22 January, 2021

The Further Adventures of Gereon Rath


The March Fallen provided one of the odder experiences I've had with regards to reading a book. On the morning of 6 January I read the chapter in which the Reichstag was torched in 1933 only to see later that day that rioters/insurrectionists stormed the Capitol in Washington D.C. I had to wonder if those who took the Capitol to stop the election certification would attempt to burn the place down. Luckily they did not.

This is the fifth book in the Gereon Rath series by German author Volker Kutscher. The first two books, Babylon Berlin and The Silent Death, have been adapted for TV as Babylon Berlin and is available on Netflix for those of us in the States. The books take place in Weimar Germany beginning in the spring of 1929 and my understanding is that the series will continue until the start of World War II in September 1939 when Germany invades Poland.

Rath is a police detective who has fled his native Cologne for Berlin after he accidentally kills a man. He is given a ribbing by his new co-workers for being a country bumpkin in the big city. Berlin was and still is, from what I gather, the hedonistic capital of Germany. Perhaps even of Europe more generally. You can really let your freak flag fly there. During the 1920s there was cabaret, various erotic clubs where transvestitism was often not frowned upon, drugs, prostitution – a place of decadence and transgression. Rath is a good Catholic boy in a den of sin.

This time around Rath is investigating the death of a World War I veteran whose body is found underneath a rail overpass. It being February 1933, he now he has to contend with a police department that is becoming ever more politicized as the police chief is a Nazi.

The Nazi presence/menace has been around since the first book and gotten more prominent with each succeeding one. With The March Fallen they have stepped out of the background and into the light. It's early 1933 so Hitler is chancellor, not dictator, but he is a polarizing figure for the characters. Swastikas are to be found hanging in public and the SA, a Nazi paramilitary organization, roams the streets having basically been deputized in service of the police. Some are dyed in the wool believers in the Nazi cause while others, like Rath's fiancé Charlotte Ritter who is trying to break the police gender barrier, are adamantly opposed. Others join the Nazis out of sheer self-interest or just to stay out of their crosshairs. Germany has begun dancing on the edge of the volcano. We the readers know how things pan out and so the political backdrop adds more layers of tension beyond the murder mystery at the heart of the story.

While Rath is an angel in contrast to the Nazis, he is far from perfect. Earlier in the series he was addicted to morphine as a result of his experiences in the war. Here, he continues his relationship with the Berlin mafia, the Ringvereine, and, in one scene, he and Charlotte dispose of some evidence, shall we say. Plus he engages in a little blackmail.

One of the neat elements of these books is how Berlin itself is almost a character akin to London in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. It's quite the milieu of rich and poor, exotic dancers and construction workers, communists and democrats, and so on. Rath's work takes him all around Berlin and Kutscher rattles off all kinds of places that would have been or are familiar to Berliners – Alexanderplatz, the Ku'damm (think State Street, my fellow Madisonians), the ginormous KaDeWe department store (I thought of the Marshall Fields on State Street in Chicago), and so on. The variety of locations makes the city come alive on the page which makes for wonderful reading even if I have to look up many of the locations.

While there are eight books in the series thus far, only the first five have been translated into English. And, sadly, only the first three have been published in the States so you may need to find an independent bookseller abroad to get volumes 4 and 5. But do take the plunge.



21 January, 2021

Pink Floyd's Animals is 44 today


Today is the 44th anniversary of the release of Pink Floyd's Animals. This is one of my favorite Floyd albums and, to my taste, their best after Meddle. It's got the proggy twists and turns but also a drive - an anger and perhaps even a bit of menace that not only fits in with the punk ethos of the time, but also was something new for their music.

Most of the album actually dates back to 1974 as the band were trying to figure out how to follow-up Dark Side of the Moon. A short tour of France in June '74 saw the debut of a song called "Raving and Drooling" which the world would come to know as "Sheep" two and a half years later. (An early version of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" was also performed on these dates.) Later that year Floyd toured England and "You've Got to Be Crazy", eventually to become "Dogs", joined the set.

For ages the only way to hear these early versions of the songs was via bootlegs. I'd heard them on recordings from the mid-November shows at Empire Pool (Wembley Arena) that, although taped from the audience, were of excellent quality. But in 2011 recordings of these songs were officially released by the band.



