Monday, January 11, 2010

Vacation Roundup: Asheville Ninja Porter, Olde Hickory Hickory Stick Stout, and Pisgah Porter

I watched Stalker (aka CTANKEP) for the first time a couple of months ago. I loved it. I could go into some specifics about what makes it so amazing, but suffice it to say it's just a brilliant, beautiful movie; it somehow manages to be thought-provoking without shoving things down one's throat. It's a great movie, and a thoroughly unique one.

Thing is, though, I wouldn't watch it every day. Hell, I wouldn't watch it every month.

This in itself seems to be enough to make questionable certain kinds of metaphysical assumptions; I am thinking in particular of Whitehead and process philosophy more generally. This position is generally not taken very seriously anymore, nor even particularly well understood, and I shall not try to describe it generally. One key feature to all metaphysical positions of this sort (broadly speaking), is that the work of "becoming" has to have an aim of some sort. Every entity, in the short moment of its being an entity, makes a 'decision' (in a very broad sense of the term) based on the various prevailing possibilities available to it. The thought goes that this 'decision' cannot be made at random, but must have some kind of telos. Whitehead says, for example, that "'becoming' is a creative advance into novelty" - by which he means, to grossly simplify, that the the cosmos as a whole, in all its diversity, must have an increase of novelty as its final aim. The 'decisions' of all entities, although never perfect, gravitate towards the novel. This must be as true of us as of anything else. Becoming, as such, is aesthetical. But why, then, should I prefer to watch something worse - Con Air, maybe - over Stalker? Surely I would say that Stalker is not only a finer film, but a more novel one. But I could watch Nicholas Cage sidekick dudes with a mullet all day, whereas Stalker is more of a once-a-year kind of thing. I spend hours watching dumb clips on Youtube, when a priori at least I should be watching City of God or something.

Now, in all fairness, I'm sure a sufficiently clever process thinker may find some way to explain away these particular examples as perfectly consistent with their position, but there's a more fundamental point that (it seems to me) still stands. Process philosophy attempts to understand every entity, every little scrap of being, as an instance of production, working, making, poiesis - in a cosmos where we ourselves are not always "at work." Hell, we aren't always even comfortable working. On the contrary, human beings have an orientation towards leisure which is at least as fundamental. I won't tease out any further what that means, at least not today, but it seems to me important to take note of. After all, as I never tire of pointing out, leisure is the first condition for philosophy.

With that in mind, then, I'd like to try out a trio of leisurely beers - two porters and a stout. These beers are all sold in deuce-deuce bottles, cost roughly the same, and are all made somewhere around Asheville. Seems like prime material for a roundup.

The first beer is the Ninja Porter from the Asheville Brewing Company. It's, well, a big bottle with a friggin' ninja on the label. It's dopey, but it's not like they were going for anything else. Maybe they were wise to do this. Really: if you passed a beer with a ninja on the label in your local shop, could you pass it up?

Out of the bottle it pours almost completely black, with just a trace of ruby at the sides if held up to a light. Not much of a head on this one either: I get a half-finger at first, which quickly dies down into a coppery froth. It does smell pretty damn good, though: milk chocolate right out front, flanked by some roasted malts and just enough fruitiness to keep things interesting. Further down in the back I also get raisins and a little bit of banana bread. No trace of hops, really, just a thick dollop of dark malty goodness.

I can report, verbatim, that my first words upon sipping this porter were "ooh, that's kind of nice." In a lot of ways this reminds me of the Bell's Special Double Cream Stout I had a few weeks ago (which was, I note again, neither creamy nor very special), except it's lighter, slightly more interesting, and a heck of a lot easier to drink. The cacao flavors from the roasted malt are dominant, but they're relieved by some honey, raisin nut bread, and sweet chocolate tastes. The word of the day here is "balanced." The taste up front features a mild coffee sting - no sweetness at all. Towards the middle the bitter coffee/cacao flavors remain in command, but at the same moment they're contested by a sugary-but-burntastic counterpart - almost a cola flavor, if you wish. By the end the cola develops into a molasses-and-chocolate kinda thing, which closes out on equal footing with the roasted malts (united in harmony to keep out the hops). The aftertaste is a bit cloying, really - imagine you've just had a not-so-great cup of sweetened black tea - but doesn't detract much from the rest of the beer. In terms of texture, it's about average for a porter. That is to say, those of us weaning ourselves off of Miller High Life are going to think they're drinking a loaf of sourdough, and those of us coming from a couple of imperial stouts are going to find it pleasantly light.

Me, I'm in the "pleasantly light" camp. I find this beer to be, as it were, not "exciting" or "interesting" (it isn't - if you've been around your English ales long enough, you know these flavors) so much as "refreshing." If I'd just crawled into the Asheville Brewing restaurant after a day climbing around the local mountains, this is the beer I'd want to have. It's not incredible - it's a bubble bath, if you like. It's just there to be kind of idly comforting. It's the When Harry Met Sally of beers, and it gets a B.

