Some beers dare you try them.
If you’ve spent more than a few minutes of your time perusing the offerings at any bottle shop worth its salt or reading the buzz surrounding “avant-garde” beers and breweries, you’ll likely have come across a curious cabinet stocked with beverages containing whimsical and surprising ingredients. Some beers in this display case, such as the ones in Dogfish Head’s ancient ale series, reconnect us with our beer-drinking ancestors, calling on the authority of archeology and anthropology in the process. Other beers make reference to the pop-cultural delights of our quotidian existence. A beer that tastes like donuts with banana and peanut butter thrown in for good measure? Rogue’s got you covered. Or how about a beer that clocks in at over six hundred calories? Just add bacon and maple syrup, like the intrepid Brew Dogs of Scotland did when their road show stopped off recently in North Carolina.
These are only three of the more famous––or, some might argue, infamous––examples that represent but the tip of the iceberg in terms of the creative ferment that has washed across the North American craft beer scene. Some of these beers aim at nothing short of creation ex nihilo, while others are content with a plausible mimesis of some aspect of the world. As is the case with many an experimental movement in art, music, or literature, the fruits of an unbounded creative drive can be truly stunning. Other times the results are decidedly less scintillating.
Southern Tier’s Blackwater Series features a rotating cast of Imperial Stouts and Imperial Porters that are, for the most part, of the mimetic variety. Standards such as Choklat (which waxes poetic about the Mayan Popul Wuj and the connection between cocoa elixirs and the gods) and Mokah make regular appearances, while Plum Noir (an Imperial Porter with Italian plums) graces the portfolio from time to time.
Crème Brûlée, a series stalwart, entices with its promise of succulent dessert at the same time that it throws down the gauntlet: taste me and judge for yourself whether this beer is not just like crème brûlée. I succumbed to the challenge a few weeks back, and brought a bottle to a postprandial get-together. I gave the first glass to a friend who’s not a beer drinker, but who is an aficionado of all things sweet. Uncanny! he exclaimed upon smelling and tasting the beer. The rest of us gathered around the table concurred: the beer tasted as advertised. For that, the brewers are to be commended.
Yet none of us was able to embrace the Southern Tier Crème Brûlée wholeheartedly, much as we agreed that crème brûlée is among our favourite desserts. Later, I thought that perhaps herein lay the essence of our collective aversion to Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée: the beer was uncanny in the same way that lifelike dolls and automata are uncanny, and in the same way that waxworks are uncanny. The experience of drinking the beer was almost like that of smelling and tasting a crème brûlée. Almost. In our glasses was a crème brûlée Doppelgänger existing in a liminal twilight between food and beverage––an uncanny entity that had seemingly crossed over from the realm of food, but in so doing, had also severed its connection with beer.
Approached from another direction, Southern Tier’s Crème Brûlée is analogous to a photographic representation of crème brûlée, albeit an image of crème brûlée rendered in a bluntly realist mode that does not admit of many possible interpretations. Once I was over the initial shock of the uncanny nature of this beer, it evoked naught more than polite interest: highly stylized, the beer is nothing if not a testament to brewing skill, to be sure. Using vanilla beans and lactose in conjunction with various specialty malts to arrive at aromas and flavours of custard underneath charred and caramelized brown sugar is no mean feat. But there’s no art here, just technical virtuosity. No mystery, much less magic. The only contingency, the only surprise––this beer tastes like crème brûlée!––dissolves rapidly in the apprehension of this mimetic gesture.
Much as I like most of what Southern Tier has to offer, their Crème Brûlée is literal to the point of extremity––or, what amounts to the same thing, extreme to the point of literality. One of my friend’s fathers was in town that evening and shared a glass with us. His witticism summed things up brilliantly: “Next time, I think I’d prefer my crème brûlée on the side.”
Crème Brûlée: www.stbcbeer.com
Freud, “The Uncanny,” 1919.
Crème brûlée on the side: Wiki Commons
© 2014 Franz D. Hofer. All Rights Reserved.