I really like "Raving and Drooling" with its persistent percussion and the soloing by Wright. It has a raw feel that harkens back to the pre-DSotM days and would certainly have been the black sheep of Wish You Were Here had it been included. On the other hand, "You've Got to Be Crazy" sounds like it would have fit on Wish You Were Here quite well. Less mayhem and anger plus the keyboards sound like other songs on that album.


In 2014, I believe it was, a bootleg started making the rounds called The Extraction Tapes, Vol. 1. Supposedly from Britannia Row Studios and recorded in June 1976, it contains in-progress versions of all the songs on Animals. (Also included are field recordings of sheep baaa-ing and some blues improvisation from their 6 July 1977 show in Montreal.) Sometimes a vocal is just a bit different than the album version while "Sheep" still has the lyrics from "Raving and Drooling" and some of the music which would later be excised. "Pigs on the Wing" hasn't been riven in twain yet and has an electric guitar solo, although I'm not sure if it's the same one that's on the 8 track version of the song.





To the best of my knowledge, Pink Floyd never played any songs from Animals after the In the Flesh tour of 1977. But Roger Waters has so here is "Pigs (Three Different Ones)" live from Milwaukee, WI on 29 July 2017.

20 January, 2021

Hey Braggot!: Paint It Black by Giant Jones Brewing & Bos Meadery

 

With a pandemic raging, people afflicted with Trumpian madness storming the Capitol in Washington D.C., and a polar vortex set to swoop down upon us, these are the days that not only try men's souls, but also give them a thirst that can only be slaked by something a bit more pantagruelian than the average beer.

Thankfully here in Madison we have Giant Jones Brewing Company. Proprietors Jessica and Erika Jones figured they'd start a brewery. A very niche brewery. It opened in 2018 and offers only the headiest of beers brewed exclusively with organic ingredients. Everything is a barleywine or an imperial or a double or bock strength or a triple or what have you. While they offer a double IPA, they also brew styles that are much less common in these parts including weizenbocks (pale und dark) and a rotating selection of barleywines all the year long.

Just two blocks from Giant Jones is Bos Meadery where Colleen Bos, a "former" medievalist, transmogrifies honey, water, and yeast into mead. The meadery opened in 2012 and has been producing meads made with various varieties of honey, fruit, herbs, and spices ever since. Mead is a cousin of wine and most of Bos' are of similar strength to their vinous relatives.

And now, just like the gustatory congress of chocolate and peanut butter, Giant Jones got their beer into Bos mead. Or did Bos get their mead into Giant Jones' beer? Either way, they now give us Paint It Black braggot.

Braggot is like a cross between mead and beer and does not seem to be made particularly frequently, at least not here in Wisconsin. Paint It Black may be a first for Giant Jones but Bos has offered at least one braggot previously - during Madison Craft Beer Week in 2018 and it was excellent. They produced it in collaboration with St. Francis Brewery (R.I.P.) and it featured a rye stout, if memory serves, given the meady treatment.

Honey is one of those foods that I never thought about much until, quite frankly, I began to drink mead. Unless you grew up on a bee farm, I'd bet honey was just this golden, treacly stuff to you as it was for me. Then I drank mead made with single nectars and discovered that there is more to honey than meets the eye. Go to the Bos Mead Hall and sample the their Wildflower, Buckwheat, and Cranberry Blossom meads and you shall taste what I mean.


Paint It Black merges Giant Jones' winter seasonal, Extra Stout, with Bos' Wildflower Mead. My bottle was filled on 8 December 2020 so it was fairly fresh when I consumed it. As the name indicates, the braggot appears to be black. And, as usual, if you contort yourself just right, you can tell that it is a deep reddish brown. The tan head was soft & pillowy and hung around for an average amount of time. You know, a minute or so. It looked lovely.

In addition to its good looks, the brew smelled wonderful. (My notes say "awesome!") Coffee and bitter chocolate dominate here but the mead's floral-vanilla sweetness was certainly no slouch even if it wasn't as prominent. I was reminded of a box of fancy truffles, such as you'd get from CocoVaa, that use flowers as an ingredient. It smelled lovely.

