Dawes and Anchor Steam

It’s a mistake to talk about California musical tradition without acknowledging Laurel Canyon, the secluded Hollywood Hills neighborhood that once housed a countercultural music community often compared to the Greenwich Village scene.

Laurel Canyon had previously been a sort of getaway destination for silent movie stars. Later, in the mid-1960s, it became known for the abundance of rock and folk songwriters who either lived in the Canyon or were associated with somebody who did. (Think: Frank Zappa. The Doors. The Byrds. Joni Mitchell. The Mamas and the Papas. Jackson Browne. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. The Eagles. Carole King. James Taylor.)

Laurel Canyon essentially became a creative hub for late-1960s and early-1970s musicians in the newly minted folk rock canon. According to producer Lou Adler, it’s where rock made its transition from cool to mellow. Vanity Fair, in a video that’s only slightly tongue-in-cheek, suggests Carole King’s album art for Tapestry embodies the spirit of Laurel Canyon: pop’s natural woman, in her Laurel Canyon home on Wonderland Avenue, sitting beside her cat, Telemachus, who is sitting on an exotically upholstered pillow. (Compare this to the Greenwich Village scene’s album art paragon, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, which reflects a more urban and arguably less mellow bohemianism.)

As Laurel Canyon mellowed out, many of its artists gradually fell out of vogue while hard rock took over elsewhere. While the canyon itself isn’t a nexus of folk rock today, a number of artists have recently emerged that draw influence from what has been called the Laurel Canyon sound.

Nobody has captured this sound with as much purity as Dawes, who debuted in 2009 with the appropriately Angeleno album title North Hills. Dawes, whose lyrics routinely acknowledge their “Californian side,” are a quintessential contemporary example of Californian folk rock. To hear Jackson Browne’s influence in Taylor Goldsmith’s songwriting would be perfectly astute: early in their career, Dawes supported him on tour, and he sang backing vocals on their song “Fire Away,” which would be perfectly in place on Browne’s 1977 album Running On Empty.

 

I wanted to find a somewhat approachable beer that reflects Angeleno brewing as well as Dawes embodies the city’s musical tradition. This, it turns out, isn’t an easy task.

According to an article by KCET in Los Angeles, beginning in the 1880s, several factors converged that shaped L.A.’s pre-prohibition beer economy. The arrival of German immigrants brought skilled brewers into the area while advancements in transportation and refrigeration allowed those brewers to make lagers–bottom-fermenting beers which require colder fermentation temperatures. Lagers, which are largely associated with German brewing, were popular in the American Northeast but previously difficult to brew somewhere with a consistently warm climate like L.A.’s.

Elsewhere in the United States in the 19th century, brewing was dominated by top-fermenting ales. This is can be attributed to a lack of refrigeration, limited access to ice (which at that point had to be imported from Canada in massive blocks), and preferences for beer inherited from the ale-loving British. Thus, it was unusual (and perhaps a product of the later settlement of the American West) that L.A.’s early brewing scene would be dominated by lagers. (Although it is conceivable that Angelenos, of whatever descent, would prefer the light, refreshing qualities associated with lagers.)

Joseph Maier and George Zobelein were among the city’s first wave of brewers. The two partnered in 1882 but eventually parted ways and oversaw Maier Brewing Company and Los Angeles Brewing Company respectively. For years, these breweries dominated L.A.’s young market, but, like all of the nation’s breweries, they were stymied by prohibition. Maier Brewing Company in particular was devastated: federal agents seized the brewery’s equipment after it was found to be operating illegally, selling beer containing alcohol well above the 0.5% cap imposed by the Volstead Act (possibly against then-owner Edward Maier’s knowledge). It took Edward Maier another seven years after prohibition ended to regain control of his company.

After the ratification of the 21st amendment formally ended prohibition, both Maier and Los Angeles Brewing Company prospered. This continued through the end of World War II, but in the post-war period both companies faced insurmountable competition from national brands. Maier was acquired and relocated by a San Francisco businessman, who continued to produce its flagship beer for another fourteen years. Los Angeles Brewing Company was purchased by Pabst, who rebranded its Eastside beer as a cheaper alternative to Pabst Blue Ribbon. In 1979, out-competed by Anheuser-Busch and Miller, Pabst ceased its L.A. operations and discontinued the Eastside brand.

