Style Showdown: Kristalweizen

Sorry for the embarrassingly long gap between posts. I’ll try not to let it happen again.

I’m watching the MLB All-Star game as I type this, and in the spirit of fun but mostly pointless competition I thought it would be interesting to try out a new blog feature – a head-to-head face-off between the two top-rated examples of a beer style. Additionally, I’ll take a brief look at two stylistically similar literary passages, one by Shakespeare and one by one of his contemporaries. Without identifying the respective authors, I’ll end with a poll asking which passage you, dear readers, consider superior. Just promise not to Google the passages before you vote.

For tonight’s beers, I’ve chosen the top-ranked examples of a rather obscure style: Kristalweizen. A wheat beer of German origin, Kristalweizens are essentially just Hefeweizens with the yeast filtered out, yielding an appropriately crystal-clear body instead of the cloudiness characteristic of the more famous style. Since a huge portion of a Weizen’s flavor (banana, clove, and bubblegum are standard notes) comes from the distinctive yeast strain, removing said yeast tends to result in a somewhat more restrained, grain-forward beer. It’s no coincidence that the top-rated Hefeweizen on BeerAdvocate, Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier, has a solid place in the overall Top 100 list and an impressive weighted score of 4.4/5, while the current #1 Kristalweizen (not too coincidentally from the same brewery) has a rather mediocre weighted rank of 3.99. As luke-warm as my fellow beer nerds are about this style, I happen to love it – especially for a refreshing tipple on a warm summer evening like this one. Let’s open up some beers the way the National League opened up the scoring in the top of the first.

The reigning champion for this style, as previously mentioned, is Weihenstephaner Kristalweissbier. Brauerie Weihenstephan is about as venerable as you can get, being, as it is, the oldest brewery in the world. After nearly a millenium of brewing, Weihenstephan stands as the undisputed master of wheat beers. Who would dare to challenge the master?

A plucky, upstart American craft brewery, of course. Sixpoint, out of Brooklyn, has been making waves in the northeast over their short 8 years of existence. Apollo, their new summer seasonal, has been well-received – especially for its style – and currently sits in a virtual tie with its veteren opponent on the BeerAdvocate style list. It actually has a slightly higher raw score, and only enjoys the #2 slot due to its relative paucity of reviews. Let’s see how it compares to the classic paragon of the style.

Appearance is always the first thing to note about a beer, but sadly the photo above hardly does justice to the shocking difference between these two: the Apollo looks like a mediocre Hefeweizen, with a hazy orange body and a thin tan head that disappears almost immediately. The Weihenstephaner, on the other hand, displays the gorgeous clarity that gives this style its name, and accentuates it with a tremendous head of dense, persistent, bright white foam. Sixpoint might have named their beer after the sun god, but it’s the German brew that truly shines.

The radical differences between these beers aren’t limited to the appearance, but distinguishing the superior brew in terms of aroma and flavor is much less clear-cut. I had my wife take a whiff of each, and, as she is most assuredly into the whole brevity thing, she distilled each scent into a single word: “banana” for the Sixpoint, and “beer” for the Weihenstephaner. I would be a bit more descriptive, of course, but her assessment is dead on: one is powerfully fruity, the other much more subtle and complex. If you like banana, vanilla, and flowers, check out Apollo. If you prefer wheat, minerality, and delicate spice, then opt for the other. I find them both extremely enjoyable, with perhaps a slight preference for the more restrained, lighter aroma.

The differences adumbrated by the aromas carry through even more prominently in the flavors of the two combatants, with the Sixpoint boiling down so purely to its fruity essence that I was genuinely tempted to limit the “flavor” segment of my review to my wife’s assessment of its aroma. Seriously, there’s nothing here but banana. The Weihenstephaner, on the other hand, displays flavors ranging from, yes, banana, through to grainy wheat, clove, ginger, and crisp minerality. It’s complex enough to keep anyone interested in picking out flavors busy, and yet coherent enough to be truly refreshing. Apollo, tasty as it is, really can’t be described as delivering any real refreshment – it’s just too heavy and insistent.

As much as I enjoyed Sixpoint’s new beer, it didn’t pose much of a challenge to the reigning champion; Weihenstephaner Kristalweissbier was superior in every way possible, except container – I do love a craft beer in a can. Somehow, though, I don’t expect to see the tradition-bound Bavarians offering their world-class Weizens in widemouths any time soon. Pity.

Let’s hope, for the sake of a future discussion, that the comparison of dramatic verse isn’t as lop-sidedly obvious. I’ll save in-depth analysis for a follow-up post, and for now just introduce and quote two passages that are stylistically similar.

The early years of Shakespeare’s career were characterized by a frequent employment of a distinctive style of powerful (many would say bombastic) blank verse popularized by Christopher Marlowe. Metrically, this heroic style tended to be heavily end-stopped (i.e., most thoughts are contained in a single line, rather than spilling over to another via enjambment) and highly regular, following the 5-foot, unstressed-stressed pattern of iambic pentameter very closely, with few examples of trochaic substitutions, feminine endings, and other variations to the rhythm. This style, with its percussive regularity of both tempo and sentence length, naturally leant itself to a declamatory, rather than conversational, subject – perfect for the high-flown rhetoric of heroes (like Marlowe’s Tamburlaine and Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus), kings (like Marlowe’s Edward II and Shakespeare’s Richard III), and villains alike. It is from the villains that I’d like to draw two similar, closely-related passages: one from Shakespeare’s Aaron, the evil Moor in Titus Andronicus, and the other from Barabas, the evil Jew in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.

