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Friday, November 19, 2010

The Dissident, Four Loko, and Figgy Pudding

As I enjoyed one of the most packed 36 hours of brewery touring in many moons, the world continued to spin on its axis. Babies were born, Blazers were lost for the season, and rains hammered down on the City of Roses. Plus a few more noteworthy happenings. I direct your attention to these:

1. Deschutes FINALLY Releases the Dissident
There may be no better named beer in the Deschutes' line-up than the wild Dissident. It adheres to no schedule; it puckishly thwarts promotion. But, after an extra few months, it seems the brewers have decided their bad boy is finally ready for his debut. (Most beers are ladies; the Dissident, I think, bears the unruly mark of a y chromosome.) I strongly encourage everyone to get to one of the Deschutes pubs to try the beer now. In it's "green" manifestation (a wholly relative characterization), it will exhibit more fruit and sugars. Then buy a bottle or three and throw them in the basement. Over the coming months, the brettanomyces will get busy and start drying the beer out, making it more austere and refined. There aren't so many landmark beers in the world, but the Dissident qualifies. I would put it among just a handful of the most accomplished American sours.

When the Dissident debuted, I wrote a post on both the oud bruin style and an extensive review of the Dissident.

2. FDA Agrees: Four Loko Isn't Legal
The Four Loko saga is a fascinating study in the interaction between public opinion and public policy. Caffeinated alcoholic beverages have been on the market for years. The Food and Drug Administration began studying them a year ago, but was pretty much sitting on its hands until a rash of college students started getting sick drinking them after returning to campuses last month. The sick students provoked a media tidal wave (in which I participated), spurring the FDA to issue a ruling yesterday:
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner, said the drinks appeared to pose a serious public health threat because the caffeine masked the effects of the alcohol, leading to “a state of wide-awake drunk.” After a yearlong review found no conclusive evidence that the drinks were safe, she said, the F.D.A. decided the caffeine in them was an illegal additive.
The lesson is that government is responsive to public policy. This is either good or bad, depending on your disposition and the issue at hand. I found the whole thing fascinating. Drinks like Four Loko won't be on shelves much longer, so if you want to a souvenir of this moment in beverage history, get down to stores fast.

3. Block 15 Releases Their First Bottled Beer, Figgy Pudding
Corvallis' Block 15 brewing is one of Beervana's best-kept secrets. Nick Arzner's beers are so popular in Corvallis that they don't regularly make it to Portland. This is actually a very good thing, owing to the fact that the good people of Corvallis have suffered from a relative dearth of breweries. In that spirit, Corvallisians (Corvallisers? Covallites? Corvallipudians?) will enjoy the overwhelming home-field advantage when Figgy Pudding is released in corked, 750ml bottles tomorrow. Only 64 cases were bottled, and if we're very lucky, a case or two will make it north. Your best bet is to send Corvallis friends and kin down to the brewery tomorrow.

As it happens, I was in the sprawling, Willy Wonka-like cellar of Block 15 just yesterday, where I tasted Figgy Pudding. I would describe it as an English old ale, though at 11%, it's a hair stronger than most. Here's the brewery description:
“Our holiday offering brewed with English pale and specialty malts and molasses. Matured 3-4 months in freshly emptied brandy barrels and conditioned with mission figs. Gently spiced with the world’s finest Ceylon cinnamon and whole nutmeg.”
With sweet beers, the difficulty is not tripping over the line into cloying. (I made a poor old ale last year called "Old Codger" that failed the test.) Figgy Pudding is exactly what you hope for: it's sweet, but rich and long. Aging beers take on a sherry-like note (when they age well), and casking these on brandy was a brilliant stroke. The brandy adds that aged quality, as it draws out the sugars and alcohol from the beer. Nick used a very light hand with the figs and spices--and many tasters won't even notice them. I prevailed upon Nick to sell me a couple bottles (I paid retail!), and I'll take one to the family in Maine and put one in the cellar. I don't have a rating for "good enough to take to the family in Maine," but you get the idea. You might even think it's worth driving to Corvallis for a bottle.


