Options in life often take the form of what is conveniently available plus feasible given resources. Imagine a standard American suburban Saturday night, when you are the squad are about to chill in the garage with some death metal and smokes. What can you pick up at a standard die-cut suburban liquor store or grocery store that does not hit either extreme, mediocrity or expensive novelty? One option for generations has been Newcastle Brown Ale, now brought to you by the same people who murdered Heineken and turned it into Budweiser with Dutch flavoring. Luckily, with Newcastle, there is less room to ruin: this has always been a medium-dark, sweet beer with a caramel-molasses flavor, and although this version is more watery than the ones from two decades ago, it mostly maintains that flavor. Pouring the beer releases a fallen leaves brown liquid with a medium head and an immediate note of its dominant flavor, a nutty warmth melded with malty stoved sugar with undertones of fresh bread and a hint of malt vinegar. It goes down smoothly with a creamy flavor and a lingering sweetness which might be the weakest point for this beer, followed by an earthy but not bitter flavor of hops. Like many commercial beers, its aftertaste is most revealing, which has the sugars dissipate to a slightly skunky yeast flavor. What saves it is that warmth and toned down brown ale flavor seamlessly mixed with a gentle sweetness. Sometimes this one is too sweet for me. But Newcastle Brown Ale provides a solid middle-of-the-road brown ale that can be found almost anywhere at a low import price, making this a go-to when the pale imitations of formerly great imports (and their 20% higher prices) make the lips curl with resentment and not anticipation.
The first flavor that rises off the burning mulch of Irish Oak is a vinegar taste merged with the sense of fresh-cut vegetation, but that rapidly gives way to a deeper almost chocolate taste of strong tobacco. Like a good English blend, the flavors in this mixture support each other without overdominating, and while they separate over time unlike some of the more refined English conglomerations, they work together to form a gestalt which brings out inner conflict as a type of balance. This blend from Peterson will not be an immediate favorite, but can win over a smoker over time as its strengths become apparent.
The official description reads, “A rich blend of Brazilian and African Virginia leaf with Cavendish and rare Louisian Perique,” but the end flavor is more like a rich Cavendish with hints of Perique and the Virginia having picked up a more vegetative flavor, perhaps from the sherry barrels in which this blend is supposedly matured. While this tin is generally classified as a “luxury” tobacco, in our broken times “luxury” means merely not botched. It is not a flatterer or fancy hugbox to avoid confronting tobacco in its feral state. Irish Oak balances its elements while keeping them wild, and offers a challenging palette of flavors for the experienced smoker. In a market flooded with various English and English-inspired tobaccos, this offering from Peterson of Dublin keeps its head up and stays idiosyncratic, delivering a complex smoke as a result.
The pouch note of this tobacco summarizes the experience; in the words of one noted taster, “It smells like a brownie.” Rich burley mixes with a faint touch of vanilla and a dose of cocoa, which manifests in a smoke in which the nutty burley flavors form a continuum with the chocolate.
Prince Albert belongs to that predominantly American genre of semi-aromatics, meaning that while it has flavoring, it is more like a top casing than the soaking of fluid given to aromatics. A working definition of aromatic: any tobacco blend where the flavoring essentially overwhelms the tobacco. Semi-aromatics on the other hand — like Prince Albert — feature mostly tobacco flavor, complemented by a top note. This distinction, while seeming fragile, nonetheless conveys what this blend is about. If you like the taste of well-matured burley with a hint of sweetened cacao, Prince Albert will provide hours of complication-free — the dominant trait of over-the-counter (OTC) blends like this one — joyful puffing. It is worth taking the time, since this perennial favor packs relatively light nicotine, albeit more than many aromatics.
This blend is designed for all-day puffing by people otherwise busy at everyday tasks who enjoy keeping a pipe in the mouth for little sips of nicotine with a wholesome flavor. Some have noted that this rather dry tobacco mixes well with other blends, and this reviewer can confirm that the introduction of another more powerful seasoned burley makes for a flavorful and more sustaining experience. At its heart, however, Prince Albert stands alone as a whole experience: a packet you can grab at just about any drugstore, easily packed and lit, that burns evenly and exudes hours of gentle flavor and quietly excellent smoke.
