Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Back in the U.S.A.

First, I have to say thanks to everyone who's seemed to discover this blog lately. I went on vacation, and when I returned I had emails on everything from upcoming beer festivals to Stella-Artois video games. I will get around to hitting on these subjects in my column and blog in the near future. But in the meantime, thanks for cyber-toasting with me. (Is that really a term? Ah, hell, it is now.)

The reason I've been away is that I spent two weeks in Asia visiting friends and touring foreign countries with my wife. I saw the Imperial Gardens and the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo. I toured the presidential palace and the Demilitarized Zone in South Korea. I ate the kind of spicy, experimental seafood you don't find in Colorado. Basically, everything about the countries fascinated me to the point where I wanted to stay longer.

Except for the beer.

I will say this about Japanese beer: It's smooth. Yes, smooth, as in watery. But it's still drinkable. When we sat through a four-hour Yokohama Bay Stars baseball game, it was the kind of beer you wanted to chill in the stands with. And it's largely available here. We spent most of the trip supping three kinds of malted beverage - Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi. I'd tell you that I like Kirin the best, but I think that any special attraction I have for it comes from my nostalgia rather than an actual connection of taste. We toured the Kirin factory in Yokohama one afternoon, and the woman was nice enough to give the tour in Japanese and then turn around and repeat most of what she said in English. You can't beat service like that. Unfortunately, I can't speak much to the flavor of any of the beers. All were lagers and all made without any effort to achieve much of their own personality. When we went karaokeing and ordered "beer," I didn't even bother asking the brand. But, there are worst substances to have in your mouth than something clean and refreshing, if unoriginal.

That became especially clear to me when we hit South Korea. It also has three main brands of beer - Cass, OB and Hite - and you'd be hard pressed to find them anywhere in the U.S. (at least so says the distributor at my favorite Denver beer store). They were . . well. . . Put it this way: Cass tasted like Miller Lite. The other two were bad. Take that statement anyway you'd like. I drank Cass throughout the week because it just felt like the thing to do. And in South Korea, the spectacularly spicy food so far overshadowed the beer that it just wouldn't have felt right trying to pair spicy pork with an IPA. But I can see why Koreans are not the biggest beer fans in the world when most of the most popular options leaving you scratching your head and asking, "Was that water?"

The most intriguing discovery came on the last night, however, when my good friend Brenda opened a bottle of Taedonggang, the official beer of North Korea. I was expecting it to taste like the sweat of peasants. It turns out, however, that the recipe is that of an old British brewery that closed down some years back and was reopened by the government using the same ingredients. What I found was a malty, somewhat grainy, vaguely cooling beverage that could well have come straight from a tap in London. And as I sipped it just for moment, it restored my faith in Korean beer and Asian beer in general. Then I realized it came straight from the most oppressive dictator on Earth, leaving me in a moral quandary. Still, I finished it.

Anyone else travelled Asia and had interesting beer experiences?

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