Monday, January 4, 2010

Vacation Roundup: Clay Pipe Pursuit of Happiness and RJ Rockers Bell Ringer

(I bought I lot of beer over my holiday vacation to the east coast, and I'll be slowly working through it all over the next few weeks. Here, then, is the first installment.)

There are a lot of folks who don't make it into the thankless world of grad school (I'm not talking about the ones who get there and have the good sense to leave, mind, just the ones who don't make it in). A few - a lot fewer than you would think, really - don't have sufficient talent or training. That leaves the vast majority, who are good enough but by some arbitrary fiat don't make it in anyways. (And if you're reading this and thinking of going for this crazy thing, there is one thing to remember at all times: grad school is, at every moment that matters, a lottery. Or rather, it's a series of lotteries. And for each gamble you must throw more and more of your time and money, your sweat and your tears, into the pot. And you've got to nail every round to win the big prize, which isn't all that impressive anyways. And like any game of chance, you can do everything right and still lose.)

Anyways, the point is: even if you're extremely qualified, there's no way to predict whether you will get in or not. If you're too sociable or not sociable enough, if you've been taking classes with too many people or with two few, if you ask too many questions or too few, if you've gone to the wrong school, if your program took in too many people the year before, if you end up on the wrong side of a territorial squabble - all of these things can be the end of a graduate career.

But I'm not going to talk about those things. Instead, today I'm going to talk about those who (put positively) have wide interests, or who (put negatively) can't settle down on some particular issue or project.

In the fourth chapter of Being and Time Heidegger (in)famously discusses social life. One finds there a rather unflattering portrayal of the human being, which - weirdly - much of contemporary Anglophone philosophy is beginning to take very seriously indeed (I think of Brandom, for example). People are described as others, and my relationship to them rests on a "being-with" (Mitsein) which is constitutive for the structure of my own existence - there is a certain sense in which I must "be with..." even if, objectively speaking, there is no other example of homo sapien around. Others are fundamentally co-existences (in the sense, for example, of "coworkers") with whom I interact in the various tasks I deal with from day to day. Their being, as such, consists in the fact that we are all in the same world together, chatting about stuff and working together (or, indeed, being in a state of conflict or mutual indifference), and in rare circumstances even doing philosophy. This means, among other things, that the philosophical problem of other minds - "how do I know that anyone else out there is a thinking being?" - is completely dissolved. It does involve biting a bullet, though: "In that with which we concern ourselves environmentally the others are encountered as what they are; they are what they do (betreiben)."

"Betreiben" should be taken in the widest possible sense. What Heidegger is getting at is that we typically encounter others by way of their roles - that one as a baker, that one as the cop who could be checking out my car, that one as "the man who wrote Waverly" (Russell). There is a certain replaceability to others as we encounter them in everyday circumstances: I do not care who my waitress is so long as she is good at her job, I do not care which cab I take so long as I get where I need to go. The primary importance lies with the doing, not (as it were) the subject of the doing - which can basically be divided out of the equation. This can be extended even to roles that we would want to consider necessary - e.g., to someone's being the child of so-and-so (Kripke). And, for the most part, we even think of ourselves in this way as well.

There is something rather grim about this picture, and it has been criticized - with some justice - by many. It cannot make much sense of love or ethical comportment, for a start. I am willing to grant those moments a great deal of weight, but for the vast majority of situations I think Heidegger must be right. The first half of Being and Time has yet to be topped as a description of how we are, initially and most of the time, and nowhere is that fact more sobering than in that chapter.

I now return to my original topic, and deploy this insight in a bit of practical philosophy.

Let us say that you are an extremely bright young scholar of religious studies. You began by working on Native American practices, and to some extent you still do, but then you began to expand to other areas - say, more on the theoretical side of things (Marx or whatever). And after taking an extra class or two, you begin to get interested in the classical world too - particularly Herodotus. And also in contemporary debates about medical ethics. And then there's your long-running fascination with German romanticism. And somehow you tie all all of this together into your application. Even if you've done everything with style and clarity, here is the problem: if the powers that be are going to intelligently decide on whether or not to let you into their clubhouse, they have to know who you are. And if Heidegger is right, that means they have to know what you do. They need some quick way to call you to mind, e.g., That Guy Who's Working on Late Plato. If you're all over the place, if you never really commit, they probably won't be able to remember you.

And that brings me to the beers I'd like to talk about. They're not bad by any stretch, but they are both curiously neutral. They try to do a lot of things, but don't bear down on any of them. And that means that, while they're not bad, they're also not anything I'm going to try a second time.

The first is Pursuit of Happiness, a winter warmer from Clay Pipe Brewing in Westminster Maryland - a brewery I've never tried before. Heck, aside from Flying Dog this is the first Maryland beer I've ever had. It's rather strong for the style - 8.25% ABV, which is enough to put some holiday cheer into anyone's vacation. The bottle, decked out in blue and red, is festive but (I would say) rather generic.

