the restaurant is sort of named Rosy's Diner. A lot of people hang out there and/or go out for beer at such places.
One of Budapest's grand boulevards called Andrássy ut is above left. To the right is of an intersection called Oktogon. If you look closely on the right side of the photo on top of one of the buildings there is a McDonald's M above the Burger King sign (of course). Americanization exists here, but it's not as serious or as high pressure as (or so I've heard) in Prague.
Above left is one of the more common forms of snack shack - a little sandwich and drinks stand where you can get wine or beer in a cup. In fact, there is a sign above and to the right of the boy's head that says hot wine - 80 forints (about 50 cents). These snack stands are very common in the subways. The last is a shot of a beer bar 'söröző' called Niagara. It is named after Niagara Falls, Canada mainly because it's part of a mall that was built by Trimark, a Canadian investment company, which features at least one but probably several prominent Canadians. In fact my husband calls the mall the Brian Mulroney Memorial Mall because Mulroney, Canada's last Conservative Prime Minister, had a hand in making this particular business venture happen. Alas, the 'memorial' part is just an anticipatory flourish.
A kind correspondent, Garrick Van Buren, has invited us to listen to the podcast he created which includes a discussion of Belgian trappist beers and other brews of note. Here is the link. I haven't listened yet bit any discussion including Westvleteren which also comes with an intro from Tod Maffin, Canada's nicest futurist©, had got to be good.
Duval, Delirium Tremens, Piraat
Categorizing Belgian strong ales can be a bit of a mug's game but I am going to try to distinguish between golden stongs, dark stongs, triples and dubbles over the next few weeks by finally taking apart a small collection I have gathered over the past months. Today, the smallest of the groupings will go with a little freezing rain outside and a reciprocity of NFL from the sofa inside. Pierre Rajotte in Belgian Ale collects golden strongs and dark strongs as "special ales" as a convenience, a way to make sense of the Belgian brewers' sense of invention and the consumer's appreciation of it. At page 35 he writes:
In this category you will usually encounter hoppy beers. However, what the Belgians call a hoppy beer is not quite the same as what a North American would call a hoppy beer. To Belgians, hoppiness is more subtle and more refined. Traditional American brewing aromatic hops such as Cascade are unknown. Belgian brewers use generous amounds of low bitterness varieties such as Saaz, Hallertaur, or Styrian. This gives a generous hoppy and spicy aroma without the accompanying bitterness.From my recollections of homebrewing, one thing the Belgians might also do is age their hops to dissipate most of the acids which cause the bitterness, giving a richer rather than sharp or green hop effect. All in all just the thing for a winter's day.
- Piraat: Whisky hot at 10.5%. The pour leaves a fine white light foam head. The colour is medium straw and cloudy what with the swirl of real yeast at the bottom of the bottle. The taste is sugary mousse with a fine pale malt seam running through the middle, empire biscuit faintness of cherry. Quite juicy despite the sugar levels. The hops are subdued by spicy, with perhaps a bit of corriander, their aroma sitting below the smell of cotton candy. Not very complex but a treat given the utter disappointment with this brewer's pathetic amber. The Advocatonians approve.
- Delirium Tremens: At 8.7% this beer is noticably lighter than Piraat - which is saying something about how hot Piraat drinks. A lighter shade of straw, the head fades quickly. The nose is spicier with less of the cotton candy smell of Belgian candi sugar, a crystallized sugar 100% fermentable sucrose that is used to lighten body and raise alcohol. The taste is more malty with a nice citrus tone from the hops which also provide background spice - maybe some corriander and white pepper as well. The brewer, Brouwerji Huyghe, founded in 1654, makes some really delicious low alcohol summer beers under the name Florisgaarden and this is an honourable corresponding expression of a winter's ale. Like Piraat, the weight is not as great as the alcohol might make you imagine but this beer is more flavourful and somehow moreish, not something I thought I would think with this sort of ale. Quite a fresh finish. Towards the end of the glass, I am loving the green apple and vanilla flavours. Very fine ale. BAers approve greatly.
- Duvel: a snow white souffle of a head explodes from the bottle - be prepared. The smell is of orange-lemon icing. At 8.5% it is the lightest in strength as well as colour. The subtleties of differeence between this and the other two strong ales I have reviewed this afternoon are a bit of a challenge as this one has a little less complexity than the Delirium Tremens and a little less heat of the Piraat but otherwise they are very close. One the mouth, there is some orange peel and a milky rather than creamy effect from the yeast. If the Delirium Tremens has a hint of green apple, this is more like gold delicious - less acidic and sweeter. The hops are the most subdued and it is the least malty - finesse. Lots of lacing are left in the glass and a decent foam remains at the end when I might be tasting passion-fruit and maybe faintness of nutmeg. If you are into such things, as dedicated a website or actually websites as I have ever seen to one brand in a brewery's range. The history page alone is worth the time. Big ups from the BAs.