In the world of tobaccos, few more divisive choices exist than the Royal Yacht mixture from Dunhill. Composed of a base of Virginias sweetened during curing and lightly cased with a plum-orange backdrop, Royal Yacht extends the line of Dunhill tobaccos that begins in the Elizabethan Mix: strong natural flavor that seems one-dimensional until the smoker realizes that the dimension is in the tobacco flavor, not in the mixture of differently-cured tobaccos itself or aromatic additives. This is a dramatic contrast to other Dunhill tobaccos like Nightcap, in which the interplay of spicy, sweet and surly tastes creates a kind of coordinated riot; in Royal Yacht, a burley nuttiness and warm Virginia taste are mated to a sweet Virginia and then unified under that rather unobtrusive casing, creating a yeasty and hay-tasting classic Virginia smoke.
It should also be mentioned that, unlike the aromatics — tobaccos in which you taste flavoring more than the leaf, usually vanilla, cherry, peach, chocolate and various alcoholic beverages — Royal Yacht wins you over with the taste of its tobacco and its raw, untamed power. The name may be accurate since this would be the perfect complement to a smooth sea with moderate wind on a large, fast boat with able-minded companions. As a result of its strength, and the lack of variety in its taste, many smokers flee from this blend, hence its divisiveness. For the others, it is 1.76oz of paradise that lights easily and burns down to insubstantial white ash. Its few flavor components — two Virginias, perhaps a hint of burley, and a casing — meld together into a single taste which enhances its composite parts into more than their sum. It produces big billowy clouds of smoke which some claim are rather harsh and stinky, but this is why it is designed as an outdoor tobacco. Like a fine espresso, its rich taste must be savored and appreciated, but changes little throughout the bowl. The subtlety of its flavor within the context of so much power is what makes this tobacco a simple pleasure and work of art.
Much has been said about the Scandinavians taking over production of this tobacco from the English brand Murray. While the first few years seemed a bit unstable, with them taking time to get the hang of things, production at the current time seems of much higher quality and dare I say it, may be on par with the original. During its final years as Dunhill producer, Murray itself engaged in some questionable methods and spotty quality, so the transition needed to happen and now it seems finally done. Many people will hate Dunhill Royal Yacht no matter what the blender does simply because it is not fancy, like most of the over-the-counter (OTC) and boutique tobaccos that people fetishize on internet social media and message boards. If you love the feel of rope in your hand and its scent of organic fiber crafted with power into something functional but elegant, you may enjoy Royal Yacht. It evokes — and thus points us in the direction of restoring — a simpler, manlier time when life itself was viewed as good without endless poking, prodding and configuration to make it safe for nervous humans. This is a good tobacco to throw in your pocket and head out into the deep woods or open sea with, carrying your life in the palm of your hand and eyes open to the future.
The first question any smoker should ask when approaching this tobacco is whether or not Navy Flake is a style that they enjoy. The name conveys both the form, which is dense slices from a pressed brick, and the flavor which is provided by Virginia tobacco with very minor casing or additions to the mix. The result is a thick sheaf of tobacco that can either be rubbed out into shreds or stacked in the bowl.
Its flavor will appeal to those who like straight Virginias: a combination of harvest hay smells and clover honey, lightly touched with warm molasses and perhaps the scent of leaves in fall. It tastes like it smells, and brings a warmth of flavor into the bowl. This tobacco competes with other Navy Flakes like those from Dunhill, Escudo and Gawaith, but aims for a more middle-of-the-road appeal for those who want something flavorful to smoke all day. Its nicotine dosage registers at the lower half of the middle of the scale, not as light as the drugstore aromatics but not as hard hitting as the flakes which appeal to the battle-scared pipe smoker, aloft in his mountain retreat or on the prow of a ship, pausing only briefly to inhale before firing back at some unseen enemy. Newminster flake burns gracefully and leaves behind a fine white-grey ash, coating the room in a gentle note that often appeals to non-smokers as well.
Navy Flake appeals to a certain type of smoker in a certain situation. It is a light smoke not as in taste reduced, but in that all of its flavors strike gently rather than hard; the smoke from this, while somewhat harsh with some bite, floats gently and rewards slower smoking. The disadvantage to this blend frankly is that it is lighter in nicotine and flavor, which makes it better for smoking all day when distracted than sitting down for a good solid smoke when working or relaxing. While it ranks higher in gentle flavor than some of the other flakes, it lingers behind them in power and interest; a good Virginia brown, better than many but not configured to be a favorite.