Despite the craft beer revival of the 1990s and 2000s, L.A. was slow to open new breweries. (According to an LA Times article on the resurgence of microbrewing in the city, Eagle Rock Brewery, which opened in 2009, was the first brewery to open in L.A. since the 1950s.) That being the case, no contemporary beer nor brewery has emerged that strikes me as quintessentially Angeleno. Even while a small handful of breweries have opened, none are especially recognized for brewing the lagers for which L.A. was once known.

Instead, I want to suggest a beer that isn’t produced in L.A. In fact, Anchor Steam is produced a few hundred miles north in San Francisco but shares some similarities with the earliest beers produced in L.A.

A German immigrant named Gottlieb Brekle arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush and promptly established a brewery, which was soon purchased by another German brewer, Ernst Baruth, and his son-in-law, Otto Schnikel, Jr. They renamed the brewery Anchor in 1896.

Anchor, or the brewery that would become Anchor, produced a style of lager known as steam beer, which was common across California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Essentially, steam beers were lagers brewed without refrigeration. This was necessary to keep the beer inexpensive: at the time, mechanical refrigeration wasn’t widespread, and ice wasn’t produced locally.

While there are conflicting explanations for the origin of the term “steam beer,” it is likely derived from steam created by the unconventional methods by which brewers were forced to chill the beer. Without access to ice or mechanical refrigeration, brewers still needed a way to chill the wort quickly after boiling. Anchor’s solution involved pumping the hot wort to the brewery’s roof. There, it would sit in a shallow, open top bin called a coolship (which was traditionally used by Belgian lambic brewers) where it would be chilled by the cool Pacific air. As the wort chilled, steam would rise from its surface and therefore appear to rise from the roof of the brewery.

Anchor was beset by a number of tragedies and inconveniences in the early 20th century (including the San Francisco earthquake, prohibition, and a fire) and later struggled to compete with larger national brands. That said, despite several moves and a short closure, it remains open today and is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest breweries and in modern times as one of the nation’s first craft breweries.

Anchor holds a trademark on “Steam” beer, but that trademark is more reflective of the brand than the style. Today’s Anchor Steam isn’t a traditional steam beer at all (that style being effectively extinct due to the advent of mechanical refrigeration) but is instead a style known as California common beer. The California common style resembles, in some ways, steam beer for a modern palate: it essentially incorporates hops more prominently and is fermented by a special lager yeast that performs well at slightly higher temperatures. Essentially, it’s a controlled way of producing a good lager at a warm temperature.

In many ways Anchor Steam is a fresh and novel product of California’s sesquicentennial brewing history. Steam, and the California Common style of beer, are distinctly Californian. In that way, Anchor Steam strikes me as a suitable companion to Dawes. I suggest enjoying it with either of the band’s first two albums, North Hills and Nothing Is Wrong.

John Hartford, Wendell Berry, Ettore Sottsass, and Terroir in Brewing

Among my favorite folk songs is John Hartford’s “In Tall Buildings,” a short lament for the worldly beauty and joy forfeited while its narrator works an unwanted career. It concludes with this narrator looking towards the future, when his debts are paid and his retirement allows leisure once again, wondering what lovely things he missed while working in offices in the city.

“In Tall Buildings

Someday my baby
when I am a man
and others have taught me
the best they can
they’ll sell me a suit
and cut off my hair
and send me to work in tall buildings

So its goodbye to the sunshine
goodbye to the dew
goodbye to flowers
and goodbye to you
I’m off to the subway
I must not be late
I’m going to work in tall buildings

And when I’m retired
my life is my own
I’ve made all my payments
it’s time to go home
and wonder what happened
betwixt and between
when I went to work in tall buildings

John Hartford, 1973

For good measure, here’s Gregory Alan Isakov’s rendition:

 

I can’t help thinking of Wendell Berry when hearing “In Tall Buildings.” I find relevance in Berry’s Mad Farmer poems, including “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” written in the same year. (Regrettably, I haven’t yet gotten the line breaks to format correctly on mobile.) Berry’s poem reads:

“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion–put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice Resurrection.

Wendell Berry, 1973

The Mad Farmer suggests contrariness as a path to truth. Initially, he warns that the allure of profit, consumption, and privacy undermine individual agency and therefore limit each person’s capacity to recognize and prioritize other values. Contrarianism is his means of subversion: to truly worship God, conserve nature, celebrate freedom, and practice community, one must habitually “do something that won’t compute” within the context of modern society. In some ways the Mad Farmer’s economic philosophy appears to echo Paul, who wrote in Philippians 3:7 “…whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” Seeking profit competes with seeking truth, and so “the quick profit” is at odds with the practice of resurrection. (Hear Berry read “The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer,” another poem in the series, here.)