At first, I tasted dark chocolate and honey sweetness but then came a touch of wildflower (which grew a tad as the braggot warmed) and a moderate bit of carbonation. Coffee and herbal hop bitterness came through on the swallow. A fizzy dryness and some boozy heat rounded my sips out. It tasted…lovely.

Really. I simply adored this stuff. It had all the roasty/coffee/chocolate flavors that are why I love dark beers so much plus some floral ones as well which are, to my taste, woefully underused in beer. At 9.4% A.B.V. it will take your cares away and warm you up but it doesn't taste heavy. Instead, it goes down smooth and easy.

Junk food pairing: Paint It Black is best enjoyed with a bag of dark chocolate covered pretzel thins. The chocolate complements the stout well while the pretzel adds more grain flavors plus salt which further heightens the meady goodness of the braggot.

18 January, 2021

The Corona Diaries Vol.7: Down On the Banks of the Oconto

November 2020

Our local supermarket has started carrying more "exotic" fruits. My guess is that it's in response to a growing number of customers who are either Hispanic or of Southeast Asian descent. And so there are now Dragon fruit, persimmons, and hitherto unknown to me varieties of mango now available for our delectation. Previously we'd have to take a trek to a smaller ethnic grocery store to find such fruits. (Not that I mind doing so, mind you.)

On a recent visit I noticed that quinces are now on offer.


I bought a couple of them and proceeded to make some quince marmalade.


I made it according to an adapted 17th century recipe:

To make rough red marmelade of Quinces. Take Quinces and pare them, cut them in small peces from the coare, then take as much sugar as the peces doe waye, and put the Quinces beinge cutt into an erthen pott and put halfe the sugar that you waied into the pott and as much water as will couer them, then sett them into an ouen with howsholde breade. then when they are paked poore them into a postnett or preseruinge pan and put the rest of the sugar to it, then bruse them with the back of a spoone, then boyle them with sturringe till it will come cleane from the bottome of the pan then boxe it.

I got caught the itch for historical cooking many years ago when I attended a seminar on medieval cookery. Since then I've occasionally taken pleasure trying to cook like it's 1399. One's tastebuds are often challenged when all of the foodstuffs of the New World are absent. However, there are plenty of familiar things such as cryspes, which we know as funnel cakes. (Probably the only period food you'll find at a Renaissance Faire.) I found a recipe for frutours – fritters – that are apple slices dipped in beer batter and fried.

While most of the ingredients in medieval cooking are in everyone's kitchen, some are not. I mean, who uses verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes) these days? I had to mail order a bottle of it. Grains of Paradise were found at Milwaukee's public market. The cubebs for my medieval meatballs, pumpes, also had to be shipped in, this time from the west coast. Cubebs are Javanese peppercorns. Similar to the black pepper we enjoy everyday, it tastes a bit more sprightly, more citrusy to me.

Pumpes are beef meatballs seasoned with mace, clove, cinnamon, and saffron in addition to cubeb. They are served in an almond milk-based sauce flavored with mace and cinnamon.


It's funny to see "pumpkin spice" everywhere during the autumn because cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg were all basic spices for the medieval chef and used year-round. The basic seasoning blends – powder douce & powder fort – were based around them and often used on meats, not just sweets. I blame Starbucks.

********

After I'd gotten home from my trip, someone asked if I'd seen the marker of the Sputnik 4 debris crash site while I was in Manitowoc. Alas, I had not. D'oh! While I'd heard about it previously, it slipped my mind when I was there and I never encountered any signs imploring me to go see it. The silly part is that I was only a block away from it when I was making my trek north of downtown in search of baked goods.

Next time.

********

About a hundred miles northwest of Manitowoc is Mountain and that was the second destination on my vacation itinerary. A couple friends of mine from Chicagoland have a cabin just outside of town and gave me free use of it. O
n the way there I passed by a roadside shrine.