Passage 1:

As for myself, I walk abroad a-nights,
And kill sick people groaning under walls;
Sometimes I go about and poison wells,
And now and then, to cherish Christian thieves,
I am content to lose some of my crowns,
That I may, walking in my gallery,
See ‘em go pinion’d along by my door.
Being young, I studied physic, and began
To practice first upon the Italian; 
There I enriched the priests with burials,
And always kept the sexton’s arms in ure
With digging graves and ringing dead men’s knells.
Then after that I was an usurer,
Ad with extorting, cozening, forfeiting,
And tricks belonging unto brokery,
I fill’d the gaols with bankrouts in a year,
And with young orphans planted hospitals,
And every moon made some or other mad,
And now and then one hang himself for grief,
Pinning upon his breast a long great scroll
How I with interest tormented him.
 

Passage 2:

—. Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
—. Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day – and yet I think
Few come within the compass of my curse - 
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man or else devise his death,
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it,
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself,
Set deadly enmity between two friends, 
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks,
Set fire on barns and haystacks in the night
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door,
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
“Let not your sorrow die though I am dead.”
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more.
 

So, two gleeful confessions of complete and utter wickedness, both written in highly regular, rhetorically ornate blank verse. Which do you prefer?

If you don’t mind taking an extra moment, please leave a comment explaining your vote. A future post will examine the results, and assess the strengths and weakness of each passage. Reader feedback would be a great addition to that discussion.

Thanks for reading, thanks for voting, and cheers!

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Lambic Pentameter: Experimental Beginnings

Now that I’ve provided introductions to both Lambics and pentameter, it’s finally time to put the two components together. Beginning is always the most difficult part of a project (for me at least), and in my anxiety over getting this recurring blog feature off to a strong start I mulled over almost endless possibilities.

Armand’4 Lente at the brewery. This was the single most amazing glass of beer I’ve ever had.

Should I start with an old favorite beer, one that I know incredibly well and can describe in precise detail – something like Cantillon Classic Gueuze? Should I revisit the very first Lambic I ever tasted, Girardin 1882 Black Label Gueuze? Or perhaps my all-time favorite, Drie Fonteinen Armand’4 Oude Geuze Lente?

Eventually I decided that an experimental new undertaking called for something daring, something I’d never had before. Once I decided on reviewing a new-to-me Lambic, though, I ran into a problem: there just aren’t that many well-regarded Lambics out there that a) I haven’t already reviewed and b) are readily accessible. As fate would have it, while browsing a local store I stumbled upon the perfect option: Hanssens Experimental Raspberry.

375ml bottle in a traditional Lambic basket.

Hanssens is a polarizing Lambic brewery, as pretty much everything they produce is going to be incredibly sour, incredibly funky, and generally offensive to 99% of well-adjusted sensibilities. I’ve loved every single one of their beers I’ve had (draw your own inferences about my sensibilities), so to find something from them that I’ve yet to experience was just too inviting to ignore. Never mind that this beer gets a remarkably low 3.34 overall rating on BeerAdvocate; I have a good feeling about it.

In keeping with the experimental theme exemplified by the beer’s name and this post’s nature, I’ve opted to do a close reading of a stanza from Venus & Adonis, Shakespeare’s first experiment in narrative poetry. In the self-deprecating dedication to this 1593 work, Shakespeare apologizes for the “unpolisht lines” that characterize the “first heir of [his] invention” – i.e., the first imaginative poetic endeavor he ever undertook. Not unsurprisingly, Shakespeare’s rookie effort was decidedly impressive: a delightful, rhetorically ornate reimagining of a tale from Ovid’s MetamorphosesVenus & Adonis became a breakthrough hit of its era, running through edition after edition during Shakespeare’s lifetime and beyond. Learned yet playful, erotic yet philosophical, it as a masterpiece in all senses of the word.

Rather than attempt any holistic reading of the poem (I’ve got an entire dissertation chapter in the works devoted to that endeavor), I’d like to enhance my enjoyment of this ridiculously sour beer by doing a brief close reading of a single stanza:

Venus & Adonis, lines 523-8.

For those who prefer to read it without Elizabethan orthography and typography (I know those long s’s can be tricky):

Fair Queen (quoth he), if any love you own me,                                        Measure my strangeness with my unripe years;                                       Before I know my self, seek not to know me.                                                      No fisher but the ungrown fry forbears,                                                                The mellow plum doth fall, the green sticks fast –                                           Or being early plucked, is sour to taste.

This passage comes after the goddess of love has been trying (hilariously unsuccessfully) to seduce the chaste young hunter, Adonis. Finally able to get a word in edgewise, the reluctant youth offers this fittingly obsequious and elegantly metaphorical rebuttal to her desperately insistant entreaties that he relent and have sex with her. The crux of the argument comes in the middle of the stanza: “Before I know myself, seek not to know me.” The verb “to know” has multiple meanings, if you know what I mean: at least in the second instance it clearly calls for an implied adverb, “sexually.” If we apply this innuendo to the first “know,” then we see that perhaps Adonis’ reluctance is not purely moral, but also physical: if he hasn’t yet managed to have his first auto-erotic experience, then he is surely not cut out to please a partner  - much less one as experienced as lusty Venus. The metaphorical images that support Adonis’s request tend to lend credence to this reading, for what could be less phallic than “ungrown fry”? It is perhaps overly zealous to pursue this line of interpretation further, but is it really so difficult to see the plum’s transition from green and stuck to mellow and fallen as emblematic of pubescent maturation?

