Session #18: Happy Anniversary

Welcome to the anniversary of our 18th Session a.k.a. Beer Blogging Friday. This month our theme is celebratory anniversary beers, brought to us by our host, The Barley Blog, under the title “Happy Anniversary.”

Use this as an excuse to celebrate. Open a limited release anniversary beer from your favorite brewer. Enjoy that special beer you normally only open on your wedding anniversary or birthday. Either way, tell us about it. Why is it a beer you may only drink once a year? Why is that brewery’s annual release the one you selected?

Last month, our Session was about seasonal beers and how certain beers follow cycles determined by the pre-industrial weather and climate patterns. There was a natural rhythm to that type of beer.

Anniversary beers are, I think, in a sense the opposite of seasonal beers, although initially that may seem counter-intuitive. Bear with me. Anniversaries do, of course, occur each year but there’s no rhythm to them in the same way as seasonals. The word anniversary means literally “returning yearly” from the Latin “annus” (meaning “year“) and versus (a word of Indo-European origin meaning “to turn“). Anniversaries commemorate a very specific event, something concrete in time. Last year, on this date, something happened and now on the same day every year after that, we remember what happened by force of will. We decide that day will have special meaning and we assign that meaning ourselves. Take for example, these very Sessions, the first of which took place March 2, 2007. In 213 days, it will be our Biennial Session, commemorating two years of monthly Beer Blogging Fridays.

Seasonals, by contrast, are more organic and the climate conditions have more or less been the same (or changed very slowly) for centuries allowing the traditions that surrounded them to be adopted over a long period of time. We didn’t have to force ourselves to remember that in spring temperatures grow warmer and in fall they grow colder. The physical evidence is unmistakable. The rhythm of the seasons continues whether we take any notice or not.

Personally, I love anniversaries, because I am a self-avowed calendar geek. I love dividing the year up and figuring out what happened every day of the year. Our present calendar, the Gregorian calendar, sucks and there are far better systems that we could implement for keeping the year more tidy and orderly. The fact that we probably never will change it is a product of our aversion to change. The last time we changed the calendar, from the old Julian system, it happened in different years in different places, which really threw things into turmoil for quite some time.

And there are still several nations today that still use the Julian calendar. Both of these calendars, are, of course, based on the Christian religion. There is also a separate Muslim calendar, Hebrew calendar, Hindu calendar and Chinese calendar to name a very few. There are literally dozens and dozens of very different calendar systems in use today all over the world. People have, from time to time, tried to suggest adopting a “world calendar” in various guises in order to standardize time but it’s never quite caught on. More’s the pity.

In addition to today’s Session, it’s also Swiss Confederation Day, National Non-Parent Day, National Raspberry Cream Pie Day, and Lammas Day, to name a few holidays taking place. It’s also the birthday of Herman Melville, Francis Scott Key and Jerry Garcia, among others. Today in 1876, Colorado became a state. Three years before, in 1873, the first San Francisco Cable Car began operating. MTV debuted in 1981 and Anne Frank made her last diary entry today in 1944.

But by far the most common anniversaries, for beer at least, are the annual celebration that they’re still in business. Usually these start around year 5, the fifth or Quinquennial anniversary. With modern craft brewing only around thirty years old (New Albion incorporated in 1976, and started brewing in 1977), five years is a fair amount of time and worth celebrating. Ten (Decennial), fifteen (Quindecennial) and twenty (Vigintennial) even more so. As the craft segment matures, there are many more breweries hitting milestones and creating special beers to commemorate them. And frankly that’s great news for all of us, because usually anniversary beers are brewed to showcase the talents of the brewery and/or the brewer. Whether deliciously delicate or radically extreme, anniversary beers hew to no style but the imagination of their creator. To my mind, that’s the most exciting aspect of anniversary beers. They’re rarely what you expect them to be. The only categories they can often be put in are the catch-all varieties like “experimental,” “strong” or something like that. And the success of them moves the bar for all beers, allowing innovation to trickle down into everyday beers, too.