This very fine Belgium beer is a dark amber colour, with a creamy head. It has a malty, slightly sweet toffee flavour with only a slight bitter aftertaste. Callard & Bowsers in a bottle ! Very moreish. Don't be put off by the name. No sediment. 5.0%. As good, if not better than Innis & Gunn!Saison is one of those styles you do not hear about every day. Pierre Rajotte in his 1992 book Belgian Ale indicates that saisons and Belgian ales can all be compared but that saisons may have an note of acidity about them and are certainly less hoppy than a British pale ale. The first sip, he writes, "fills your mouth with mellow, fruity, smoothness." Michael Jackson in the 1977 edition of his book The World Guide to Beers states that saisons are from southern Belgium, French Walloonia and that they are yeastier when compared to hoppier English pale ales on one hand and the clean malt profile of a German alt beer. Worth discovering.
I had such high hopes for this post, comparing four of the brews in the South Burlington Vermont's Magic Hat Winter mixed 12 pack. Then the holidays hit, then the guests arrived, then the defence of the bottles began. Right now I have maybe 30 singles of beer stuck away for later comment at a measured pace. Enough to get me into February easy - as long as I can keep the hands of others off of them. Eleven of the Magic Hats were sacrificed to that cause. All except one of their porters named Ravell.
Porter has become one of my favorite styles, if only due to the uncertainly brewers have facing the problem of what it is supposed to taste like. Porter was one of the earliest industrial products and led to a capacity war from say 1790s to 1820s London which had a great effect on mass production of other goods as well as the local production of beer. By the mid-1800s, it had been replaced by other beers due to two discoveries - lagering and true pale malting. As always, when technologies change, tastes shift and the demand for this dark and sharp style faded to be replaced for a while by mild in England, followed by pale ales and then by the ubiquitous industrial lager-pop most drink today.
Due to the trade secrecy surrounding brewing, there is not a great deal of information about what porter actually tasted like in its heyday. Was the yeast sour or mellow? Were the hops or roast malt more pronounced? Approaching opening a porter like Magic Hat's Ravell, then, is all about paying attention to what the particular brewer considered the answer to those questions were. The beer pours brown rather than black like an oatmeal stout or deep garnet like Guinness. Its head resolves to a thinish beige foam. The taste is definitely built around a soft water profile. One of the things that makes a local beer local is the expression of the water table's mineral count. Dublin is chalky soft, Plzen is neutral and Burton-on-Trent is incredibly hard. From my recollection of the others in the 12 pack, Magic Hat is a largely soft brewing firm. [Sleeman, by comparison, is a fairly hard brewing firm.] The yeast of the Ravell, sour and fruity, is in the front of the palate, framed by chocolate malt and then some hop bitterness. I would not call this a balanced or rich example of a porter but originally porters from what we know were not round and balanced. They should not be confused with nut brown ales anymore than with oatmeal stouts. They were from an era that saw brewing and storage occur in wood and that would impart sourness like we see today in many Belgian brews. Here are the stats on the brew from Magic Hat:
Our Odd PorterThe vanilla bean note is evident once noted but really creates as many issues as it resolves. It lies under the chocolate and hops bitterness and may feed the impression that the yeast is fruity. It is not, however, an overwhelmingly vanilla-esque ale. The effect is somewhat like the use of licorice in other dark ales, as in the Sinebrychoff Porter from Finland reviewed a few weeks ago. One beer advocatonian says it is too thin, which is fair comment.
A porter brewed with whole vanilla beans. Available whenever young William and father John deem it so.
Yeast: English Ale.
Malts: Pale, Crystal & Chocolate.
Hops: Warrior & Fuggles
Alcohol by Volume: 5.60%
Original Gravity: 1.056
Bitterness Units: 22
Not the first porter I would grab but certainly worth discussing.
New Year's Resolutions? Find more people who like to write about beer. David Akin is in Toronto and has made an excellent post about some of his favorite ales. I thought from his comment in the post below that he was in BC due to his reference to one of Granville Island beer but no - he appears to be a Newf in Trana. Maybe the LCBO is holding out on the hinterland, supplying the big smoke with ales not available to we few scratching a living out on the woods beyond the GO train.
Does such a thing exist? If speaking of the North American market, is it the low carb stuff which I doubt I will ever try or is that the boondoggle of the year? Personally, I will have to review my notes in the review archives but suspect it will be American and it will be hop-heavy. Maybe it was a particular pint in a particular pub? I will have to do some thinking about this...
What was yours?
In a shocking but true accouncement as reported in the New York Times, the US government has passed a regulation that will require what is taxed as beer to be at least 51% beer twelve months from now:
Popular flavored malt beverages must have the majority of their alcohol come from the process of brewing if they want to be taxed and treated as beer products rather than higher-taxed liquor products. That's the upshot of final regulations announced Tuesday by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. Companies will have until early January 2006 to comply. The new regulations require that at least 51 percent of alcohol in flavored malt drinks be derived from the brewing process. No more than 49 percent of the alcohol may come from other flavorings added to the product, the bureau said in a release.While this relates to beverages which are a long way off of real ale, you still would think that this would have been an obvious requirement. That would not, however, have taken into account the fact that brewing is one of the biggest business rackets going and just because it looks like beer or claims that it is beer on an income tax return doesn't mean it is a beer. One day beer will have to have its ingredients listed so that we can all see how much sea weed, which is added commonly to add body to corn sugar based brews, is in which beer. Here is the TTB announcement.