My favorite thing about choosing to read the tiny fish as penises and the plums as (un)descended testes is that a purely physical explanation for Adonis’s sexual reluctance makes the already comically expansive rhetorical arguments both for and against fornication not just hyperbolic, but entirely pointless. Since the outcome of the argument is predetermined, the lavish language becomes its own end – which is always, of course, the nature of an imaginative poem. Rather than worry about what is being said, we can be free to luxuriate in how it’s being expressed. There’s just so much mellifluous beauty to the phrase “the mellow plum doth fall,” and it’s brilliantly fitting how much the rhythm of the line slows down upon the consonant-drenched “greene sticks fast.” No matter how minutely one chooses to apply the metaphors, the music of the language remains not sour, but sweet to taste.

I chose this stanza simply because it’s one of few where Shakespeare talks about sourness as a flavor – he typically uses it as a generically negative modifier, e.g. “sour affliction” – and I thought it would make a natural accompaniment to an incredibly sour beer. As it turns out, though, I think the sweetness of the poetry more than outweighs the delightful sourness of the beer; as good as the Hanssens is, I can’t claim that it’s a masterpiece of any kind.

In any case, here’s my review:

375ml bottle into a Drie Fonteinen wine-style glass.

A: The cork comes out without the slightest sound, and hence I’m unsurprised when the beer pours completely flat. The lightly hazy orange body would be nice enough for an unblended Lambic, but when there’s fruit involved I expect some carbonation. Disappointing. 2.0

S: Hugely acidic: tart raspberry, lemon, peach, vinegar, acetone (yes, solvent – I like it), oak. The various types of acids are all so powerful that there isn’t much room for yeasty funk, but it’s so complexly sour and fruity that I don’t really mind. Some might legitimately fault it for the acetic acid and acetone, but I consider those part of the Hanssens charm. Beautifully offensive. 4.5

T: A little less crazy here, with deliciously puckering citric acid causing my mouth to pucker and my entire body to shiver. The raspberry is only faintly present, with lemon and unripe pear being the more prominent fruit flavors. A bit of acetic oak shows up on the finish, with the oak lending a bit of vanilla sweetness that offsets (slightly) the vinegary and fruity tartness. Long, dry, almost numbingly sour aftertaste. My mouth feels physically assaulted, like I just put one too many warheads in there at once on a dare. Wow. 4.5

M: Totally still, slightly oily, and medium-bodied. A bit of life would go a long way. 2.5

O: While this one was a bit more straightforward in its outrageous sourness than, say, Oudbeitje, and decidedly less fruit-forward than Scarenbecca Kriek, I liked it just as much as those. I’m not sure I’ll be buying any more (it’s more expensive than the regular Hanssens Oude Gueuze, and I like that beer every bit as much), but I’m certainly glad I decided to make the experiment. 4.0

Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to share any questions, complaints, or ideas in the comments. Cheers!

Posted in Beer Reviews, Lambic Pentameter | 1 Comment

Sweet Beers, Sugared Sonnets – #1

In 1598, Francis Meres provided one of the first and most important contemporary accounts of Shakespeare’s literary productions. Comparing Elizabethan authors to their classical counterparts, Meres claimed that “the sweet wittie soule of Ovid lives in mellifluous & honytongued Shakespeare, witnes his Venus and Adonis, his Lucrece, his sugred Sonnets among his private frinds.”

Title page to the 1609 first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

The first two poems mentioned in this short catalogue had already been printed (and reprinted, they were so popular) by the time Meres’ account was published, but, as he points out, the same could not be said for the poet’s sonnets. It wasn’t until 1609 that these poems finally became available beyond the privileged inner circle of “private frinds” who had been reading at least some of them for over a decade.

Of greater interest to me (at least as far as this beer blog is concerned) is Meres’ choice of the alliterative adjective “sugared” to describe the sonnets of “honytongued Shakespeare.” Sugar, after all, is one of the essential ingredients in beer, and sweetness remains a dominant flavor in many of my favorite styles – Barleywines, Old Ales, Imperial Stouts, Belgian Quadrupels, Doppelbocks, Eisbocks, etc. Since I’ve never written much about the sonnets, and I can never get enough of these beers, I’d like to introduce a new blog feature: Sweet Beers, Sugared Sonnets.

Much like my other regular series, Lambic Pentameter, SBSS will pair beer with poetry – but while the former is strict in terms of which beers qualify (only Lambics, of course), and more expansive regarding potential poetic pairings, the latter will be open to a much broader portion of my cellar but only a very specific type of text: the sonnet. For those of you who don’t remember being taught about this verse form in high school English, a sonnet is 14-line, rhymed poem, usually written in iambic pentameter. Shakespeare’s sonnets are written – no surprise here – in the specific form known today as Shakespearean (or, sometimes more generally, English). Unlike the older, more traditional Italian sonnet that broke down into an eight-line octet (rhymed ABBAABBA) and a six-line sestet (various rhyme schemes were used here, often CDECDE or CDCDEE), with a well-defined turn or twist to the meaning between the two segments, Shakespearean sonnets consist of three four-line quatrains and a concluding couplet, always using the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.  As a quick count of the letters will show, the English version allows the poet to use more total rhymes and frees him or her from having to use just two rhymes over the first eight lines. The three-quatrains-and-a-couplet model also tends to produce more flexibility and variation in the pacing and development of the main idea at issue in the poem, allowing for multiple complications instead of a single clear turning point. But enough with dry prosody and abstract generalizations. Let’s look at a sonnet, and drink a beer while we’re at it.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet #1, published 1609.

