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Oakes Weekly - August 13, 2003
New Beers from New Countries
August 14, 2003
Written by Oakes
A few days ago I sampled Amarcord La Mi Dòna, a strong golden beer from the Republic of San Marino. It was a decent beer - akin to a sophisticated take on European Strong Lager, although it could very well be top-fermented. I had gone to great lengths to acquire this beer, but it wasn't because I was itching for a strongish blond beer. It was the San Marino thing. I collect countries. My whole life I've loved to learn about the world. I stare at maps and atlases for hours, and read travel guides for places I have no particular plans to visit. So it was only natural that I would combine this with beer and want to try a beer from as many countries as I can.
<P>There can be no doubt that in a quest for a new country the beer is secondary. After all, many countries have only bland international lager to offer. But I enjoyed my San Marinese beer, and started to wonder if I'd debuted a new country with a better beer. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I'd debuted a lot of countries with good beer. I'd also learned a thing or two about local traditions in this way.
<P>The first one that jumped into my head with the Isle of Man. I wrote an entire article based around my first Manx beer, Bosun's Bitter, and my time in the sleepy village of Laxey. The beer was ultimately nothing more than an acceptable pint of bitter, but that was one of my favourite pints last year (and this discrepancy is proof that those who think you cannot rate a beer irrespective of setting probably should not project their own intellectual shortcomings onto others).
<P>Another one that came to mind was Cambodia. I had Angkor Extra Stout at a meeting of homebrewers and professional brewers in the basement (pub) of a homebrew store owner in Halifax. It had an Australian taste to it, and I later found out that the brewery is a joint venture with an Australian firm. Still, I was surprised at how good this stout was, because often these foreign stouts and porters are not very enjoyable at all.
<P>This lead to me to consider a pair of other foreign stouts on which I debuted their respective countries - Nigerian Guinness FES and the Sri Lankan Lion Stout. Now these are killer beers. I enjoy the Lion more every time I had it, and I really need to get back to the Nigerian FES. I later learned that Nigeria is the third-largest market for stout in the world, after Ireland and the UK, even higher than the US. Though it isn't reflected on Ratebeer, technically speaking my first normal FES came from St. Kitts & Nevis, marking the debut of that country to my list.
<P>The most unusual was surely Chibuku Shake Shake from Zambia. This is a traditional sorghum beer - a must try for everyone who thinks they know their beer. I'd already had one sorghum beer previous, so it wasn't that much of a shock, but I can think of no more hardcore way to debut a new country than with one of the most challenging (to us non-Africans, anyway) beer styles ever devised.
<P>Of course, many new countries make their debut on my palate with pale lagers. This happened with the Czech Republic and the first ever pale lager, but others were also suprisingly good. I'm always amazed at how closed-minded the beer community is towards pale lagers. There are some rewards for those willing to slog it out through the crap, though, and I quite enjoyed the time I spent with Casablanca (Morocco), Mamba (Ivory Coast), Arc (Moldova) and Tirana Pils (Albania), not to mention pilsners like Martiner (Slovakia) and Okocim (Poland).
<P>Looking at my database, I was impressed with how many countries sent something other than pale lager to me to kick things off. Austria (Edelweiss Dunkel Hefeweissbier) and Hungary (Ilzer Hefeweizen) sent wheats; Sweden (Carnegie) and Finland (Koff) sent porters; Trinidad & Tobago (Royal Extra Stout) and Jamaica (Dragon Stout) donated their strong stouts; while other European countries offered up more interesting fare as well - Guinness, MacEwan's, Samiclaus, Felinfoel Welsh Ale and Warsteiner to name a few.
<P>Which leaves us with four big countries from the earliest days. Canada (Kokanee) and the United States (Budweiser) were wash-outs. Considering that most early English ratings were garbage beers like Watney's Red Barrel and Newcastle, it stands as a bit of a surprise that the very first was Samuel Smith Nut Brown, still a favourite today.
<P>But I've saved the best for last. When I first began exploring beer, I knew nothing of Belgium. I had neither any idea what kind of beers they made there nor why I should try them. I hadn't discovered Jackson yet, but there was a Belgian beer at my local store that I tried on for size. It was Blanche de Bruges. This was 9 1/2 years ago, and my mind was blown. I'd never tasted anything like that before. Needless to say, I bought more, and frequently, until the store stopped carrying it (I was apparently the only one drinking it). I found some occasionally in Montreal for a while but when that supply stopped I had a drought. I found it again last year in, of all places, Liverpool, at the Ship & Mitre (which along with the Bag O' Nails in Bristol puts the beer list at the White Horse to shame). Coming off a jaw-dropping Augustiner Hell (a must for lager fans, by the way) minutes before, Blanche de Bruges delivered everything it did the very first time I had it. I was brought back to that cold January day in my dorm room and the thrill of discovery I felt.
<P>Of course, that beer had a big influence on my later pre-Jackson tastings. As an unguided novice, I made a beeline for any Belgian I saw, which at the time was basically nothing. Until that summer at the Vancouver International Brewmaster's Festival. They had Mort Subite Gueuze at the first booth inside the door. Belgian beer #2 was as shocking as the first. They told me there was another booth with this "lambic" stuff. I made a beeline for what turned out to be the Merchant du Vin booth, where I was in short order introduced to Lindeman's Pêche and, glory of glories, my first ever Orval. Acquired taste my arse - that beer gave me spasms of delight back then, and it still does to this day. I remember that festival well. As I was waiting in line at the MdV booth for more Belgian ale, a reporter from Global TV came by and started asking people about beer enjoyment. So with a microphone in my face and the opportunity to talk about beer, my mind had been so rattled by Belgians could hardly put a sentence together. Nobody has stuck a microphone in my face and asked me to talk about beer since (of course, maybe if I didn't live in the same town as Stephen Beaumont, that might help). But the big thing was that after that, I was hooked. I had become the beer geek you see today. The Belgians did it, and it all started with Blanche de Bruges, because I wanted to try a beer from a new country.
<P>And today, some 120 countries later, I'm still finding good beer from new countries.
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The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I'd debuted a lot of countries with good beer.
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