I'd never seen one outside of Portage County to the west and had always taken a different route to the cabin. I shouldn't have been surprised, however, as I was just north of a town called Pulaski and just south of a little unincorporated village named Krakow. These shrines are a Polish(-American) phenomenon and are found at crossroads. (Sometimes you'll find a cross but no shrine.) I suppose they announce you're in a Polish/Catholic area but I wonder if their placement has historical roots in the supernatural lore of crossroads.

My friends' cabin is on the bank of the north branch of the Oconto River. I know I've gone down the right driveway when I see a familiar sign.


It was a beautiful morning with some fall colors coming in.


The cabin has no electricity nor running water but no expense was spared with the dual seat outhouse.


The river was high and flowing quickly.


It was wonderful to be out in the country away from computers and cars in a spot where the loudest noise was the river flowing. No masks, no news, and the lovely outdoors instead of being ensconced upstairs at my desk in my office at home.

Across the road lies the Nicolet National Forest so I took a stroll. At one point I heard a woodpecker and tried to find it. As I was gazing upwards, an acorn fell and missed my head by about a foot. I never spotted the bird so I continued hiking down the road and found a trailhead at the end of it. So down the path I went.


The trail was about a mile long and ended at a national forest road. There was some wonderful scenery along the route with even more fall color than there was to be found by the cabin. As I wandered near a small pine stand, I could smell the coniferous goodness. The smell of the country is wonderful. Well, as long as you're not downwind of a farm.

After my little hike, I wandered back to the cabin and lit a fire. With dinner I had one of my favorite potent potables, a Schlenkerla Rauchbier.


Rauchbier = smoke beer. That is, the malt is dried with direct heat from burning beechwood so the grain is kissed by the smoke imparting guaiacol and syringol and whatever other chemicals make smoked foods taste so delicious.

The Schlenkerla brewery was established in 1405 in Bamberg, Germany where Rauchbier is the town's specialty. Back then most beer was smoke beer as I believe the use of indirect heat/use of coke instead of wood to dry malt is a 17th century invention. Bamberg is also home to another Rauchbier brewery, Spezial, but, sadly, they do not export their beer to the States. This being the case, the Frau and I are determined to visit Bamberg someday to sample their brews. Plus, the town has retained some medieval buildings so I can indulge my love of the Middle Ages while there.

I also had a bottle of Becherovka, a Czech digestiv with me. It was given to me by an uncle when he was clearing out his liquor cabinet on a recent visit. A couple swigs made a fine post-prandial treat but it was too sweet to drink a lot of. Perhaps if had been colder or diluted. Just a bit cloying for me. I left it in the cabin's liquor cabinet for future guests to indulge themselves.

I stayed at the cabin for only one night as my next stop was Stevens Point, home of a couple friends from college whom I hadn't seen in several years. As I was packing up, I heard a woodpecker nearby. I was able to find this one and even got a snap of it.


Bonus photo: some fine chainsaw totem art from Madison.



17 January, 2021

The Janus in January


Despite the chilly weather, I rather like January. It is the time to look back and to look forward, after all. There's recollecting both the good and the bad of the previous year followed by that wonderful sense of expectation of the year to come. Spring will arrive and we can each emerge from our hibernaculum. The temperature rises and we are treated to verdant scenery once again. The world takes on a patina of newness and people become determined to make hay while the sun shines because winter always returns. But it's harder to muster that optimism these days with Covid-19 still running amok and the site of insurrectionists/rioters storming the Capitol in Washington D.C. still fresh in our minds.

Overall, though, I am rather sanguine. While I certainly don't expect life to return to pre-pandemic normality in 2021, I do think things will get better. If nothing else, warmer weather means more opportunity to socialize with others outside, respectfully distanced. So there is always that to look forward to. But I have at least a modicum of confidence that vaccines will find their way into more arms, that there will be less sickness and death.

I have to admit that I have been rather lucky these past 10 months or so. My family has remained Covid-free while only two friends contracted it and they experienced relatively minor symptoms. My home office became my workplace and the same was true for my Frau. There are many people for whom the pandemic was much more disruptive and much more costly. I suppose my outlook is rooted in the fact that 2020, while certainly not the best of years, wasn't horrible for me.