This sonnet, like the sixteen that follow it at the beginning of the collection, is addressed to an attractive young man who apparently refuses to get married and have kids. The speaker, quite taken with the youth’s qualities, is desperate to convince his interlocutor to hurry up and make babies before he dies – along with his beauty. The strategy employed by the speaker is multipronged, beginning with a universal claim: “From fairest creatures we desire increase / That thereby beauty’s rose might never die” – who could possibly argue with the proposition that we’d rather see good genes pass on than bad ones, and that immortality is a good thing for the beautiful? Having gotten readers on his side with such general logic, Shakespeare begins the second quatrain with a sudden turn: “But thou”. Rather than fulfilling the cyclical generative imperative of nature, the youth exists in a narcissistic echo chamber, engaging in all the actions of love but without a proper external object. This quatrain and the next are delightfully full of typically Petrarchan paradoxes, oxymora, and antitheses – viz. abundance/famine, self/foe, sweet/cruel, tender/churl, waste/niggarding – creating both a sense of poetic balance and a clever thematic comment on the youth’s unnatural behavior. This extended buildup of figurative images and indirect examples leads to the straightforward, monitory couplet, wherein the speaker provides the youth with both an imperative – “Pity the world,” i.e., reproduce – and a classic “or else” accusation pointing out that failure to do so will result in the youth becoming not just a sinful glutton, but a dead glutton at that. And who wants to think of himself as a dead glutton?

This summary has already touched on the sonnet’s logical and rhetorical strategies, but I would feel remiss if I didn’t spend a moment or two pointing out the masterful use of poetic rhythm that underlies the equally artful diction. The first quatrain flows by effortlessly, each line perfectly metrical and devoid of caesura (i.e., a pause in the middle of a line). We are lulled into easy agreement, the antithetical rhymes of increase/decease and die/memory being stripped of their worrisome morbidity by both the regular rhythm and the soothingly hopeful fourth line’s pregnant internal rhyme: heir/bear. All this grinds to a halt at the beginning of the second quatrain, with the aforementioned “But thou”. This sudden use of apostrophe wrenches the poem out of generalization and into direct address, with the shift made all the more jarring by Shakespeare’s refusal to deliver the verb explaining what “thou” is doing. Instead, we get the sonnet’s first caesura, followed by an appositional statement describing the youth: “contracted to thine own bright eyes.” Scanned on its own, this partial line hardly appears to fit the meter, with natural stresses only occurring on the first and last two words – i.e., “contracted to thine own bright eyes.” The pause after “But thou” is thus followed by an initial rush of verbiage leading to another slowdown upon the strongly assonantal final image. The reader is sucked headlong into these bright eyes by the rhythm of the line, the form of the poem displaying the destructive power of self-love that it seeks to combat with its rhetorical persuasion. The danger of this narcissistic self-absorption becomes clearer still in the next line, which bogs down even more in terms of tempo. Line 6 begins with the postponed verb modifying the previous line’s “thou,” but the second-person “Feedest,” despite being a natural two-syllable trochee, gets shoehorned into the normally unstressed first syllable of the first foot. This radical compression of sound is only made the more ponderous by the following foot, “light’s flame.” The metrical stress here is only on the latter word, but the former receives its own emphasis thanks both to its thematic importance and its rhyming correspondence to the recently highlighted “bright eyes.” “Feed’st thy light’s flame” thus manages to cram five syllables, an alliteration, some internal sibilance, and half of an internal rhyme into a mere two feet of verse. And the rest of the line is not much better: “with self-substantial fuel” is less dense metrically, but the heavy continuation of s’s and f’s (made all the more confusing in the original printing thanks to the typical renaissance use of the long s) serves to keep the line moving along at a snail’s pace. The following line picks up the rhythm considerably, only to bring things stumbling to a halt yet again when it comes time to close out the quatrain with a rhyming counterpart to the above-examined sixth line: “Thy self thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.” The mid-line caesura and strong alliterative stressing of the metrically unstressed “sweet”, to say nothing of the potentially confusing repetition of both “thy” and “self”, make this yet another emblematic example of the verse form reflecting the seductive/destructive binary inherent in self-reflexive narcissism.

I could go on for pages about every little detail (amazing how much there is to say about a  mere 14 lines of verse, no?), but I think I’ll leave off for now and turn to my beer. As a fitting accompaniment to this first sonnet, I’ve chosen the first beer brewed by the renowned Portland, OR brewery Hair of the Dog: Adam.

Hair of the Dog Adam, Batch 77

While this particular bottle was not, sadly, from the original batch brewed back in 1994, it was right about two years old – just enough time, I think, for a powerful 10% ABV Old Ale to mellow out and have its complex flavors integrate smoothly.

Upon opening it, I can tell just by the aroma emanating from the bottleneck that this is going to one heck of a good beer, and a terrific one for kicking off this regular blog feature. Like the sonnet I’ve just examined, this beer promises to be be sweet, complicated, and rewarding to anyone who endeavors to give it the close attention it deserves. I’m quite confident that all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets will be just as densely pleasurable as the first, and I can only hope that many of the sweet beers I choose to accompany them will be as decadently delicious as Adam, first Beer, of beer innumerable ordained.

Here’s my review:

12oz bottle from Batch 77 (brewed no later than May of 2010) into a Duvel tulip.