Well, the pour isn't what I expected at all. Instead of the dark ruby I tend to associate with this style, there's an almost neon orange tinge to it - not to mention a huge, HUGE head. There's easily four to five fingers' worth of orange-flaked white, and this is after pouring less than half the bottle. It's persistent and sticky stuff, too: the inside of my glass looks like it's been attacked by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man. If only all beers this strong had such a head. And then there's the aroma, which is another pleasant surprise. Rather than festive spices, it's actually mostly hops, and leaning hard towards the citrus end of the scale at that. There's some yeast and a caramel malt aroma, but lemony hops is the star here. Here's some holiday cheer for you: it smells like a West Coast IPA, albeit a fairly laid-back one.

Well, that isn't what I expected either. It's light and not really in a good way. After the aroma I was expecting it to coat my mouth with lovely hop burning, and it's doing that some - just not to the degree I was looking for. That massive alcohol content doesn't come through at all, but I kind of wish it would: this is watery, to be honest. As for the taste specific, it starts off up front with a lite version of your standard hoppy IPA tingle. The malts come in right afterwards, all earthy and warm like an Autumn bonfire (with a bit of honey there to provide relief). It finishes dry, with the citrus hops coming in and then fading away to leave an extremely long bitter bite of an aftertaste.

It's a decent brew - I'd have it if I wanted something with a little force, but not quite up there at India pale levels. Nevertheless, I'm struck with the sense that it's not quite what it wants to be. It needs a thicker mouthfeel, certainly, but there's more to it than that. The tastes here are all over the place, with nothing much to unify them. They're just sort of there, one right after another. Hops! Malt! Now more hops!! Now some bitterness!! I have the sense that if they pushed this beer more in just one of the directions in which it's trying to go - if they committed to something - then they'd have a real winner. As it is, it's worth drinking (and it's a pleasant surprise in many ways), but it'll never be one of the greats.

Next up is Bell Ringer, an "Imperial ESB" from RJ Rockers Brewing in Spartanburg, South Carolina - another new company to me. And it's appropriate, too, since I've never had an "Imperial ESB" before. I suppose I should expect a normal Bitter on meth, then.

First of all, I have to mention the bottle. It's a real beauty. I once said about the Goose Island Oatmealer that it was the only beer that came in a tux, and I'm now going to have to take it back. Bell Ringer's bottle comes with a fantastic grey and white on black design that I absolutely love, in a sort of '50s diner logo sort of way. It's classy.

The beer itself pours a very dark rusty orange color, with a tiny half-finger head. Unlike the Clay Pipe, there's no surprise there: this is 8.5% ABV, and the lack of carbonation shows. The aroma is quite subdued; it's mostly malts (pale, especially), and caramel and honey are the central notes. On the other hand, it opens up quite a bit with a bit of agitation. Give it a shake and you get a lot more fruitiness, especially orange, and a bit of hops tingle.

The taste, as expected, is quite malty - once again, think of an IPA with about a tenth of the hop bite and you'll be close. It's a very well-balanced maltiness, never leaning too far towards sugar or bitterness. It begins sweet on the tongue, then gains a nice toasted flavor as it moves back. By the finish the toasted note takes over completely, with some orangey hops briefly stopping by to say hello. The aftertaste carries over the toasted flavor, and also comes across as strangely herbal - as if I'd just been chewing on some parsley. It's odd, but it grows on you. Like the Clay Pipe, this too is a bit watery. Unlike the Clay Pipe, you can tell right from the get-go that you're getting a boozy damn beer - that, at least, distinguishes itself right away.

So once again, it's a decent beer - there's nothing really wrong with it beyond merely what I can nitpick, but there's also nothing all that special or memorable. It's not a massive spectacle of tastes like a beer of this strength should be. That would be okay if it could be used as a workhorse, an everyday sipper, but it can't. As a session beer, it's just too lively. If this beer were a car, it'd be a Pontiac G8. It's a fine creation, almost perfect for what it is really, and it's great value for money - but no one will ever really want one. Somehow it lacks the sparkle that would make me love it, or even remember it.

I suspect that after I'm finished posting this review I shall forget about these beers altogether. And there's a certain injustice in that: they aren't bad, after all, just a little wishy-washy. I suppose, then, to remember a beer, one needs a "hook" of sorts. It needs a role; it has to do something, identifiably so. And these brews aren't quite there.

Clay Pipe Pursuit of Happiness
Grade: B
Summary: Think of it less as a winter warmer and more as a stronger-than-average pale ale. Less nutmeg, more cascade.

RJ Rockers Bell Ringer
Grade: B
Summary: Near-perfect boozy balance.

No comments:

Post a Comment