Embracing the Mad Farmer’s manifesto has certain tacit implications for the artist, who is not immune to such a misdirection of values. Berry’s attitude echoes in an essay by the Austrian artist and designer Ettore Sottsass entitled “When I Was a Very Small Boy.” Writing in the same year as Berry, Sottsass rebukes the influence of consumerism over design and the commodification of art in general.

Sottsass’s abbreviated essay is poignant and worthy of reading in its entirety. In summary, he writes that as a child, he felt it natural to draw and to build things and felt autonomous in that creativity. “Everything we did was entirely absorbed in the act of doing it, in wanting to do it,” he writes, “and everything we did stayed ultimately inside a single extraordinary sphere of life. The design was life itself… it was an awareness of the world around us, of materials and lights, distances and weights, resistance, fragilities, use and consumption, birth and death.”

Aging, for Sottsass, meant succumbing to an apparently necessary economy of art and design. Where he was once motivated to create by a rich and beautiful life, at the time of his writing he was being urged to make designs that catered to demand–demand for functional, affordable consumer products.

In some ways the sorrow in his reaction echoes that expressed in Hartford’s lyrics: Sottsass writes, “…goodbye bright Blue planet, goodbye melodious seasons, goodbye stones, dust, leaves, ponds, and dragon flies, goodbye boiling-hot days, dead dogs by the roadside, shadows in the wood like prehistoric dragons, goodbye Planet, by now I feel as if I do the things I do sitting in a bunker of damp artificial light and conditioned air, sitting at this white laminate table, sitting in this silver plastic chair, captain of a spaceship traveling at thousands of miles an hour, squashed against this seat–immobile in the sky.”

“I would like to think that the old happy state that I once knew could somehow be brought back; the happy state in which “design” or art–so called art–was life, in which life was art, I mean creativity, I mean it was the awareness of belonging to the Planet and to the pulsing history of the people that are with us.”

Hartford, Berry, and Sottsass all graze a similar theme. Hartford sings of a world in which one loses touch with the natural beauty of the world upon entering the workforce. Berry warns of a world in which profit and privacy supplant truthseeking and community. Sottsass recounts a harmony of art and life unsupportive of a commodification of design. Each finds industry at ends with joy and beauty.

Beer isn’t a perfect analogue, but I think we’re seeing a relevant and related dichotomy in brewing. The past several years have seen a rapid increase in the demand for craft beer–a segment of the market experiencing double digit growth in 2014 and 2015–and an influx of new capital available to craft breweries. Long term growth strategies usually orient around meeting this demand–adding more tanks, building a larger facility, and so on. But beer distribution laws complicate expansion: to prevent some of the aggressive anti-competitive strategies employed by large breweries before Prohibition, most states have adopted some form of what is called the three tier system. In the three tier system, breweries are required to use an independent distributor to bring their beers to market. So in most states distributors, not breweries, are responsible for bringing beers to bars and bottle shops. Because the 21st Amendment established that alcohol would be regulated at the state level, significant time and money are generally required before a brewery can expand distribution to a new, out-of-state market.

In result, “growth” for most craft breweries involves brewing more beer and selling that beer over a larger and larger geographic area. Hubbub is made over this expansion: a brewery launches in a new state, and instantaneously its beers occupy shelves and tap handles statewide, and soon they repeat the same launch in another state.

You can expect this sort of expansion out of most successful breweries because, frankly, that’s how they make more money, expose their brand, and hedge against competitive forces in an economy in which new breweries open at a mind-blowing rate. Once a brewery has sufficiently occupied its local market, growth is heavily focused on the task of increasing distribution.

A handful of exceptional breweries exist that brew incredibly coveted beers, but haven’t made haste to expand distribution. In an extreme case, I’ll point to Brouwerij Westvleteren, the Belgian Trappist brewery that only produces enough beer to adequately fund their monastery and philanthropy (despite their Westvleteren 12 Quad being likely the most coveted beer in the world).

A less extreme case can be made of Hill Farmstead, a small Vermont farmhouse brewery that exemplifies what it means to have a broad understanding of terroir. Shaun Hill opened the brewery at the site of his grandfather’s dairy farm and recently decided to cap production indefinitely at 150,000 gallons–a paltry volume for a production brewery. As he told the New York Times, this decision supports his philosophy that beer is perishable and should be consumed fresh, and therefore that beer should be consumed locally. Traditional expansion is the antithesis of this philosophy: success is predicated on increasing sales, and therefore eventually involves diminishing the locality of the product in some manner. For Hill Farmstead, increasing production would require adding a water source–currently every beer is brewed with water from the farmstead’s well–and that’s to say nothing of the need for a larger industrial facility. Furthermore, it would limit the brewery’s ability to ensure that bottles are consumed quickly and kegs are tapped upon arrival–objectives Hill Farmstead has caused controversy in pursuing in past years.