But there are also anniversary beers commemorating more unusual things, too. Lagunitas Brewing, for example, is putting out a new beer on the 40th anniversary of each of Frank Zappa’s albums. So far, the first four have been released with no plans to stop. And beginning in 2001, Stone Brewing took the idea of Bonza Bottler Day one step farther, releasing a special beer once a year on the day that all three — month, day and year — are the same. The last one was 7.7.07 (my daughter’s birthday) and the next release will be 8.8.08. Sadly, I have none left from my own birthday release back on 3.3.03. This type of anniversary beer I find the most engaging because invariably it was inspired by something the brewery really believed in or thought would be a lot of fun to do. It’s no small amount of effort to conceive, brew and package a new beer so to do so is as deliberate an act as I can imagine. These are the anniversary beers that really make me sit up and take notice.

That’s why I chose He’Brew’s Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. for my anniversary beer. I love that owner Jeremy Cowan was inspired to commemorate the 40th anniversary of comedian Lenny Bruce’s death, which took place August 3, 1966 (two days from now). Not to mention taking Bruce’s wry sense of humor with rye and making it a big, bitter IPA was the perfect way of expressing his personality in liquid form, if such a thing is even possible. As Lenny Bruce himself said:

“Satire equals tragedy plus time.”

Amen, brother. Whatever you think of Bruce’s brand of humor, he unquestionably paved the way for later comedians like Richard Pryor, George Carlin and, my personal favorite, Bill Hicks. Bruce’s language seems tame by the standards of these later comedians, but without Lenny Bruce’s trials and tribulations, free speech might still be in the stone age of the Fifties. We do, in fact, owe him a great deal of gratitude that ideas today aren’t limited in how they can be expressed and with the odd exception of the broadcast media, most of the 80,000 or so words in the English language may be employed. And that, I think, is fucking awesome.

The beer itself is made with 2-row, rye ale malt, torrified rye, crystal rye 75, crystal malt 65, wheat, kiln amber, caramel 70 and spiced with Warrior, Cascade, Simcoe, Crystal, Chinook, Amarillo and Centennial hops, and dry hopped with Amarillo and Crystal. Or as the label puts it: “Brewed with an obscene amount of malt & hops.” He’Brew described their inspiration thusly:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Shmaltz Brewing Co. is proud to introduce Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. Brewed with an obscene amount of malts and hops. Shocking flavors – far beyond contemporary community standards. We cooked up the straight dope for the growing minions of our nation’s Radical Beer junkies. Judges may not be able to define “Radical Beer,” but you’ll damn well know it when you taste it. Bruce died, officially declared a pauper by the State of California, personally broken and financially bankrupt simply for challenging America’s moral hypocrisies with words. The memorial playbill read: “Yes, we killed him. Because he picked on the wrong god.” -Directed by, the Courts, the Cops, the Church… and his own self-destructive super ego. Like Noah lying naked and loaded in his tent after the apocalyptic deluge: a witness, a patron saint, a father of what was to come. Sick, Dirty, Prophetic Lenny: a scapegoat, a martyr, a supreme inspiration.

The beer is a beautiful copper penny color, with streaks of red in the light. Topped by a very thick tan head, it has bready aromas with herbal, hoppy notes. The mouthfeel is surprisingly creamy, almost buttery. It’s well-balanced with great interplay between candy sweet malt and dry, fruity hops. As it says in the name, it’s both bitter and sweet and the balance of power between these competing tastes is what gives the RIPA its soul. The finish is dry and long, and the high alcohol becomes apparent as the warmth likewise lingers in the aftertaste. A wonderful beer, and worthy of commemorating the rye … er, wry wit of Lenny Bruce’s life.

A final quote from Lenny Bruce:

“The only honest art form is laughter, comedy. You can’t fake it … try to fake three laughs in an hour—ha ha ha ha ha—they’ll take you away, man. You can’t.”

To which I’d also add that beer may also be an art form that can’t be faked. Happy Anniversary.


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