A: A rough, forceful pour is required to create just a thin layer of frothy light-brown bubbles; the body is black when looked at from a distance, and glows a clear orange-amber around the edges when held up to light. While it appears to be wholly uncarbonated, the bubbles forced out by the pour do stick around in a ring, keeping it from looking entirely lifeless. More importantly, each swirl of the beer leaves thick, sticky legs tracing their way down the sides of the tulip. Not exactly a beauty queen, but an attractively intimidating appearance all the same. 3.5

S: Wow. This smells like a hybrid Barleywine/Single Malt Scotch/cigar. The aromas are many and varied: smoke, leather, tobacco, toffee, caramel, fig, chocolate, and pepper. Only a touch of light booziness. Heady, intense, and amazing. 5.0

T: Happily it follows the nose for the most part, with sweet sugars and dark fruits up front, followed closely by deliciously meaty smoke, rich leather, piquant tobacco, and spicy alcohol on the finish. The booze is just a bit too prominent for a 10% beer that’s been aged for two full years, but other than that it’s spectacularly delicious. 4.5

M: Still, sticky, and viscous. Very rich and mouth-filling, but a bit of carbonation would have gone a long way. 3.0

O: Flatness notwithstanding, this was one of the best beers I’ve had in a long time. Hugely complex and just as tasty, I was blown away by the way the smokiness and leather/tobacco notes complemented the sweet Barleywine-like fruits and toffee. I could sip on this for hours and still discover new intricacies. I really, really wish I had bought more than one. 4.5

Thanks for reading, and cheers!

Posted in Beer Reviews, ShakesBeer, Sugared Sonnets | Leave a comment

Lambic Pentameter: Close Reading for Beer Nerds

Last week I provided the background necessary for understanding the first word in my recurring blog feature – Lambic Pentameter; now it’s time to cover the literary side of things, but don’t be nervous if you haven’t read a poem since pulling a C- in English 101: I’ll draw all my examples from the world of craft beer.

Close reading is the most fundamental tool in a literary scholar’s repertoire, both when it comes to performing original analysis and, especially, when teaching. While the term “close reading” means exactly what it sounds like it means – i.e., focusing on the details of a text – it has come to be associated with a particular school of literary analysis: New Criticism. New Criticism will always be called that, despite the fact that it’s hardly new any more (its heyday was in middle of the 20th century), and has long since gone out of style as a method for original scholarship in favor of a range of postmodern -isms. The very thing that made New Criticism intellectually limited – its almost religious insistence on the autonomy of the text as an independent aesthetic object entirely unaffected by contextual issues like history, culture, and even authors – was precisely what caused it to spawn the most rigorous and enduring method for analyzing texts as formal units on a micro scale. Nobody publishes as a New Critic anymore, but everyone teaches as one. Close reading is here to stay.

The crucial recognition of close reading is that of the most famous of New Critics, Cleanth Brooks: “the heresy of paraphrase.” Essentially, Brooks argued that poetry cannot be explained “in other words” without losing its ontological essence as a work of art. Content is  dependent on and inherent in poetic form; meaning cannot be separated from its vessel. For teachers and students of literature, the classic question of “what does this text mean?” becomes insufficient, requiring the equally crucial query “how does this text mean?”.

To put this in beer terms, close reading a text with an eye on both form and content is much like drinking a beer and attempting to understand not just what it tastes like, but how the flavors are created by the brewer’s recipe and brewing methods. Instead of saying “this tastes fruity and hoppy, but not too bitter,” a close reading of a beer would say something like “the heavy dry-hopping with New Zealand hop varietals provides this beer with a heady aroma of tropical fruits and a juicy lychee flavor, but the moderate hop additions during the boil have left a relatively low level of bitterness on the finish.” It’s the same beer both times, but paying attention to how its flavors came into being grants a fuller and more rewarding understanding of the brew.

So, now that we’re all on the same page about what close reading is and why it’s important, all that remains is to explain how it’s done. Sadly, this isn’t exactly simple. The complicated interplay of form and content inherent in creating meaning cannot be unraveled in a simple formula or step-by-step guide, but having led with that caveat I’ll try to do exactly that.

Content: this is both the simpler and the more difficult side of the form/content coin, in that understanding the words themselves requires no special vocabulary or esoteric knowledge of prosody and rhetoric, but is nonetheless subject to nigh-endless vicissitudes of subjectivity. When analyzing the content of a Shakespearean passage, doing a close reading for content will often necessitate the consultation of reference works like a dictionary (preferably the OED - subscription required, sadly) and a Shakespeare concordance in order to understand all the potential meanings inherent in a word. Once you know what a word meant during Shakespeare’s historical moment and how Shakespeare himself employed that word elsewhere in his writings, you’re ready to begin assessing what meaning(s) it has in the context of a particular passage.

This is roughly analogous to understanding what flavors and aromas can be produced by any given variety of malt or hop – which, as any homebrewer or beer connoisseur knows, is never as simple as it would seem. And even the fullest knowledge of ingredients doesn’t grant psychic foreknowledge of what a beer will taste like.

Form: talking about form is considerably trickier, as it requires an extensive, esoteric vocabulary of metrical and rhetorical terms. The good news for anyone who feels unfamiliar with such things is that you already know what these literary tricks are, even if you don’t know what they’re called.