The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.
Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.
Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.
To get started, you will need:
A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.
To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:
You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)
Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the pipe. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.
My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.
Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.
When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.
Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.
Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.
Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.
That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.
For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:
Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.
I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.
You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.
From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.
At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.
Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:
Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.
Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:
Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.
English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.
You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:
Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.
The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.
A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.
The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.
The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:
If I had to identify a problem with beer in America, I would say it is that the audience is generally teenage in outlook, even if three decades removed from that age group. People are afraid to buck a trend and to admit that something which their favorite journalist writes up is in fact, odious, and instead they sit around, drinking hipster beers that turn the hops or yeast up to 11 and expect you to like it or be labeled an idiot who can’t appreciate good beer and thus a philistine who belongs in the lower classes, afraid to admit that they are in fact drinking swill.
Shiner White Wing is one such example of swill. Bilgy, decomposition-scented, sweet and yet acidic swill. Joining the trend of Belgian white ales it embarks upon a course of taste that is disgusting, but because it is disgusting allows hipsters and salarymen alike to claim profundity for liking it, White Wing is septic pond water of a beer. It has all that a hipster needs: ironic taste, oddity and quirkiness, and of course it comes from Shiner — who make their fortune selling domestic beers at import prices simply because the average American beers are so horribly bad — so it has automatic hipster cred, which is a holdover from the 1980s when Shiner was cheap beer for desolately poor artists, instead of weekly trust fund credit card swipe party favors for useless hipsters. If you enjoy the thought of fermenting grass and leeks together in a giant vat of sugar and coriander, you may enjoy the appeal of Shiner White Wing, but no one gets to that state honestly; it’s pure Stockholm Syndrome. In all fairness, this review is overwritten. It should merely say: “Yuck.” By doing that, I have stood up in a room of utter sheep disguised as anti-sheep and pointed out that they drink this crap because it is “different” and “ironic” but not because it is good. And good it is not. You’d do better with a brandy and pipe and avoiding this disgusting swill.
Witbier in general has zero appeal to me. The basic idea is this: use lots of cheap wheat in the beer, add coriander to make it “unique,” and then keep the fermentation going until just before the point of consumption. The result is a cloudy, sickeningly sweet, foamy beer that tastes about like huffing the results of a bag of scallions decomposing in the summer heat. If you fed a horse coriander and political promises, its flatulence would taste like this. The white beers I have had from more reputable breweries did better than the Shiner treatment, which consists of making every beer as grainy and yet dehydrating as possible, but the entire style is disgusting and appeals to those who crave novelty more than balanced or even quality flavor. Yuck, ten thousand times yuck. I am sure that the hipsters now are primly poised on their bar stools as they smugly prepare to excoriate me as a beer-illiterate who merely likes his simple ales like a good peasant, but the real peasantry here is people pretending to like this for being “unique,” when in fact it is disgusting. The emperor has no clothes! Witbier is vomit! And Shiner White Wing is low-quality clothes optional vomit sold at top tier prices. Avoid at all costs.
Many Americans know the comforting brown appearance of bottles of Negro Modelo, possibly the last good decent beer for sale on the shelves of your average grocery store or Wal-mart. The others have fallen to consumerism, which is separate from capitalism because it relies on mass preference, and have become the fast food version: essentially soft drinks with beer flavor and separately distilled alcohol injected. This creates a wasteland of plenty. There are many options, but almost all of them cater to morons, and so the options are paltry.