  1. I find this statement exactly backward to the FDA's charter:

    "After a yearlong review found no conclusive evidence that the drinks were safe..."

    I mean, food safety isn't an "innocent until proven guilty" proposition, but "not proven safe" and "proven unsafe" are two different things too. Did they prove they were unsafe and by what method? Simply because they proposed a hypothesis of "wide awake drunk?" That doesn't prove the drink is unsafe, it proves that drinkers have unsafe habits.

    And what kind of numbers are we talking about here? Is this a legitimate state concern? I don't want to advocate a "crisis of the state" litmus test for food regulation, but a handful of underage drinkers dying hardly seems to amount to a situation where legal drinkers and legitimate businesses should be deprived of their rights, no matter how heinous they may prove the taste of the individual drinker.

    I'm against the binge drinking culture, but that doesn't mean it should be (or can be) regulated away. We'll just have more people ordering Red Bulls and Vodkas or some other concoction. So really all that happened here is that Four Loko (almost) went out of business.

    I'm getting ranty. I apologize.

  2. At the risk of sending us into a political rabbit hole, let me dissent, Jim. The FDA has to have a guilty until proven innocent approach. Otherwise the system would look like this:

    Product X, laced with dangerous toxin Y, is released to the public, blinding thousands. The FDA swings into action and bans toxin Y, but the blind remain blind.

    You have probably heard of the thalidomide baby disaster of the 60s. That was one example of how things would work if it was innocent until proven guilty.

    Law and individual rights are one thing, regulating safety is a very different thing.

    As to the argument that "people will just mix things anyway." Yes, and that IS their right as individuals in a free society. Perhaps they'll also mix gasoline in with their vodka for an extra boost. That doesn't mean the FDA should allow vodka-gas energy drinks.

  3. Jeff, yet the FDA allows the sale of alcohol. Alcohol is FAR from a safe substance. It's probably the most abused, and dangerous, substance in our society. Alcohol makes many many people do very very bad things. Should it be outlawed? I'm sure that if the same "we can't prove that it's safe" regulation was applied to alcohol, there is no WAY that it would be allowed to be sold in the US. It seems as the FDA is just making the easy decision here, and not the right one. Aren't menthol cigarettes still being sold? Sort of similar, don't you think?

  4. Aaaiiee, the rabbit hole!

    Shawn, there's obviously a gray area in the middle. When the product blinds people, it's obvious--most everything is in the gray area.

    Booze is clearly unsafe. It probably fits every definition of unsafe the FDA has to work with. But--and this is what's interesting about the Four Loko story--there's a context. We had two constitutional amendments dealing with the safety of alcohol. We've had that debate and settled it.

    One way to change things is to elect people who change agencies. During the Bush years, regulatory agencies functioned differently than they do now. They are subject to the winds of popular opinion.

    Most of my readers are tilted to the libertarian side, and every time we get into these issues, I face a fusillade of angry dissent. But generally speaking, people tend to be less libertarian about these things. My guess is that most people--and especially most parents--will greet this as welcome news, not dangerous infringement of liberty.

  5. So what's safer behind the wheel of a car: a "wide-awake drunk", or one that's seconds away from passing out?

    These Four Loko posts reek of "I don't like it, so it might as well be illegal." Beervana, I accuse thee of snobbery.

  6. @ anon -
    "So what's safer behind the wheel of a car: a "wide-awake drunk", or one that's seconds away from passing out?"

    A fairer and more accurate question would be "what's safer? someone that can tell they are too drunk to drive or someone that can't?"

    So far the studies we have indicate that people who mix high caffeine drinks with booze are FOUR times more likely to get behind the wheel while impared.

    This is the dangerous effect of juicing up on caffeine and other energy drugs while drinking. Suddenly, 3 drinks doesn't feel like 3 drinks should, so the person drinking "feels" fine, but are still just as drunk as the next guy.

  7. Um..the Dissident and Figgy Pudding are both amazing. Yum ... beer. Oh wait, I am on a politics blog, sorry.