Meter: English verse is what’s called accentual-syllabic, meaning that its rhythm is determined both by the number of syllables in a line and by the arrangement of stresses. The basic unit of prosody is the foot, and is usually made up of one stressed syllable and one or two unstressed ones. The meter of a poem is described in terms of how many feet each line contains, as well as how the stresses are arranged within each foot. The quantitative aspect is easy: monometer is one foot, dimeter two, trimeter three, and so on: tetra-  = 4, penta- = 5, hexa- = 6, septa- = 7. Rarely do lines go on longer than 7 feet. Determining what kinds of feet are in a line is a bit more complicated; here’s a rundown of the four most common ones:

  • Iambic: two syllables per foot, stress on the second – e.g. Fantôme Saison
  • Trochaic: two syllables per foot, stress on the first – e.g. Heady Topper
  • Anapestic: three syllables foot, stress on the third – e.g. the phrase “a Sier/ra Neva/da”
  • Dactylic: three syllables per foot, stress on the first – e.g. Isabelle Proximus

Isabelle Proximus, a dactylic delight.

The meter found most often in our tongue (and that in which this sentence is composed, at least until the colon at the end): Iambic Pentameter. Shakespeare and most other English poets have found this to be the most natural and versatile of meters, allowing everything from the conversational blank (i.e., unrhymed) verse of Shakespeare’s late romances to the pounding, heroic, “mighty line” of Marlowe’s tragedies to the mellow, musical rhythm of Robert Frost. Its versatility means that, in terms of close reading, what matters isn’t the fact that a passage is in iambic pentameter but how the author makes the meter fit the meaning – for example, a string of monosyllables can slow down the rhythm, like when the audience of King Lear is forced to face the horror of this line: “Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stone” (5.3.237). The repetition of the first four words stretches a mere two feet of verse into a seeming eternity of agony, and the return of recognizable stress variation in the rest of the line accentuates the crucial nouns – “you,” “men,” and especially the fittingly weighty “stone.”

Rhetoric: while the word rhetoric has come to mean primarily the hollow pronouncements of vainglorious politicians, in Shakespeare’s time it referred to the serious and well-respected practice of creating eloquence through the use of tried-and-true verbal devices. Renaissance rhetoricians identified hundreds of distinct figures of speech, all of which could be used to delight and persuade. Shakespeare was educated in this rhetorical tradition, derived directly from the oratorical traditions of ancient Rome, and made constant use of what he had learned. While the full assortment of figurative devices at Shakespeare’s disposal is certainly too long (not to mention boring) to list here, here are several of the most important ones, along with examples drawn from the beer world:

Alliteration: the repetition of initial sounds, especially consonants in stressed syllables. Example: Nugget Nectar.

Assonance: the repetition of a vowel sound within words. Example: Black & Tan.

Note the chiastic structure of the words on the label, and how the colors emphasize the inversion.

Chiasmus: a symmetrical structure of items in a series – xyyx. So called because if you stack the first half of the list on top of the second and connect the similar items, the resultant shape is that of an x, or the Greek letter chi. The logic behind the inversion can vary, from grammatical (e.g., noun-adjective-adjective-noun) to thematic (e.g., good-bad-bad-good) to simply verbal repetition. This last case of chiasmus – the direct repetition of words in an opposite order, like the famous “Fair is foul and foul is fair” from Macbeth – is known specifically as antimetabole. Example: Cigar City Warmer Winter Winter Warmer.

Consonance: the repetition of a consonant sound within words. Example: Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout.

Hyperbole: overstatement. Example: just about every beer name out there, especially those that mention hops.

Irony: saying the opposite of what is meant. Example: New England Brewing Company Fancy Pants. The irony in this case is one of tone, where a silly name is given to an extremely serious, esoteric beer (a sour beer aged for 2 years in Cabernet Sauvignon barrels, to be precise). The irony is deepened by the visual of the label, which mimics the clean, classy look of a wine label but fills the fine print with ironically self-deprecating humor. An additional use of this term, but one that sadly cannot really be exemplified by a beer, is dramatic irony, which happens when the audience knows something that a character does not. For example, much of the humor of Twelfth Night comes from knowing that the character befriended homosocially by Orsino and wooed heterosexually by Olivia is not, as they think, the male page Cesario, but actually the disguised gentlewoman Viola.

Great doesn't even come close...

Meiosis: understatement. This can take various forms, including litotes (understatement by negation, such as “I am not unwilling to drink Millenium Geuze”) and paradiastole (the rhetorical softening of an extreme state, such as describing a horridly skunked beer as having a “distinct” aroma). For a general example, I can think of nothing more fitting than Alpine Great.

Metonymy: much like a metaphor, but uses a closely related item of comparison instead of an imaginatively different one. Example: Aecht Schlenkerla Oak Smoke. The bottle contains not smoke, but beer, but as its malt was smoked over oak wood the comparison is too close to be a metaphor.

Metaphor: referring to one thing by calling it something different. The thing actually meant is the tenor of the metaphor, while the thing explicitly said is called the vehicle. Example: The Abyss. A bottle of this imperial stout does not contain an actual abyss, but simply a beer that is black enough to resemble one.

Oxymoron: the juxtaposition of a noun with a contradictory modifier, creating a paradoxical effect. A common feature of Petrarchan love poetry (which was a strong influence on the Elizabethan sonnet tradition), images of burning ice and living death were de rigeur. While Shakespeare often mocked this trend (with great comic effect), he also saw the figure’s potential for more serious meaning. My favorite beer oxymoron is Jackie O’s Kentucky Monk, a beer that ages a Tripel (a beer traditionally brewed by pious, decorous Trappist monks) in a barrel that previously held Bourbon (a drink that is more likely to be consumed at a NASCAR race than a monastery; no offense to either). This cross-cultural recipe gets reflected humorously in the beer’s name and, especially, its label.