I think there is also also room to argue that Hill Farmstead’s philosophy on brewing contributes as much to terroir as do well water from the farmstead itself and local malts and local hops and local yeast cultures. If terroir is defined such as it is in wine–that terroir is the taste attributed to a particular place at a particular time–then Shaun Hill’s radical commitment to staying small has as much to do with the unique flavor of his beers as do the resultant locality of the ingredients he uses as do the names of his beers–many of which pay homage to the generations of his family who lived on and worked the same land where he now produces their namesake beers.

Because Hill Farmstead’s beers are extremely hard to find outside of northern Vermont, I want to offer another, more available brewery that practices this ethos in Jester King. While Jester King upholds the importance of locale and terroir–emphasizing their use of well water, locally grown and malted grains, and wild yeast from the Texas Hill Country–their beers are certainly more accessible in many places.

This relative accessibility is perhaps consistent with Jester King’s vision. Ron Extract, a founding and former brewer at Jester King, cites his love of imported European beers as an inspiration. “The results,” he says, “…justify the cost of shipping [European beers] halfway around the world so we can enjoy them closer to home. At the same time, I also felt that if there were more authentic artisan brewers closer to home who embraced the European approach, importing would no longer be quite as necessary.”

Jester King’s focus on old world brewing methods–especially spontaneous fermentation, which involves the use of wild yeast and bacteria–coincides with this focus on locality and terroir. Founder Jeffrey Stuffings writes, “A world wide resurgence of spontaneous fermentation, if anything, is a reversion back to how much of beer was fermented centuries ago. It also helps create regional distinctions, terroir, and a sense of place in beer.”

I highly recommend trying anything from Jester King if available–though their distribution has expanded, they’re still relatively difficult to find outside of Austin. Many of their beers are sour, tart, or funky due to the effects of spontaneous fermentation. I recommend Le Petit Prince (a dry, tart table beer) and Ol Oi (a barrel aged sour brown ale), but have yet to be disappointed in anything I’ve been able to find of theirs.

Weird Beers and the Paradox of Aversion

It is a source of bewilderment in aesthetics that something repulsive might also excite or delight us. The aesthetician Carolyn Korsmeyer refers to this phenomenon as the paradox of aversion, arguing in her essay “Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting” that the paradox applies to certain disgusting foods. I believe the paradox also applies to certain craft beers. I offer a functionalist argument: when we imbibe for refreshment or intoxication, repulsive ingredients hinder our ability to enjoy a satisfactory (that is, sufficiently refreshing or intoxicating) amount of beer. However, when we imbibe in search of an aesthetic experience, repulsive ingredients offer fascinating tasting experiences that paradoxically allow us to enjoy imbibing weird beers.

Microbrewing good beer is sometimes still not enough to earn a brewery widespread visibility or acclaim. While many inventive beers cater to a common palate, others introduce provocative ingredients and flavors. There is no shortage of examples. Rogue’s Sriracha Hot Stout, Ballast Point’s Habanero Sculpin IPA, and New Belgium’s Coconut Curry Hefeweizen exhibit a peppery spiciness uncommon to beer. The Unknown ages a Mexican imperial lager with food grade scorpions, Wynkoop flavors a stout with bull testicles, and Redhook brews a pilsner with oysters and lobsters. Mikkeller added coffee collected from weasel poop to a stout; Brewdog sold an ale bottled inside of a taxidermied weasel. Each of these weird beers wildly deviates from traditional recipes, presentations, and expectations, albeit in a disgusting way.

Korsmeyer’s provisional list of disgusting foods helps us identify disgusting beers. She considers six categories of repulsion: (1) objects with repellent tastes, (2) foods desirable in minute quantities but sickening in large quantities, (3) objects so alien that we recoil from them in nature, (4) objects too similar to us, (5) objects that appear too natural or alive, and (6) objects that have spoiled or been dead too long.