In fact, there were some very positive developments last year. One of them was all of the early spring walks I took before starting work. Getting to know the call of a red-winged blackbird and triangulating my way to spying a woodpecker nest back in April were, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, not major events. But, for me they were invaluable moments of calm at a time when people were getting sick from a virus that was not well understood and businesses were closing left and right. A little Waldeinsamkeit amidst all of the uncertainty. I look forward to resuming them in a couple months or so.

Another change for the better is that I have started buying flowers on a semi-regular basis. No, I do not have a green thumb and have no talent whatsoever at flower arranging. Every other trip or so to the grocery store I buy a bouquet. Ironically, I neglected to do so today. I just find it pleasant to have some pretty and sweetly scented flowers on the dining room table. I started doing this after I heard an episode of a podcast featuring the lead singer of Marillion, Steve Hogarth. In it he told of how he buys flowers for his hotel rooms when he is on tour. Just a little something to gussy up the place. The whole idea just seemed like a good one to me. Add a little color, bring some nature inside.

With many people in need and my pocket book doing alright I began donating more money in 2020. Both to new recipients and on a regular basis to an old one or two. I have been giving money to Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin (so my neighbors can eat), the Literacy Network (so my neighbors can read), Youth Guidance (so low-income kids in my hometown of Chicago get help to better themselves), and others that I cannot think of off of the top of my head.

In addition, I've been supporting local businesses when I can. We get dinner delivered or do takeout occasionally, I buy my CDs from MadCity Music, and I have been expanding my library with the help of A Room of One's Own. I suppose this isn't really new since I have been buying my CDs from MadCity for decades, for example. But I have been going out of my way to get locally roasted coffee! Buying local really isn't a new practice for me. I was saddened recently to read another Madison blogger write about all of the books that Amazon was delivering to his doorstep. Give me convenience or give me death!

Since we are not living paycheck to paycheck, I think about the kind of Madison I'd like to see when the pandemic is brought under control, if not ends, and I try to spend and donate accordingly. I would like a Madison to emerge from the pandemic populated by more than Starbucks, McDonalds, Home Depot, etc.

Something F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote comes to mind: "A man does not recover from such jolts-- he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about." By the time the pandemic ends or is at least under control, it will have taken many people, restaurants, shops, theaters, cultural institutions, etc. with it. I am not eager for people to die nor for any more Madison businesses and traditions to disappear but it will be very interesting to be around when that new Madison emerges.

In 2021 I have a few things to look forward to. One is being able to contribute to the process of redesigning the bus network here in Madison. Jarrett Walker and Associates have been hired to give our patchwork network an overhaul. This year they will study our bus system and then come up with alternatives to be implemented starting next year, if all goes well. When I start riding the bus again, I hope to be able get where I'm going more quickly. Heck, maybe even be able to take the bus to places I've not been able to previously.

Last month I wrote about some of my favorite movies, music, etc. of 2020 and normally I'd have a list of albums, films, books, etc. that I was eagerly anticipating in the new year. Covid has thrown the film industry for a loop so who knows what will be released this year beyond comic book movies? The only one that I am anxiously awaiting that is scheduled to be released this year is Denis Villeneuve's adaptation of Dune. This being the case, I will continue to work my way through my to-watch list.


As for music, I will be purchasing Tea Party Revenge Porn by Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine when it comes out in March. Beyond that, I don't know what to expect in new music releases this year.


But even in years without a pandemic, I discover new and fun things and so it shall be in 2021. I just really wish I could go to the cinema. More safely than I can now, anyway.

13 January, 2021

Daisy, Daisy, give me your pilsner, do: To Those Who Wait by Working Draft Beer Co.


The world of beer and brewing, like any human endeavor, is full of legends, lore, and downright bullshit. I think the first bit of BS foisted upon me regarding beer was about Killian's Red. One afternoon a friend and I were at Buck's – the late, great, and lamented establishment on Hamilton Street here in Madison that had a fireplace, perpetually reeked of vomit, and poured some of the strongest drinks in town – sipping on the macro Irish red lager. My friend asks me, "Do you know how they get the beer to be this color?"

This is the early 1990s and I was quite ignorant of brewing methods. It could have been judicious use of red dye 40 for all I knew. I shake my head.

"They put very finely ground tobacco in it," he tells me.

