Sunday, November 22, 2009

Stout Month Review: Left Hand Milk Stout

U can see thru race car drivers
Let me show U what I'm made of
Tonight is the night 4 making
Slow love


There are a lot of activities in the world that can, and should be, sped up. The trip from Chicago to Boston, for example - or graphics processing in game consoles, or getting a passport, or nuking a microwave dinner. On the other hand, some things in life will only work if you do them slowly. Roasting a duck, walking in the woods, buying a house. When it comes to such things, if you try to cut a few corners in order to save some time you will either miss the point completely or inevitably screw them up.

Philosophy, as it turns out, happens to be one of those things. There are born geniuses when it comes to mathematics or to counterpoint, but - with the arguable exception of Schelling (I considered Kripke too, but I don't think the early work counts) - there are no born philosophers. No one starts pontificating about the nature of perception at the moment they can speak. Philosophers are, on the contrary, normal folks - perhaps with a greater curiosity than others, although I'm not sure even that is necessary - who are, at one time or another, struck with the drive to think. And, even more odd, they stick with it. (I have a suspicion, albeit unconfirmable, that everyone "philosophizes" at one time or another - the difference being that everyone else has the good taste to stop at the moment when common sense first provides an answer).

At any rate, philosophy takes time. It requires some maturity, some amount of aging, to be philosophical - not a lot, but some. More than that, the act itself requires time to work itself though. A philosophy must ferment. Kant was famously silent for a decade before the publication of the first Critique. Descartes required half-again more than that between the initial moves of the Regulae and the publication of the Meditationes. Quine was nearly 20 years into his career before he published Two Dogmas. Husserl required nine fallow years for the Investigations, Heidegger 12 for Being and Time. Spinoza and Wittgenstein never even lived to see the publication of their (incomplete) masterworks, which they'd been hammering at for decades. And I could, of course, go on.

All of this is good evidence of the sheer wrongheadedness of taking these texts casually, as "positions" that can be easily understood, reckoned with, and taken up or critiqued by anyone interested. It is also good evidence of the sheer silliness of first-year philosophy majors who take it upon themselves to "refute" Descartes or Wittgenstein in a ten page paper written over the course of a weekend. And I say this not to make a case for "elitism," if by that one means that only certain special people should be able to talk about philosophy. There is - I stress again - nothing exceptional and inborn about philosophers, and education at the best of institutions does not guarantee any special status either. All I consider necessary is to give philosophy its time - to live within a problem, a text, or a way of thinking for awhile.

A philosophical affair takes awhile. One must sit with it, in summers and winters, in happy times and sad ones; one must debate the affair, attack it, defend it. Only after a long time, and (at minimum) many weeks of frusteration, might it begin to clarify itself. One can either grant it its time (with no guarantee of success) or sidle on past with things half-understood - and one can get quite far by sidling.

Anyways, all this talk about taking time brings me to the Left Hand Milk Stout. (And I've got a lot more stouts to write about before November comes to a close, so let's get right to it.)

Now what, you may ask, is a milk stout? Well, according to Wikipedia (which is always right, especially when it comes to philosophy), a milk stout "is a stout containing lactose, a sugar derived from milk. Because lactose is unfermentable by beer yeast, it adds sweetness, body, and calories to the finished beer." These days it's a rather obscure style - Sam Adams has the Cream Stout (which is one of their best beers), Young's has their Double Chocolate (which isn't as great as it sounds), and Bell's - which now seems to have about a hundred stouts to their name - has the Double Cream (which I haven't tried). Aside from those and the Left Hand here, I haven't seen any others around Chicago. Which is a shame, really - this is exactly the style you want when it's necessary to nurse a single beer for hours on end and piss off the bartender.

I'm a big fan of the Left Hand bottle design. This one, with its friendly white and blue color scheme and goofy handprinted cow, looks like the sort of thing Doug the Hopeless Dork brought to lunch every day in sixth grade (his mother being worried about his calcium, and making sure he had a big stupid bottle of milk every day). No indication of the alcohol content on here, but my friends at BeerAdvocate inform me that it's a welterweight at 5.2%. So, let's get her in a glass then.

The milk stout pours a surprisingly light-looking semi-transparent mahogany color. There's also a tiny, pitiful excuse for a head, if you can call it that - even with a very aggressive pour, you'd have to get into absurdly tiny finger-fractions to measure this thing. There's basically no lacing, which is fine by me. And then there's the smell - dear god, it's chocolate milk. No, really. This isn't one of those stupid poetic phrases that reviewers like to use because they can't think of anything more apt: this stout actually does smell like (really good) chocolate milk. At first the scent is not particularly strong, just very sweet and very... milky (sorry). After giving it a good bit of agitation, though, it opens up considerably. The roasted malts come right through, along with - strangely - sassafras. Yeah, odd as it may sound, this actually smells a little bit like root beer if you shake it like a motherfucker and stick your nose in deep enough. And now to taste it.

Well! The first thing you'll notice, probably, is the lactose's effect on the mouthfeel. God it's smooth. Almost supernaturally so. Actually, you couldn't get any more smooth if you put Billy D. Williams in a tuxedo and played So What over the stereo. This is so goddamned smooth, in fact, that one could easily pound down a bottle in a few minutes.

That would be a crime, however. In fact, it would be a crime (confession time) that I myself once made after coming off a massive, months-long investigation of malt liquors. Don't criticize me too much for this: a month's worth of forties will prime anyone to drink almost anything very, very fast. Now, imbibed in such a fashion, the milk stout is still a good beer. It's oddly comforting, like petting a cat for a moment or two before it scampers off. But slow down a little, though, and this good beer becomes a great one. You want to make this sucker last a half-hour at the very minimum, folks. Get comfortable, ignore the dirty looks of the gentleman behind the bar, and enjoy this stout the way Prince would have intended.

All right, we've noted the impossible smoothness - what about the taste? Well, although it's certainly not a kick-you-in-the-teeth kind of beer, the Milk Stout's got more complexity to it than it really deserves (or than one might initially expect). Up front it doesn't have much taste per se, but it's got a bit of a tingle - like an old can of root beer that's still got a bit of carbonation left. The creamy, malty sweetness comes next - it's milk chocolate all the way, with hints of vanilla and sassafras. Which leaves you completely open for the slight shock of bitterness that closes out the taste and coats one's throat all the way down. The flavor may be mainly milk chocolate, but by the end it's still got a good cacao bite to it. The aftertaste, of course, lasts forever, and further encourages you to be as slow with this stuff as you can.

I really like this beer. The slower you drink it, the better it gets. It could stand a little more complexity to it, to be sure, but not much. This beer, fundamentally, is an old easy chair, a big fat St. Bernard to lay your head on. It provides a comfortable way to pass the time, and it does that job with astonishing skill.

Grade: A-
Summary: A brilliant stout. Drinking slowly is preferred here.

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