Weird beers exist that fulfill each of these categories in some way. Many beers ferment with Brettanomyces, a group of wild yeasts that result in a funky taste sometimes associated with repellent things like bandages or hay. Others, though tasty, are unpalatable in large volumes, including the more aggressive habanero beers that exist. Some contain disturbingly alien ingredients—like scorpions—and at least one beer contains a disturbingly human ingredient—Rogue’s Beard Beer, brewed with yeast cultured from the brewmaster’s beard. Brewdog arguably succeeded in meeting Korsmeyer’s fifth category after bottling a beer called the End of History inside taxidermied road kill. Finally, some beers contain bacteria or wild yeasts, which brewmasters use to create sour—or deliciously spoiled—beers.

The prevalence of weird beers ought to provide sufficient evidence of the paradox of aversion in craft beer. If Korsmeyer is correct that a paradox of aversion applies to food, then it should also apply to beer. Weird beers brewed with repulsive ingredients or presented in repulsive ways are paradoxically pleasurable to taste and consume. The question then becomes: to whom, to what sort of palate or sensibility, or in what context are these weird beers pleasurable? In answering this question, a functionalist position becomes valuable.

Sven Ove Hansson defends a sort of weak aesthetic functionalism which I find useful. Hansson permits aesthetic valuations according to a work’s satisfaction of functional requirements. He argues that the fulfillment of function is one of many factors by which we can judge a work. In defending this position he rejects “the reduction thesis,” which states that fulfillment of function is the only determinant of beauty. In “Aesthetic Functionalism,” he writes, “aesthetic considerations are altogether unnecessary… since aesthetics will automatically be taken care of if function is dealt with adequately.” Surely, however, objects exist that fulfill their functions in a manner that is not particularly beautiful—catheters and brutalist architecture come to mind. Hansson also rejects the antithesis of that position, “the independence thesis,” which states that aesthetic value and function are completely independent of each other. He writes, “Perhaps the clearest counterexamples are those that refer to the beauty of abstract objects, such as mathematical proofs. A mathematician who called a proof beautiful would almost certainly retract or at least moderate that statement if the proof turned out to contain irreparable mistakes.” Recognizing that neither extreme is particularly beneficial to an aesthetician, Hansson takes a more moderate approach of “aesthetic dualism,” which contends that practical function is sometimes a factor in aesthetic valuation but is never the sole determinant factor.

What does this mean for craft beer? I propose that there are three major functions of beer drinking which are independent of each other but not mutually exclusive. Those functions are (1) intoxication, (2) refreshment, and (3) tasting (or the enjoyment of flavor). A beer’s desirability is partly determined by its ability to fulfill at least one of these three functions. I will name just a few examples. Drinking sessions aimed at inducing intoxication require a beer that is sufficiently drinkable yet alcoholic enough to intoxicate. A poor choice of beer for the drinker wanting to get drunk would be a session IPA—a low-alcohol style of beer brewed to provide flavor without excessive potency. A regular drinker might still experience intoxication after a few session IPAs, but not without enduring a palate-wrecking torrent of bitter hops (and risk getting uncomfortably full on too many beers). Likewise, those looking to enjoy a refreshing beer after a long, hot day might choose to avoid thick, boozy, chocolaty imperial stouts, which are perhaps better consumed by the half pint after a meal on a cold day.

This leaves the third function I would like to propose, the function which I believe justifies the enjoyment of craft beer, since cheap liquor and macro-brewed light lagers are quite capable of satisfying the other two functions. Many people drink simply to enjoy an interesting or delightful taste. Every craft beer, to some extent, shares this function. Craft brewers brew because they recognize that beer can taste good—and it can taste good in an inconceivably large number of ways. If the paradox of aversion explains the delight we take in eating repulsive foods, it also ought to explain the delight we sometimes take in drinking repulsive beers. Often, these weird beers only satisfy the third function, that of aesthetic experience—one might cringe at the thought of drinking habanero beers to the point of intoxication or seeking a cold, refreshing pint of a savory bull-testicle stout. These are beers to be enjoyed because they present an interesting tasting experience. Weird beers exemplify Korsmeyer’s paradox of aversion in this celebration of repulsive ingredients.

*This is a revision of an essay I wrote while pursuing my philosophy degree at Furman University. An earlier revision of this essay was published in the 2015 Furman Humanities Review.

Claude Debussy and Madrugada Obscura

Among my favorite classical compositions, “Clair de lune” is the third and penultimate movement in French composer Claude Debussy’s “Suite Bergamasque.” It’s beautiful and delicate but also deeply evocative, which I learned has something to do with its inspiration, a poem by the French poet Paul Verlaine. From Verlaine Debussy borrowed the title of the movement and that of the suite itself.