Great can, mediocre beer.

Personification: assigning human attributes to a non-human thing. Example: Porkslap Pale Ale. Pigs don’t actually give high fives.

Pun: use of a word with multiple potential meanings, or that closely suggests another word. Used almost exclusively for humorous effect today, Shakespeare often employed puns in more serious ways. Example: Hoppy Birthday, and a million other hop-named beers.

Rhyme: the repetition of a final vowel + consonant sound, but with the preceding consonant sound having been changed. Example: Portsmouth Kate the Great. While rhyme is often thought of simply as a pleasing sonic effect with little bearing on meaning, Shakespeare and most other good poets seek to rhyme only words that yield profitable meaning when brought into conversation by rhyme. For example, when Hamlet says “I’ve that within which passes show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe” (1.2.85-6), the juxtaposition of “show” and “woe” reinforces the pathos of both the prince’s enforced display of obedience to his mother and stepfather and the performance we are observing (what is a tragedy, after all, but a show of woe?). Rhymes are particularly important in cases like this, where Shakespeare ends a long passage of blank verse with a single, emphatic couplet.

Possibly the best beer I've ever tasted. The angel tears were delicious.

Simile: like a metaphor, but with the comparison foregrounded through the use of “like” or “as.” Example: Sipping that 1999 3 Fonteinen Oude Geuze was like bathing in the joyous tears of a million angels.

Synecdoche: using a part to represent the whole. Example: Alpine Nelson. Not only does the word Nelson stand in for the entire name of the hop, Nelson Sauvin, but for all the other ingredients that go into that beer.

Zeugma: the yoking together of two different nouns (usually one concrete, one figurative) with a single verb. Example: “This fresh can of Heady Topper contains hops and happiness.”

That seems like plenty for now. Thanks for reading, and don’t hesitate to leave a comment with any questions or observations you may have.

Cheers!

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Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!

Today, April 23, marks the 448th anniversary of the Bard’s birth.* To celebrate, I’ve chosen to open a beer that’s approximately 1% as old: Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout from the winter of ’07/’08.

It’s a bit over the hill, unfortunately (too much cardboardy oxidation, despite still having perfect carbonation), but the nose still has some pleasant hints of cocoa that go terrifically with some festive (and much fresher) Belgian chocolates. I’ll be following up this post with a re-reading of “the first heir of [the birthday boy's] invention,” the delightful, erotic, Ovidian narrative poem “Venus and Adonis.”

Old beer + timeless poetry = a terrific start to springtime.

Cheers!

* To be precise, it is the day on which tradition observes his birth – no one really knows whether he was born on the 23rd or not. We do know was baptized on April 26th, and that it was customary in those days to baptise infants three days after birth. Shakespeare also happened to die on April 23rd, so there’s the added bonus of being able to celebrate the entire cycle of his life on the same day. Birthday parties tend to be more fun than funerals, though, and also more fitting for our everliving poet.

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Lambic Pentameter: Introduction to Lambic

By far the best beer aspect of my recent trip to Europe was the deliciously huge amount of Geuze and Lambic beer I got to drink in Belgium. Lambics are hands-down my favorite style of beer (which is saying something, as I’ve tried and enjoyed over 100 different styles), and sipping them in their picturesque homeland is simply as good as drinking gets.

While it can be difficult to find quality Lambics stateside, I’ve got enough in my cellar now to turn my favorite style into a regular feature on my blog; unable to resist a bad pun, I’d like to introduce you to Lambic Pentameter, where I will be pairing a Lambic with a passage of Shakespearean verse (usually written, of course, in iambic pentameter). Rather than giving a general thematic overview of an entire play or scholarly topic, these posts will focus on craft and formal details – close readings of both beer and poetry. As I’m well aware that not many readers share my arcane knowledge of both sour beers and Elizabethan prosody, I’ll be splitting this introduction into two posts – the present one will tell you all you need to know about my favorite style of beer; part 2 will provide a crash course on fun stuff like rhyme schemes, assonance, and zeugma. Can’t forget zeugma.

Part 1: Lambic

For those of you who don’t know about Lambic, or only know the syrupy-sweet bastardization of the style that is Lindemans Framboise, here’s a primer: traditional Lambic is a style of sour beer brewed only in Brussels and the Brabant countryside south and west of the city. The characteristic recipe calls for a significant amount of unmalted wheat in addition to standard barley malt, as well as the idiosyncratic use of large amounts of aged hops. While this recipe is highly unorthodox in its own right, what really sets Lambic apart from all other beers happens after the wort has been boiled: rather than being rapidly cooled down and sent to ferment in a sanitized cylinder of stainless steel, the sweet future beer is instead left to cool overnight in a large, shallow, open-topped trough called a koelschip (pronounced “coolship”).

The blogger standing in awe of the koelschip in the well-ventilated rafters of Brasserie Cantillon, Brussels, June 2011.

Here, the raw liquid is allowed to sit, completely unprotected from the plethora of wild yeast and bacteria floating through the air of the Senne valley; after it has cooled, it gets transferred to large oak barrels (themselves usually crawling with a cocktail of microflora from previous batches) where a long, slow fermentation process will ensue.