"That's bullshit," I retorted. "You know how I know it's bullshit? Because you're full of shit," I explain. It was true. He was a smooth-talking bullshitter. Granted, it helped him get more ass than a toilet seat in college but I'd known him long enough by that point to realize when he was trying to slip something by me.

The beer world is full of such fabulation.

Just when you think you know the history of, say, a beer style, someone pulls some brewing logs or tax records out that they found at the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying "Beware of the Leopard" which demonstrate your knowledge to be nothing but a craft beer canard. Q.E.D. I've had beer historian types expose so many stories that I once took as gospel to be nothing but myths that I now doubt everything that appears on a beer label or brewer's website with a level of skepticism that would make even René Descartes sit back in awe.

Much to the credit of Madison's Working Draft Beer Company, neither the label for their Czech-style pils, To Those Who Wait, nor their website makes any claims on the history of the style.

Pilsner beer dates back to the early 1840s and the Czech city of Plzeň (a.k.a. – Pilsen). The story goes that the (top-fermented) beer brewed there was so bad that the town fathers eventually got fed up and commissioned a new brewery to be built so they could have some decent beer for a change. It would be state of the art with its own malt house that would use indirect heat so as to produce pale malt, still something of a novelty at that time in much of the world. And the beer would be bottom-fermented, the hip new(ish) trend in brewing. To pull this off required a secret stratagem involving a monk being recruited to smuggle the precious flocculators out of Bavaria.

By 1842 the shiny new brewery (Pilsner Urquell) was humming along nicely and in November of that year the first batch of clear, fizzy, golden piwo was being served at the finest establishments in Plzeň.

That is more or less the pilsner piety I was given when I was initially learning about the style. But as time went by and I read more from Evan Rail, an American expat researching Czech beer history from his home in Prague, the more I realized there was more to the story and that robe and dagger bit with the monk was nothing but a tall tale. The price of local beer and a desire to indulge in trendy lagers were also factors in the invention of pilsner.

For more on the history of pilsner, check out Rail's blog, Beer Culture.

Working Draft Beer Company opened in 2018 smack dab in the middle of Madison's Marquette neighborhood just northeast of downtown. The brewmaster (and co-owner, I see as well) is Clint Lohman who has previously worked at Wisconsin Brewing Company and Vintage Brewing before that. I had a splendid conversation with him at a Madison Craft Beer Week event several years ago when he was still laboring under the tutelage of Scott Manning at Vintage. I'm happy to see that he has his own brewhouse now.


Lohman's To Those Who Wait is what I think you'd call a Světlý Ležák over in The Czech Republic. (Czech sure uses a lot of diacritical marks.) Here we call it a Czech-style pils or a Bohemian pilsner. Although Czech dark lagers are popping up here and there these days, this type of pale lager is surely the most common style available from U.S. brewers and the one I'd bet comes to the minds of most drinkers when they think of Czech beers.

To Those Who Wait was a lovey light gold color and crystal clear. My pouring skills produced a nice white head that was light and pillowy and stuck around for a while. In addition to lookin' mighty fine, it smelled nice too. A little cracker plus the traditional Saaz aromas that, to my nose, are like grass and black pepper/cubeb. A little herbal too.

The beer's medium body tasted of cracker along with that green/grassy and peppery tastes from the hops. My notes say that the carbonation was perfect. Enough for a nice fizziness on my tongue but not too much so as to overwhelm the milder flavors. Plus I think the moderate fizz helped give the beer a creamy taste.

For the finish there was a moderate grassy/herbal hop bitterness along with a little dryness from the carbonation.

The name To Those Who Wait is apparently a nod to the 8 week lagering period that the beer gets. While I am unsure how long Pilsner Urquell, Staropramen, etc. are aged, here 2 months yields an extremely tasty brew with a light, crackery flavor complemented by those delicious Saaz hops. Not a big, bold brew, just one with lovely delicate flavors all in their proper places.

Junk food pairing: At 4.2% A.B.V. To Those Who Wait will pair with a nice thin potato chip. I recommend getting a big bag of Old Dutch Onion & Garlic Potato Chips. The pils will go down extra easily after a few handfuls.