 

Verlaine, a contemporary of Debussy, belonged to a literary and artistic movement known as symbolism. Symbolists rejected realism, believing that artistic statements ought to be made indirectly. Using metaphor and suggestion, symbolists hoped to imply absolute truths that they believed were impossible to capture in a literal account of reality.

Verlaine’s own “Clair de lune” articulates this attitude well. The title is French for “moonlight,” literally “light of the moon.” Appropriately, moonlight isn’t the moon’s own light, but light perceived because the moon reflects the light of the sun. Illuminated by that indirect light source, Verlaine describes masked figures singing and dancing bergamasque, a dance that William Shakespeare had called “clumsy” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Moonlight

Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

Paul Verlaine, 1869

Verlaine’s poem suggests that these figures don’t believe in their own elation and fantasy, singing triumphant love songs in minor keys, being outwardly happy and festive yet simultaneously deeply sad, illuminated by the solemn glow of the moon.

Verlaine’s poem and Debussy’s piano suite remind me of a lovely and deeply evocative Spanish word. La madrugada translates approximately to “dawn” or “predawn,” but I’m not aware of any English translation that captures what it seems to mean in a single word. As I understand it, la madrugada is that dark, quiet time of night that’s beyond midnight but well before sunrise. Think pitch blackness, but a pitch blackness that hides the dew already collecting on the grass and the birds beginning to sing. In Frank Sinatra’s words, it’s “the wee small hours of the morning.”

Finding an appropriately evocative English equivalent calls to mind the slam poet Rives and his suspicions about 4am, “the one time you’re either up too late or gotten up too early.”

Later than the latest of late night talk shows yet hours ahead of Good Morning America, 4am has become a meme, says Rives, representing the darkest depths of night that exist just before the earliest indications of dawn appear. I think the mysterious 4am hour that he describes can be thought of as la madrugada as it is represented in English-speaking pop culture. (In a way, and in different words, Snoop Dogg took the opportunity in “Gin and Juice” to brag about partying through la madrugada, which I’ll consider a benchmark and threshold for just how gangsta you can really get.)

Fittingly, I’ve chosen to pair Debussy’s “Clair de lune” with a beer brewed by Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales called Madrugada Obscura, which they’ve labelled a “dark dawn stout.” It has some characteristics you’d expect of a barrel-aged stout: roasted malt, oak, coffee, and chocolate bass tones that confirm the darkness the name suggests. However, and with no surprise to anyone familiar with Jolly Pumpkin’s beers, these darker notes give way to a not-so-subtle sourness that suggests tart cherries, lemon, and green apple.

Sour stouts like Madrugada Obscura remain relatively hard to find and were very hard to find until relatively recently when sour beers started to gain popularity in the United States. Sourness has long been present in old world styles; Belgium and parts of Germany are known for their sour beers, and it is believed that beer was historically somewhat tart due to the tendencies of wild fermentation (a brewer’s best option before culturing familiar yeast strains became a feasible practice). Only recently, however, have sour stouts garnered significant interest from the craft beer community. (NB: there are other good examples of this style that are regionally available, some of which I personally prefer to Madrugada Obscura.. The Bruery’s Tart of Darkness is less roasty and more tart, and Birds Fly South’s False Face exhibits a wonderful balance of stout and sour characteristics.)

I think a fair comparison can be made between “Clair de lune” and Madrugada Obscura. Nominally speaking, “Clair de lune” evokes a brightness and serenity, but sonically and contextually carries a dark solemnity that underlies that brightness. Madrugada Obscura does the inverse, evoking a darkness of flavor that it succeeds in providing, but not without a surprising, contrasting, (deliciously) conceptually conflicting brightness and pucker you rightfully wouldn’t anticipate in an imperial stout. In both cases, it’s a beautifully evocative case of darkness among brightness.

I’ve paired this odd duo to reflect two ongoing goals of mine: to explore why we pair things and to expand our understanding of what a good pairing can resemble.

Traditionally speaking, we seem to pair things like food and wine to achieve complementary tasting experiences. We want harmony between one bite and the following sip, which means amplifying desirable qualities without creating or calling attention to undesirable qualities.

I think there’s much more to be said about pairing, and delightfully weirder things at that, especially if we open our minds to more abstract combinations. In pairing food and drinks, we are limited to flavors that cooperate with each other, either in a complementary or a delightfully contrasting way. But, when we expand pairing possibilities, I believe we open up new opportunities for two seemingly unrelated things to teach us about each other. In that sense, I think, the point of a pairing is not just to bring harmony to the palate but also to inform and illuminate.