Stone Brewing's 13th Anniversary Ale: Scenes from a Beer-Book Sampling Night with the VanderMeers
Regular readers of Omnivoracious may remember that last year we asked writers from Arianna Huffington to Michael Chabon what beer would go best with their current book. The two-part feature was a huge hit, linked to throughout the blogosphere. Now, we’ve gone a step further, spurred on by Stone Brewing Co. sending us a bottle of their special “13th Anniversary Ale—Our Hoppiest Beer Ever.” Stone produces some of the best beer in the world, their Arrogant Bastard Ale being among my favorites.
My wife Ann and I could’ve just drunk the beer and reported back, but we thought it’d be much more interesting to combine our love of books and beer, by sampling the beer while reading selections from some new and forthcoming releases. The idea was somewhat sparked by Muriel Barbery’s amazing The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which contains this passage:
"I place the fruit and the book on the Formica table, and as I pick up the former to taste it, I also start on the latter. If each resists the powerful onslaught of the other, if the cherry plum fails to make me doubt the text and if the text is unable to spoil the fruit, then I know I am in the presence of a worthwhile and, why not say it, exceptional undertaking, for there are very few works that have not dissolved--proven both ridiculous and complacent--into the extraordinary succulence of the little golden plums."
A great beer has a similar effect--the physical world can provide a stern rebuke to the world of the mind. Still, it should be noted that there’s also the matter of the correct match: a great beer will fail a great book it wasn’t intended for, and with 4.5 pounds of hops per barrel we knew going in that the Stone 13th Anniversary Ale wouldn’t complement every reading. There’s also the patent unfairness of sampling a book versus a beer. You cannot learn all there is to know about a book from a sampling, but a few mouthfuls of beer give you as much intel as you’ll ever need about its pedigree and its intent. (All of the books looked really interesting.)
There’re also the changes to the reader’s mind that occur as a result of imbibing beer that no number of plums can replicate; thus, the experiment changed asour evening progressed, as may be evident from certain elements in the progression of photographs.
The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington (Orbit, November)
Ann: “A lot of cursing, spiking, and fighting in this one--oh, and monks. And blood. ‘Gulping the beer and making a face, he swooned and fell.’ So they actually drink beer in this one--a bowl of beer. It’s a good match because the beer and the book both have the same spicy, ruthless taste. And because Sad Tale takes place back in the day during the origins of truly wonderful hand-crafted beer in monasteries. The book and the beer both have that handcrafted taste.”
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, 2008)
Jeff: “This beer definitely doesn’t fit with this book at all. Hedgehog is light, sometimes deceptively light because it deals with weighty topics and subtext, but the surface of the beer is too heavy for the surface of the novel. The hops in this anniversary ale contain their own subtlety, but the subtlety’s all in the back of the throat and the complexity of flavor on the palate after you’ve had a sip or two. Whereas in Barbery’s book the subtlety occurs upfront, oddly enough, and the power kicks in on the back end. Perhaps not that surprising that a cherry plum would go better with Hedgehog.”
In Ashes Lie by Marie Brennan (Orbit, June)
Ann: “The beer is too strong for this book. Check out this sentence: ‘The chamber beyond already glowed with faerie lights, illuminating the gathered treasures of the Onyx Court.’ No, the beer overpowers the book. Also, the character in that scene is trying to hide, and the beer would definitely give her away. This needs not a beer, but a rich honey mead. Something sweet but with a little kick at the end.”
Bone Dance by Emma Bull (Orb, July)
Jeff: “I really wasn’t sure this reissue from one of my favorite writers would hold up to the beer—the cover looks a little too whimsical not to be stomped into the ground by Stone Brewing, but...it does hold up. I flipped to a page randomly and got this: ‘Christopher Lee sank his fangs into someone just as Theo cranked to a horrible reverbed wail from Morticia just as lightning shattered the air between two clouds outside the window.’ Quite excited by this novel, actually—looks amazing. Former World Fantasy Award finalist. And there’s something playful in it that matches the play of spices in the beer. So not a perfect match, but a solid one.”
Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline (William Morrow, August)
Ann: “This appears to be a sad, sad book. Sad, sad, sad. ‘Alison felt alone in a way she couldn’t ever remember having felt, a sense of aloneness so profound that she couldn’t breathe.’ It doesn’t go with the beer because the beer says ‘party time’. The book says ‘alone time’ or ‘cemetery time’. The beer is too full of the joy of life, and this book is more about overcoming sorrow. I cry at the book, then I laugh with the beer.”
Fragment by Warren Fahy (Delacourte, June)
Jeff: “Hrm. I checked out two excerpts. Kind of conflicted as to whether this novel goes with the beer: ‘In a motion stretching across all three windows, six animals devoured each other, one after another, in a balletic food chain’ and ‘A wave of revulsion rippled through the room as the next slide showed the caramel bead of an insect head that was seemingly being squeezed out of a large waxy bag of flesh.’ To be honest, no one wants to think about ‘caramel’ insect heads while drinking beer, because if you had a caramel insect head in your beer, you might not notice it until it was half-way down your throat. And animals devouring each other? This seems like a tragic case of mismatch by degrees. In some ways, the beer is too subtle for the book, and the book’s lack of guile and the beer’s honesty aren’t exactly the same either. They’re tonally different. It’s like putting two images together that should be identical but you get a blurred photo instead. Weird.”
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson (Doubleday, 2008)
Ann: “Wow, listen to this quote, Jeff: ‘The flesh across your chest was tightening as it healed. You instructed me to cut it open so that it could expand. I didn’t want to, and it was painful for me to see your agony coming from a knife in my hands.’ This is a very intense, fiery, emotional book, and a hardy, hefty, emotionally direct beer works well with it. The Gargoyle also goes back to the monasteries where they first made the kind of beer we love so much. The ambition of the beer, its strength, the ability of the drinker to then withstand pain, all match the book.”
The BLDGBLOG Book by Geoff Manaugh (Chronicle Books, June)
Jeff: “Man, I love this book but it doesn’t fit the 13th anniversary ale at all: ‘When cities run out of ways to attract new residents, perhaps they’ll turn to weather control: producing storms on demand or clearing the skies of clouds.’ The book has a certain cerebral, architectural quality to it, as you might expect, even though it’s filled with Geoff’s passion and has a very human element. But this beer, it’s like a wild animal—organic, untamed, totally not cool with cities or structure. I mean, it has a structure, but it’s a living being in a way. Like, I can imagine being out in the woods and seeing this beer peeking out through the underbrush at dusk. Erm, and maybe even leaping out and going for my throat. It’s that strong. And not so much that the beer overpowers the book or vice versa so much as they belong to different ecosystems.”
John the Baptizer by Brooks Hansen (Norton, July)
Ann: “ ‘Hearing this the heavens were filled with joy. They answered all as one, the stars and planets alike, Well for thee Yahya! The heavens decree you are a prisoner no more. You are free.’ No—doesn’t fit the beer. The book goes with red wine, clearly, and nothing else. A lot of thee’s and thou’s. It’s a religious book even if Hansen might have something subversive up his sleeve—his The Chess Garden is a marvel. But, no. The book’s more ancient than the beer, and the beer probably speaks in a modern vernacular. Like, if this beer was a friend that walked up to us in a bar it would say ‘How’re you doing?’ rather than ‘How are thou, goodst friend?’”
The Kingdom Beyond the Waves by Stephen Hunt (Tor, July)
Jeff: "By now, the silly has set in, and I'd probably think anything went with this beer. That said, Hunt's gloriously fun steampunk/Victoriana 'lost expedition' novel certainly displays the spirit of adventure exemplified by the beer: '...the expedition officers were led into a passage deep into the jungle covered by steel netting over arched girders--the rib bones of a mechanical whale holding out the press of the forest.' I'd say the talky parts of the novel don't really match the anniversary ale--it's an all-action beer. But the exploration stuff, definitely. So maybe you'd alternate beer and cognac with this title. Of course, if you do that, you might just wind up hallucinating a giant penguin as your reading companion. Ann, help!"