11 January, 2021

Darker Than Your Average Beer: Ice Bear by Third Space Brewing


Erratum. In my last review of a Third Space product, I wrote that it – their Cranberry Gose – was my first taste of their beer. This was incorrect. I have since discovered that I had tasted one of their brews back in the olden times before Covid, about 11 months ago.

Mea culpa.

Milwaukee's Third Space Brewing is a relative newcomer having opened in 2016. But my impression is that they are generally well-liked. Or their beers seem to be, anyway. And I have at least a modicum of respect for any brewery that makes a Baltic porter, a style that doesn't seem to be in favor these days since A) it's (generally) a lager and B) it is fairly resistant to hops that taste like mangos.

Long ago when I first heard about Baltic porters with their high alcohol content and black color, I figured this beer had been consumed in the Baltic region since time immemorial. In my mind's eye I saw medieval Latvians ripping off their furs to wrestle reindeer and bears naked for sport and, afterwards, chugging down a flagon full of the heady brew. Later I would discover that the truth was a little more mundane.

Without meaning to get overly epistemological, I suppose I should put an asterisk next to "truth" because I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that the origin story of the style is partly (or mostly) apocryphal. The tale imparted to me is that the genesis of the Baltic porter lies in the pleasant pastures of Albion.

Well, more likely the dark satanic breweries of London. Porter brewers began exporting extra strength versions of their beer to the Baltics in the late 18th century. The Russian imperial court developed quite an affinity for it and the brew became known as Russian Imperial Stout in some quarters. Locals started to brew it and, when the lagering craze hit the area in the late 19th century, they started to lager it. Fast forward another hundred years and you have English beer lover/writer Michael Jackson swing through the region and quaff a bunch before proceeding to label them "Baltic porters".

There's nothing outrageous in this account, no Dan Brown-esque conspiracy between an obscure Lutheran sect and the Hanseatic League forcing English brewers to have their product shipped north over to Murmansk and thusly requiring an extra strength brew with extra hops to survive the overland trips south to Riga. So, until I hear differently from someone like Ron Pattinson or Martyn Cornell, I am sticking with the above account.


Ice Bear looks like what I expect Baltic porters to look like – full on stygian gloom. Sure, if you hold your glass up to the light and twist your neck to just the right angle you can tell it's a very dark reddish brown but, if you look at the glass like a normal person, then it's black. As in no light gets through. The head was a lovely tan color and rather rigid. I moved my glass but it more or less remained in place.

The beer smelled really nice with coffee and dark/bitter chocolate being most prominent. I caught a hint of herbal hoppiness too.

For a beer that looks like a glass of Valvoline, it was medium bodied. That coffee and dark chocolate from the nose was present on the tongue but so was a nice plum-like sweetness. A little roasted grain bitterness was joined by a smidgeon of smokiness. Ice Bear is 9.5% A.B.V. and there was just a hint of booze. A bracing dose of spicy/grassy hops linger after the beer has gone down the hatch and makes for a pretty dry finish.

Ice Bear really hit the spot on a recent winter night. I adore the coffee and chocolate flavors from highly roasted grains and they're here in spades. The sweetness wasn't cloying but rather provided a fine foil for the bitter elements. It was nicely carbonated with just enough for a little tongue tingling fizz and a hint of the dryness to come on the finish.

It brought back nice memories of eating at Arbat Russian Restaurant (R.I.P.) in neighboring Fitchburg where I used to wash down plates of pelmeni and chebureki with a Baltika 6. I'm glad to see someone offer this style in these parts as it seems to be a rare sight in liquor stores. Perhaps it's where I shop, but I don't recall seeing any of the usual suspects like Okocim, Żywiec, or Baltika lately. And Vintage doesn't seem to have brewed their Baltic porter this year.

Third Space is probably having a rough time being a third space right now. (A third space being somewhere to socialize other than home or work.) But, if I were to go visit their beer garden, Ice Bear would be the perfect choice for standing outside in the Wisconsin winter trying to get my Gemütlichkeit on.

Junk food pairing: For a hearty brew like this, be sure to have a bag of beet chips on hand along with horseradish & bacon dip for, well, dipping.