In the course of this almost alchemic undertaking known as spontaneous fermentation, a melange of voracious little critters eats all of the sugars in the wort, producing a range of valuable byproducts. Alcohol and CO2 are the main ones, like with a standard Saccharomyces fermentation, but thanks to the presence of such diverse creatures as the indigenous yeasts Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and Brettanomyces Lambicus (both more commonly known simply as Brett)  and bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Pediococcus, Lambic winds up being chock full of exotic esters, phenols, and, source of its famous tartness, acids.

If this tale of uncontrolled exposure to any and all ambient bacteria doesn’t sound terribly appetizing to you, then you probably won’t like some of the flavor descriptors that get applied to these beers. While the acidity often reminds drinkers of pleasant things like lemon and green apples, the funky byproducts of the wild Brett can be reminiscent of less obviously delicious flavors like hay, barnyard, horseblanket, leather, and simply dirt. I suppose it’s an acquired taste, but believe me: once you acquire it, there’s just nothing like an earthy, dirty, barnyardy, puckeringly sour Lambic.

Drie Fonteinen J&J Blauw, served in a traditional Lambic basket at De Heeren Van Liedekerke, June 2011. The #1 rated Geuze of all time, according to RateBeer.

Up to the point of fermentation all Lambic is more or less equal as far as the process is concerned. Before being consumed, though, it usually undergoes one of two distinctly different processes: blending or fruiting.

The former is used to create Geuze (or Gueuze, if you want to spell like a Walloon), which is a spritzy, refreshing, and amazingly complex beer made from blending barrels of both young (one-year-old) and old (usually both two- and three-year-old) Lambic. The small amount of residual sugar left in the young beer gets eaten up during a long maturation process in the corked bottle, yielding a Champagne-like effervescence in addition to the depths of funky complexity added by the older components.

Cantillon Cuvée Moeder Lambic, enjoyed at Moeder Lambic Fontainas, Brussels, June 2011. The head was pinker in person.

Geuze is too intense for many, however, and for generations Lambic brewers have also taken to adding fresh fruit to their beers. The fruit added most often is the cherry, which results in a Kriek; also popular is the raspberry-derived Framboise (don’t forget to pronounce and voice the s – “framBWAHZ”; it doesn’t rhyme with Stella Artois). Less traditional but arguably more exciting, Lambic brewers in recent years have taken to experimenting with an array of different fruit (and non-fruit) additions, ranging from blueberries to grapes to apricots to elderflowers to rhubarb (aside: I’ve never gotten to try Cantillon’s rhubarb Lambic, Zwanze 2008; anyone who can provide me with a bottle would have me forever in his or her debt).

There are only a handful of breweries left producing traditional, unsweetened Lambic; The lone Brussels brewery, Brasserie Cantillon is the probably the best-known and certainly the most-hyped among American beer aficionados, but my personal preference is strongly in favor of Brouwerij Drie Fonteinen, whose Geuze blends in particular tend to have greater depth, subtlety, and balance. Both are absolutely incredible, and I’ll have more to say about them later. Other strictly traditional producers include Girardin (their 1882 Black Label Geuze is wonderful, fairly accessible, and was a perfect introduction to the style for me), De Cam (makers of the best bottled Kriek I’ve ever tasted), Hanssens (NOT for the faint of heart), and Oud Beersel. Boon and Lindemans make some solid Lambics (e.g., Oude Geuze Mariage Parfait from the former, Gueuze Cuvée René from the latter), but watch out for their artificially sweetened fruit Lambics. These can certainly be tasty enough (I’m not so much of a purist as to deny that Lindemans Pêche is actually quite good), but I find most of them disgustingly sweet, and they often have a bit of an acrid aftertaste that I chalk up to the Acesulfame K (aka saccharine); for Lindemans, only the Cuvée René beers don’t have artificial sweetener; for Boon, look for the word “Oude” on the label, which is only used for traditional products.

If you haven’t had a Lambic before and want to give it a shot, I’d recommend Girardin 1882 (Black Label) Gueuze or Lindemans Cuvée René as the best places to start for a genuine, non-fruit experience. Good, non-artificially-sweetened fruit Lambics are tougher to find, but maybe you can get lucky and find some Oude Kriek 3 Fonteinen or Rosé de Gambrinus, their Framboise.

The only bad thing about Lambics is that, in America at least, they’re damn expensive – good luck finding a 750ml of basic Cantillon or 3 Fonteinen for less than $20 these days. As much as I’d like to make Lambic Pentameter a weekly feature, I think it’s going to have to be monthly at most.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for an intro to close reading. As always, please don’t hesitate to leave any questions or observations you might have in the comment section.

Cheers!

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Back in the US of A

Sorry, everyone, for the unforgivably long interval between posts. I promise I’ll try to update more regularly in the future. My absence from the blog was largely due to my absence from the country, as I spent most of last month in England and Belgium – presenting a conference paper in the former, and drinking tons of good beer in both.

The conference (“Intersections,” put on by the English department at University College, London) was terrific up until my panel, which was marred by the deadly combination of a long-winded speaker (not I!) and a moderator who was too polite to cut him off. Not only was I forced to rush my own paper, but there was no time left over for Q&A once I finished. On the plus side, though, since I was the very last speaker at the conference I didn’t have to wait long to drown my frustration with a pint of cask ale at a nearby pub – The Jeremy Benthem, which rather bizarrely reminded me simultaneously of both Dickens and Lost. You’ve got to love London pub names.

Speaking of cask ales, I reviewed scores of them during my stay, and all of the reviews are now up. More detailed posts, with pictures and Shakespearean parallels, will follow shortly.

Cheers!

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