Next up on the plate is the Hickory Stick Stout from the Olde Hickory Brewery. Hickory is a city a ways east of Asheville, down in the foothills. You can think of it as Asheville's more workmanlike, less trendy, significantly less hippy big brother. I like to imagine that when they get together for holidays and such, Hickory tries to tell boring stories about the other guys working at the plant and Asheville has to spend ten minutes explaining why stuffing cooked in Hickory's turkey is no longer vegetarian.

Where was I? Oh, right. Anyways, the bottle has a reasonably pretty forest design on it.

Like the Ninja it pours real, real dark, albeit not "totally black" (as the side of the bottle would have you believe). Again, no real head to speak of - I get a little bit of tan fizz for a moment, which then settles back down again to leave a thin film. Hmm. The aroma, likewise, is pretty subdued - lots of milk chocolate in there, cut through with some coffee. None of the fruitiness from the ninja porter, but there's definitely some hops in there this time. It's a very vague aroma, really - I don't know what I'm getting with this one.

Well, now! This, too, produced an "Ooh, that's nice." The flavor development is very odd on this - it doesn't go at all how one would expect it to, but in a good way. It starts off with a tiny bit of a coffee tingle on the tongue, then develops a lovely hot cocoa kind of taste in the middle. Then, all of a sudden, WHAM. Roasted malts rush in like a flash flood, intermixed with a small measure of grapefruity west coast hops, all of it fusing with the already-established sweet malt flavors. It's rather as if your hot chocolate somehow got two shots of espresso and a lemon into it as you were drinking the stuff. The aftertaste is pretty dry, mainly carring over the roasted flavors. It's an unusual flavor line, then, but it grows on you quickly.

The Ninja Porter may be more refreshing, but this is the better beer. It's more creative, it's got more going on; it's the sort of thing you can show off to your friends (trust me, they haven't tried this one before). Hell, it would even work pretty well as a holiday beer. Actually, in some ways this is the most festive brew I've had since my buying spree - and that's with a couple of Christmas ales and winter warmers under my belt.

Unfortunately, however, it does not have a ninja on the label. No beer is perfect. But it gets a B+ anyways.

Finally there's the last of our trio of Asheville area bombers, which is another porter. This one, the Pisgah Porter, is from the Pisgah Brewing Company in Black Mountain, and it claims to be "Asheville's best selling beer." Hmm, I don't know about that, not as long as the big boys with their crap lager are still around. On the other hand, this claim is in fact the most interesting thing on the label. The rest of it is pretty nondescript. You get a kind of light brown color on most of the label, and then right in the center there's the "Pisgah" name and a shot of a river running downhill amidst a forest. It's the sort of picture one expects to find on a blue-coded Magic: The Gathering card, really. I kind of prefer the Ninja's label. Anyways, moving on...

Well, like the previous porter, this pours a nice dark ruby color (hold it up to a light and you can see hints of red at the sides). Also like the others, there's no real head here either - just a miserable half-finger that quickly disappears. The aroma is actually a bit stronger, although simpler as well: most of it, again, is chocolate milk, relieved by a little bit of earth and roastiness. No real hoppiness this time. That's really all there is to it in terms of character, but - again - it comes across as about twice as strong as the others. And now I taste it...


I don't want to think that I got a bad bottle somehow, but I can't imagine the beer is supposed to taste like this. If the Hickory stout takes a hard, powerslidy left turn halfway through the mouth, this one hits a tree. Hard. I mean, it starts off very nicely: there's coffee with cream and sugar on the front end, then a milky bittersweetness as it approaches the middle. And then it just kind of ends. The flavor falls off completely, leaving almost no aftertaste. It's not a dry finish or anything - there is no finish. You might be able to detect some slight sweetness and an odd, almost minty coolness, but that's it; it's like the beer just evaporates.

I simply have no idea what's going on with this beer. The flavor development is the closest any brew has ever come to coitus interruptus. I guess I can say the body is medium to thin and that it might pair well with some barbecue or something. Because it is, and it would. But saying that is just to cover how mystified I am by a beer that somehow steals itself out of my mouth the moment I swallow it. Does anyone understand this? What is happening here? What the fuck is going on?

I almost feel like I shouldn't grade this. I don't like it, but at the same time I can't get my brain around what they were doing here. If this is some kind of new self-cleaning beer, it's brilliant. If it's just an attempt at a decent porter, it's well short of the mark. I'll assume it's the latter.

Asheville Ninja Porter
Grade: B
Summary: It may have a ninja on the label, but inside it's a big teddy bear.

Olde Hickory Hickory Stick Stout
Grade: B+
Summary: A delicious and oddball surprise. Not quite world class, but different enough to chase down if you get a chance.

Pisgah Porter
Grade: D+
Summary: It's the Amazing Evaporating Porter!

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