Modelo Especial turns out to be not a Corona clone, but a relatively rich beer with plenty of grainy taste and some spice behind the sweetness. I was pleasantly surprised since, given its widespread availability, I assumed it was designed for morons. However, its obscurity as a Mexican beer — at the time when most people are drinking hipster microbrews that are universally bad because they overemphasize difficult and obscure flavors over simply making a quality beer — may have protected it from the Great American Gold Rush. Every weekend, millions of zombies leave their undead jobs and get in their cars to go home. Because their heads have been drained of any thoughts by the sheer stupidity and illogicality of what they are called to do, there is one option for the weekend… get loaded! — and they do this by trotting on down to Wal-mart in their golf shirts and buying, well, you wouldn’t want to get the usual mainstream beers would you? Just something enough imported to be quality… that means you go to the 9.7-11.8 cents/ounce category of Familiar Imports… and it turns out most of these are fakes… so you grab whatever looks good, go to the checkout and head home. If you drink five of them quickly you might not notice that they are basically burpwater soft drinks flavored like beer, and get a good buzz going. Modelo Especial has escaped this crazy rush because it remains consistent and marketed at lower income, so it does not have the pretense and “unique/different” factor of hipster beers or Familiar Imports, and thus is bought only by — you guessed it — actual appreciators of quality beer. The crowd cheers.
But this beer, unlike the unfortunate Corona Extra to which it is frequently compared, has an abundance of flavor that is more balanced than it is extreme. The hipster beers shit the bed by trying so hard to be ironic they become subtly disgusting, and the audience of sheep is too neutered to simply stand up and say that these beers are vomit fodder. The Familiar Imports are all basically watery and have a pulpy, rotting vegetation taste at this point. But Modelo Especial carries on, with a slight undertone of the pungent smell of its fermented origins, but mostly a warm and broad taste that works in sweetness like a summer evening. Like Negro Modelo, this is a beer to be enjoyed during normal events in life. It will impress no one from the label, but they will actually enjoy drinking it instead of pretending to like another over-priced over-fetishized hipster brew. Full of warmth, it is like the best of Mexico, a simple but entirely rewarding experience.
This drivel sells under import prices when it is essentially repackaged American beer. Gone are the Dos Equis highlights of the 1980s, when XX brown was a thick flavorful beer that provided an alternative to the dreck on the big shelves. Now you get the watery drivel that happens when a firm decides to maximize profit based on the — not lack of information — low ability to discern shit from gold that identifies the average consumer. This liquid tastes pulpy and soapy and has low alcohol content, or at least low effect. It may be because if not drunk absolutely cold, it resembles the pulque substance they make in prisons more than beer. Any pretense that this is superior to Michelob are nonsense; it is a pale shadow of its former self, made fruitier and vapid so that Average Citizen Idiot can bob his head while listening to the “edgy” Ramones cover band at his local icehouse and talk up the fat women hanging like vegetative overgrowth around the bar, as everyone around him imitates past edginess in an attempt to seem like anything but the corporate stooges they are. Seriously, this is Mexican-flavored Miller Lite. Every burp feels like a vomit about to happen, except it is just the taste of this bilgy sweetened pond water masquerading as beer. Speaking of corporate stooges, this beer is undrinkable, unless you have already numbed your taste buds to the point of accepting the mediocre as the norm.
As much as I enjoy a bitter beer, or an idiosyncratic one, Convict Hill Oatmeal Stout confuses the outward appearance of refined taste with the taste itself. An intensely sour and dark beer, it swings away from the pleasurable dimensions of beers toward small rooms full of “experts” who like highly demonstrative, artificed tastes. Such drinkers are looking for a beer to talk about how much they enjoyed, rather than enjoying it, while overpraising it like metalcore in a big heavy metal magazine. They will discuss its oddities, use vague terms like “creamy,” and generally miss the point: this beer is designed toward unbalanced extremes to make talking points, and has character within.
As a result, it makes a terrible everyday beer, and while it might be good as a Guinness substitute in a black and tan where a dark and bitter beer is necessary to offset the Bass or other pale ale used in contrast, by itself constitutes the same kind of unpleasant drinking experience that eating straight dark chocolate provides to the culinary palate. Like gourmet food that carries the pretentious epithet an acquired taste, this oatmeal stout misses out on the balance of a really good version of this sub-type, in which harvest flavors balance the bitterness to create a sense of transition, and instead aims toward something for gritted-teeth hipsters to use as a conversation topic when explaining the superiority of their taste to yours. At that it succeeds because there is so much to talk about but none of it is interesting. Take for example the separation of flavors so that the aftertaste is a tarry version of the foretaste; or perhaps, the strange fermentation overtones as if something random were included in the vat, or the process did not quite complete. Independent breweries are quite trendy now but this beer shows that it is not the size of the brewery, but the intent of the brewer, that makes a great beer instead of a faddish mediocre one.